False Dichotomies and Slippery Slopes in the Confederate Iconography Debate

A few days ago the New Orleans City Council voted to take down four Confederate monuments that honor two Confederate generals, the president of the Confederacy, and a postwar battle in Louisiana where a white supremacist group temporarily overthrew a democratically-elected state government in 1874. As with other high profile Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, and flags that have been altered or taken down over the past six months, the comments section of the internet reacted with uncontrolled vitriolic anger over the City Council’s decision. And much to my surprise a number of my National Park Service colleagues from all parts of the country took to our Facebook employees page to complain about this alleged erasure of history by the forces of “political correctness.” It was…an interesting conversation to say the least.

One of the questions that emerged in the course of this conversation and elsewhere can be summarized as “where do we stop?” If we’re so anxious to take down everything connected to these racist Confederate slaveholders, then what’s stopping us from getting rid of all public iconography connected to other controversial figures in American history such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? It’s a fair question to ask, but I think it sets us on a slippery slope towards a false dichotomy between leaving up all public iconography or tearing down everything regardless of context. I’ve seen arguments for both. A few people in the aforementioned conversation–most likely out of anger and hyperbole rather than deep-seated conviction–suggested that taking down the NOLA Confederate monuments means we should now take down everything from the Washington Monument to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Conversely, there is a petition from the Civil War Trust floating around that calls for all Civil War war memorials and monuments to be preserved through federal legislation. The wording of this petition, however, opens a whole Pandora’s box of questions about what constitutes a Civil War memorial and whether or not all aspects of the Civil War are worth honoring. Neither one of these solutions is satisfying to me.

In a purely philosophical sense, the answer to “where do we stop?” is never. Revisionism is fundamental to history. Our commemorative landscape–just like our history books–will continue to change as long as we continue to uncover new documentary evidence, craft new interpretations of past events, and connect historical narratives to contemporary issues. There will never be a point in time when the possibility of a change to America’s commemorative landscape doesn’t exist. These changes are almost always not an act of “erasing history” so much as an act of reassessing prior understandings of an ever-evolving story.

A more practical answer to “where do we stop?” has to be determined by local communities and based on who and what they want to commemorate in a place of honor. There is simply no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.

That said, I have observed two frequently overlooked yet crucial distinctions in the Confederate iconography discussion that might expose us to some soft but useful boundaries to the “where do we stop?” question.

The first distinction relates to the location of the iconography in question. Jill Ogline Titus points out that there are Confederate monuments that “bear some imprimatur of state authority” based on their location at places of governance such as a state capitol or a government-run entity like a school, others that are more indirectly connected to state authority in places such as city parks or town squares, and still others that are on “historical ground” such as a Civil War battlefield. Most of the discussions I’ve observed about taking down or modifying Confederate iconography have focused on monuments and memorials in places of public governance because such a location implies that these symbols represent the values of the people in a given community. The same cannot be said about Confederate iconography on “historical ground” where something significant occurred; these symbols do not always imply a politicized connection to the values of local communities in a way that the naming of a school or a monument at a town square does. To use a non-Civil War example, there is a Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, Germany, at Treptower Park that commemorates the deaths of 5,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin towards the end of World War II. The memorial’s location implies that this is an important historical event that Berliners should remember and commemorate, but it does not suggest that the Soviet war effort or Josef Stalin’s brutal communist regime are connected to the values of German people today. It would be a very different situation, however, if a statue of Stalin was presently located at the Reichstag.

I’ve made a very fine distinction here, but it should reinforce that context matters and that a difference exists between a Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina State House and a Confederate flag on the grave of a Confederate soldier killed in battle; that a difference exists between a monument to Robert E. Lee in a New Orleans town square and a monument to Lee at the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The second distinction is that legacies of racism and slaveholding are not sufficient enough factors in explaining why Confederate iconography is under such scrutiny right now, although both play a significant part. If this conversation was purely focused on the merits of honoring racist slaveholders, then it would make sense to not only get rid of Confederate figures like Lee and Davis but also Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and even people like Ben Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant who are not always remembered as slaveholders. But that isn’t how the process has worked out for the most part, save for a few protests against Jefferson. Roger Taney and Woodrow Wilson seem to be in trouble too.

I contend that the Confederate iconography debate is as much about the merits of honoring secessionists who embraced the cause of disunion as much as it’s about honoring racist slaveholders. Slavery and racism are inescapable elements of early American history, but numerous controversial figures from that era will continue to be honored well into the future partly because they are not associated with the cause of disunion. I don’t see the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument coming down any time soon, even though they honor slaveholders. It appears that for those who have been most vocal about changing the commemorative landscape of the Civil War, it’s the legacies of racism, slaveholding, and disunion sentiment that have fostered heightened scrutiny of some Confederate iconography. George Washington symbolizes patriotism and loyalty to the United States. He never led a war effort to destroy that Union.

I think there are better questions to ask about America’s commemorative landscape going forward. Rather than asking “where do we stop?” I would rather focus on having honest discussions that allow us to analyze different monuments, statues, and memorials on an individual basis and then ask, “how can we use changes in commemorative landscapes to foster new and better understandings of the past?”