The debate over removing Confederate statues continues to rage. People on both sides vigorously defend their position, pointing out disturbing facts about the Founding Fathers and the founding of America as reasons why the Confederate monuments aren’t so different from Revolutionary monuments. On the other side, opponents of the statues argue that they celebrate white supremacy.
Why are Confederate statues being removed? Arguments for why Confederate statues should be removed include the Confederacy's shameful history of treason and white supremacy, as well as the original purpose of these statues, which was to intimidate black Americans while celebrating white power. In fact, even Robert E. Lee opposed Confederate statues.
Arguments for why Confederate statues should not be removed include pointing out the dark sides of other celebrated American heroes, like Washington and Jefferson, as well as the politicization of the statues when there are more important problems. Keep reading for all the pros and cons of removing Confederate statues.
Let’s talk about the history of these statues. Many of them were erected decades after the fall of the Confederacy as a way to remind black Americans of their place in society. The intention was to intimidate blacks while reinforcing white power structures in America. And the vast majority of these statues were erected during the height of the Jim Crow movement, as historian Kevin M. Kruse has shown. For proof, just look at the 1911 dedication of a Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans. The ceremony was “whites only,” and featured children forming a Confederate flag and singing “Dixie.”
The history of destroying monuments shows the dangers of tearing them down. Political iconoclasm has a dark and violent history–one we should be eager not to repeat. During the French Revolution, for example, mobs tore down statues in Catholic Churches. Their actions also took a violent turn, as when revolutionaries murdered bishops and priests who refused to sign a loyalty oath. Today, some of the worst leaders of the French Revolution have names on public sights, like the metro station named for Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Reign of Terror. As Rod Dreher argues in The American Conservative, Americans should not make the same mistakes as France.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, was completely clear about its goal:
“The cornerstone [of the Confederate States of America] rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”
Confederates died defending slavery as an institution. Yes, other celebrated Americans were also deeply wrong about slavery, but they aspired to something greater. And don’t forget—the Confederacy lost. They were on the wrong side of history. There’s nothing to memorialize there, except a history of white supremacy and treason.
If statues of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are torn down based on the argument that these men were slave owners, which historic statues are next? George Washington, the heroic general who won the American Revolution? Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence? Both owned slaves, just like Lee and Davis. Should their statues also be removed? Or, as Jonathan Tobin asks in the New York Post, will Mount Rushmore eventually feature piles of rubble next to Abraham Lincoln?