This is a piece I wrote for BBC World History Magazine’s September 2017 issue.
The whole point of a pedestal is to elevate whatever’s on it. That’s the thing about statues: they demand not just attention but reverence. And because they’re sited in prominent public places, the intention is always to make a statement. That statement is not always the same to all viewers, of course. And most people, most of the time, probably don’t give them a second thought. But sometimes they do. And then there’s a fight. From the Mayans and the ancient Romans and no doubt for as long as men have set up effigies to themselves, the fall of regimes has always been symbolically marked by the fall of statues.
It happened in New York in 1776. Having heard a public reading of the Declaration of Independence a mob used ropes to topple a statue of the King in Bowling Green. Years later the scene was reimagined by the painter Johannes Oertel in an image that could be the template for scores of iconic news photographs of falling Stalins, Lenins, or Saddam Husseins. Try to imagine for a moment a parallel universe in which the royal statues of colonial America had stood: it is hard to do without imagining a very different America.
Keep that idea in your mind as you recall the position taken by the current President of the United States, an elderly white man, on the prospect of removing statues to the leaders of the massive slaveholders’ rebellion against the United States in the 1860s. He recently declared that there were some “very fine people” among the fascists and Confederate sympathisers who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the ostensible aim of protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. If Lee’s statue comes down, asked the President, then who will be next: Thomas Jefferson? George Washington?
There are currently more than 700 statues commemorating Confederate leaders in public places in the United States, and it appears that the interventions of both the fascists and the President look likely to accelerate their removal rather than halt them. If fascists want to keep them up, reasonable people are more likely to want to take them down. Compromise solutions—change the wording of the plaques perhaps?—seem rather inadequate when the battle is polarized and when one side consists of angry white men with swastikas. While sympathizing with the pro-removal lobby, the Mayor of Charlottesville had originally proposing that instead of being removed the Lee statue should be better contextualized. He’s now changed his mind: if Lee is a rallying point for white supremacists, Lee must fall.
To Trump, toppling statues to Confederate leaders would change the nation’s character for the worse: “the history and culture of our great country [is] being ripped apart”, he tweeted. Professional historians don’t seem to mind, though. They have been remarkably united in supporting calls to remove these statues.
These were not monuments put up in the immediate aftermath of the war but some half a century later, just as “Jim Crow” laws that systematically discriminated against and de-humanised black people were being bolstered. The valourisation of Confederate leaders was part of a deliberate and concerted effort, often led by women through organisations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to enshrine for ever (or so they hoped) the self-serving myth of the “Lost Cause”. Sometimes public funds were appropriated for these monuments, approved by an all-white electorate. They were a marking of territory. Placed in town squares and in front of public buildings, they were quite deliberately intended to symbolize white domination. Speakers at the unveiling ceremonies said so. Black people knew so. And the benign approval of white Northerners was part of the story too. Confederate generals even appeared in Northern states. By elevating Confederates to plinths, white Americans whitewashed both the history of slavery and the ongoing reality of racial injustice.
The removal of this often cheap, mass-produced Lost Cause statuary would not, as the President thinks, obliterate history. On the contrary, it would remove a monumental obstacle to the proper understanding of American history. The white Southerners who put up those statues intended them to stand the test of time, but no generation has the right to impose its version of the past on a future generation. The mob in revolutionary New York knew this, and so do Americans now. Only a society with no historical consciousness—and which therefore assumed the prevailing power structure to be permanent and inalienable—would leave its statues in place forever.