Confederate Statues: Monuments to Heroes or Memorials to a Failed Past?

By Tony Wyman


Confederate Statues, Monuments, Memorials

Arthur Danto, the American art critic and philosopher, once defined the difference between a “monument” and a “memorial,” this way,

We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” Monuments, he said, “commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of beginnings. Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends.”

So, what are the roughly 700 Confederate Civil War statues erected around the country?  Are they monuments embodying the “myths of beginnings,” or are they memorials that “mark the reality of ends?”

This seems to be the crux of the debate waging across the nation since the rally by neo-Nazis, KKK members and other extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia last week that led to the death of one counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Robert E. Lee statue
A statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This is a relatively new issue for Americans and despite 36% believing racism is an “imminent threat,” according to a Reuters / Ipsos poll taken in April – up 7% points since the 2015 survey – there is a great deal of ambivalence on the subject.

According to a Marist University poll, 62% of Americans believe the Confederate statues should remain standing as symbols of the country’s history.

In another poll taken by Economist/YouGov, 48% said the statues should remain, while 30% said they should come down, leaving a remarkable 22% having no opinion on the issue.  To put these numbers in perspective, 62% of Americans told Gallup they believe the effects of global warming are being seen now.  48% believe there is a “deep state” in our federal government, according to Langer Research.

Slavery was the Reason for the Confederacy

Perhaps one way to clarify the issue is to use Danto’s definition to decide if the Confederacy is something that should have a “myth of beginnings” in our country or if it should face “the reality of ends?”  This may seem a question that doesn’t require an answer to some, but for many Americans, especially those who still believe in the ideals of the Confederacy, it is an unanswered matter.

Slaves in the South
Slaves in the American South were deprived of basic human rights by their owners.

And what are those ideals to which so many in the south to this day still adhere?  The popular mythology is the south seceded from the union to preserve states rights, the ability of individual states to resist overbearing influence from the federal government in Washington, D.C.

The reality is, however, that this is not true.  While there were legitimate concerns about the growing power of the federal government over the states, that is not why the south, and only the southern states that allowed slavery, seceded.  They seceded to preserve slavery.

Our government is founded upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” said Confederate Vice-president Alexander Stephens.  His words contradicted those of Jefferson Davis, the CSA President, who said, “The existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”

But, the truth is Davis’ pitch was merely a ruse to hide the true intention of the south to create a nation that was both antidemocratic and opposed to the ideas ensconced in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Stephens went as far as directly stating as much in a speech he gave in March, 1861, where he condemned the United States for having “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races,” stating the Confederate States would be different.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas: its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great truth.”

Alexander Stephens
Alexander Stephens was the Vice-president of the Confederate States of America and a strong proponent of slavery.

And, to ensure legalized slavery of blacks never changed, the men writing the constitution of the South added a clause preventing future governments from banishing the practice.  “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

This idea, that human beings of African ancestry are, by their nature, inferior to other human beings of European ancestry, was, indeed, the foundation of the Confederacy.  No amount of revisionist history written by apologists seeking to romanticize the south’s departure from the Union changes that.

More proof, if more is needed, can be found even before the Civil War, starting with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when South Carolina introduced a proposal to prohibit the federal government from regulating the Atlantic slave trade, an idea that was met with spirited opposition by northerners, including men like Luther Martin of Maryland, himself a slave owner, who said slavery was “…inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the constitution.”

John Rutledge of South Carolina replied that unless the regulation of the slave trade was left to the states where it would be permitted, the South would “…not be parties to the union.”  No other issue but slavery elicited such a threat from southern delegates.

The Purpose of the Statues

So if the reason the South seceded from the Union was because they wanted to retain slavery and the economic benefits that came with it, what is the purpose of the statues of Confederate Civil War figures dotting the countryside, an estimated 700 or so?

Simply put, Confederate Civil War statues were erected, not to memorialize the South’s struggle for state’s rights but to remind black Americans that, despite the end of slavery in America, they remained second class citizens.

The South may have lost the Civil War, said New York Magazine, but it won the battle over how it would be remembered. The statue of Lee that brought white supremacists to Charlottesville last weekend wasn’t built to commemorate the Confederacy’s loss, but Jim Crow’s triumph. Few modern conservatives would defend the statue on the grounds that the resilience of white supremacy in the post-bellum South is worthy of glorification. But they will appeal to the fraudulent history that was written to abet that resilience.”

In other words, the statues were erected to celebrate the supremacy of white America during the era of Jim Crow Laws, laws established to separate the races and to suppress black American rights, rather than to glorify the military accomplishments of the Confederacy of which, ultimately, there were none, at least none that resulted in the preservation of the seceding nation.

Statues Erected During Times of Racial Strife

The proof of this can be found in the dates the statues were erected.  Interestingly, the vast majority of the statues dedicated to southern Civil War figures were erected during two periods in the United States.

The first wave came during the 20-year-period from around 1900 to about 1920.  During this period, many states, particularly in the South, were enacting “Jim Crow” laws, banning racial interaction in a wide variety of areas.

These laws established “separate but equal” facilities in public transportation, schools, restaurants and other areas where white and black Americans might interact.  Also during this time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in response to the lynching of black people and the race riots that took place in Springfield, Illinois, the resting place of Abraham Lincoln, where rampaging whites attacked the black section of the city, lynching two men, Scott Burton and 84-year-old William Donnegan, who had been married to a white woman for more than 30 years.

Confederate statue construction timeline.
Time line of the construction of Confederate statues correlates to times of racial discord.

The second wave happened during the mid-1950s and early 1960s, when American was embroiled in the civil rights struggle.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most prominent figure on the news in those days, leading protests around the nation of black Americans and their white allies peacefully demanding equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, creed or color.

During this time, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal group that is “...dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society,” those opposed to the further integration of the races felt embattled and threatened. “The civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists, said the SPLC.

So, this brings us back to the original question about the statues:  Are they monuments embodying the “myths of beginnings,” or are they memorials that “mark the reality of ends?”

The answer really depends on what course America takes in her future in regards to race relations.  If the intention of those who erected the statues in the first place was to remind black and other minority Americans that whites still maintained an overwhelming advantage in both political power and wealth in America, then they aren’t symbols reminding us of our history.

Instead, they are symbols of a political past that failed, that was defeated in battle, that surrendered at Appomattox and that no longer exists in America.  They aren’t, therefore, monuments embodying the “myths of beginnings” but are, rather, memorials that “mark the reality of ends.”

That is, of course, unless we, as a nation, reject the core American belief that “all men are created equal.”  It seems unlikely that we will go that route, especially since it is ingrained in our very fabric as a nation.  But the troubling thing that remains is the way that many Americans, especially southern ones, see the statues and romanticize them.

To many in the South, the statue of Gen. Lee in Charlottesville isn’t a symbol of racist oppression but, rather, one of fierce independence and pride.  While the reality of the matter is that Gen. Lee broke his oath as a West Point officer and took up arms against his country, he isn’t seen by southerners as a traitor to America, but as a hero to the South.

Unless we, as a nation, wish to re-litigate the Civil War over this issue it seems like the wise compromise is to see these Confederate statues as both monuments and memorials.  They are for southerners monuments to the modern sense that southerners have of being different than the rest of their fellow Americans and for northerners they are memorials to the waste of life and the destruction that was the fight against the indignity of slavery.

That compromise might not be any more satisfying than the Missouri Compromise of 1830, but hopefully it keeps the peace between the blue and grey.

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