The American Civil War sputtered to its brutal finish more than 150 years ago, with the United States battered but still united. Yet in some ways we’re still fighting it, or at least fighting over how we remember it. The latest front: Statues in the U.S. Capitol building provided by the states — two from each — that include some men who led or fought in the rebellion on behalf of Southern slavery. That visitors from other countries, and children from our own, can find in such an exalted place monuments to the president, vice president and commanding general of the would-be Confederate States of America is more than simply embarrassing. It’s a subtle but significant repudiation of what America stands for.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are right to want to do something about it. Their Confederate Monument Removal Act, submitted to Congress this month, would bar statues of people who played a role in the rebellion — from the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, to judges in its courts and foot soldiers in the rebel army — from the National Statuary Hall and other public areas in the building. That seems reasonable. People who actively sought to disunite the United States shouldn’t be feted with a statue in the very chambers of the government they rebelled against.
But here are a couple of additional points that need to be made: Although the bill would bar certain villains — rebel soldiers — it would allow others from American history who are accused of reprehensible acts to remain. Father Junipero Serra, for instance, is one of California’s two picks, yet he is detested by many for establishing the Catholic mission system that enslaved and brutalized Native Americans as Spain colonized California. (Ronald Reagan is California’s other statue.) Why ban Southern Confederate soldiers while honoring someone accused of the genocide of Native Americans? This page has previously called on California to voluntarily remove the Serra statue; that should happen now.
Furthermore, strict laws and rules about who can be represented in the Capitol won’t solve the continuing battles over history; indeed, the Booker-Lee bill will probably, in some ways, keep them going. What we really need is for modern American society to evolve to a point at which, 150 years after we nearly tore ourselves apart, we can all agree to move beyond this debate, which is so rooted in race and racism, ancient rivalries and starkly different views of a mutual past.
Slowly, that seems to be happening. Look at all the states and cities that have chosen to take down their Confederate battle flags or, like New Orleans and Baltimore, have removed Confederate statues from public spaces. Yes, there has been pushback both from those who embrace the white supremacy ideology on which the Confederacy was based and from those who hold misinformed views of what those statues really represent. (No, the war was not on behalf of a bucolic and benign “Old South.”) But progress has been made.
Some cling to the argument that if we take down our Confederate statues today, we’ll have to take down statues of our slave-owning Founding Fathers tomorrow. But are all sins equally disqualifying? Doesn’t society have the maturity to tell the difference? Maybe one day we will figure out how to venerate Thomas Jefferson, who put the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, while deploring the hypocrisy of making a life partner out of his slave and slaves out of his children.
We also need to guard against a wave of iconoclasm that will result in different factions sweeping away different statues of different Americans depending on who is in power and what is in fashion at the time, all without arriving at a more mature and sophisticated grasp of our culture’s dual nature of liberators and enslavers, freedom-lovers and foreign invaders, protectors and genocidal killers.
These are battles over symbols, but symbols matter. When statues and memorials represent, to many, the exaltation of racism and slavery, they have no place in our public spaces. Whether or not the Booker-Lee bill is approved, the leaders — and the people — of all 50 states should look closely and decide whether the statues they have sent to Statuary Hall present to the world the face they want it to see.