A couple weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of meeting Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and currently a part-time history professor at New Mexico State University. Dr. Pitcaithley is an intellectual thinker and public historian that I really look up to, and it was great being able to participate in a workshop he put on about the causes of the Civil War for my work. In the course of the workshop we got wrapped up in the whole Confederate icons debate and he recommended that we read Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies by Sanford Levinson, a law professor and Constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School. Written in Stone clocks in at a very short 140 pages and I finished reading it a few days ago. I recommend it as a worthwhile read for those interested in this topic.
Although Written in Stone was published in 1998, it reads as if it was written in the past year. Levinson addresses all of the controversial icons that have either been removed or put under intense scrutiny in recent months, including the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol, Monument Avenue in Richmond, and the statue to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, among many others.
Levinson’s legal training allows him a unique perspective on this topic that I hadn’t really considered until reading this book. One of the big questions of the book is whether the state “can properly honor anyone, or celebrate any particular views” in a fair fashion. Can the state celebrate its history and honor that history thorough public commemoration? One view is that public commemoration by the government should be ruthlessly neutral and regulated the same way religion is via the establishment clause of the Constitution, neither aiding one religion, all religions, or one over another. In this view one might look at the celebration of “American heroes” as a form of civil religion that could be deemed unconstitutional and is at the very least in bad taste. But Levinson argues that a “neutral” approach to historical commemoration is naive and impossible to achieve. While he acknowledges that the state runs the risk of dominating the intellectual marketplace, he asserts that the state does have a role in that marketplace, from politicians giving major policy speeches to public school teachers and school boards determining what textbooks will be used in the classroom to educate students. He also cites United States v. Gettysburg Electric Co., an 1896 Supreme Court case in which the Justices unanimously determined that the federal government could confiscate land from an electric company since the land in question, which the government intended to use for housing Civil War monuments, constituted a “public use.” Chief Justice Rufus Peckham’s opinion expressed the idea that preserving the land for monumentation and public use “manifests for the benefit of all its citizens the value put upon the services and exertions of the citizen soldiers of that period.” So, in sum, the government can engage in public acts of commemoration through monuments, flags, and other icons. This right is a double-edged sword, however, as what constitutes what is worthy of public commemoration is very much contested.
Levinson makes a number of arguments about Confederate icons in Written in Stone. He argues forcefully that the taint of racism, slavery, and opposition to Civil Rights that is so often identified with Confederate iconography makes the erection of new public iconography honoring the Confederacy in poor taste and something he would reject. At the same time, however, Levinson opposes the idea of taking down older, preexisting icons. He instead calls for them to either stay in place, to contextualize them, provide a counter-monument, and/or relocate them to a museum, all of which he prefers to outright demolition. At the end of Written in Stone Levinson offers nine different solutions for addressing the Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas, all of which are worth considering. (Last year that statue was removed from UT and relocated to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History).
I do not agree with Levinson on all points. I think he over-emphasizes the power of contextualized wayside markers as effective educational pieces for addressing the troubling history that something like the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place aims to venerate and celebrate. I think most people who view public icons with wayside markers don’t bother to read the markers or only skim them without really making a strong effort to interpret their meaning. I also think Levinson downplays the fact that many Confederate icons in public spaces like town squares and campus buildings have always been a point of controversy within local communities, particularly ones with a large African American presence. The recent debates may be new to many people, but they are old hat for those who live and work in communities where they see these icons on a daily basis. If the themes and messages of the Confederacy are too tainted and too offensive to be honored through newly constructed public iconography, then why should local communities be saddled with past Confederate icons that no longer represent the values of those communities? Are there times when taking down and destroying an icon is the most appropriate measures for ensuring healing, reconciliation, and closure from the past? I believe there is, such as when the Confederate Flag was lowered from the front of the South Carolina State House and when the city of New Orleans announced its intentions to remove its monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. I would say, however, that such drastic measures should only be a last resort and used sparingly on an individual basis. There are certainly times when contextualization, removal to a museum, or simply doing nothing are also appropriate.
Be sure to check out Levinson’s book if you get the chance.