Should Monuments Play a Central Role in American Civil Religion?

Although I wrote this essay about Ulysses S. Grant and public monuments two years ago, I recently received an interesting comment in response to that essay. The comment asked about the usefulness of monuments and statues as tools to promote civil religion and whether I felt they could still serve that purpose. I wanted to share the original comment and my response here.

The question:

First, I understand we don’t need statues to document accurate history and that instead monuments are about popular memory. But do you think monuments of heroes meant to inspire veneration as part of America’s civil religion — which helps a diverse society cohere around a shared story — are not necessary or helpful?

Second, as to Grant specifically, do you feel that critics (today, it’s racial justice activists; in the past, it was Lost Causers) are missing a sense of proportion and context? If we weigh:

a) In his personal life, Grant’s benefitted directly from one enslaved person of his own for about a year and indirectly from 30 enslaved held by the Dent family over a couple decades, against

b) In his public life, Grant won the Civil War that permanently ended 250 years of slavery in our part of North America and enabled 4 million people and their descendants to enjoy freedom (imperfect though it be)

Does a fair sense of proportion help us re-orient the discussion towards Grant’s real significance to American and world history?

Here is how I responded:

To your first question, I do admit that I take a skeptical view of the use of statues and monuments within the context of civil religion. My primary concerns are that they promote the worship of false idols and overly simplify the complexities of history. Put differently, I get worried about histories that are flattened in the name of unquestioned patriotism, nationalism, and the glorification of the nation-state. While I think there are many admirable people from the past that we can learn from, I think the language of “heroes” and “veneration” runs the risk of creating division within the diverse groups you speak of. After all, veneration is quite literally the act of honoring a saint. Therefore, within the context of civil religion, if certain individuals or groups do not properly “venerate” historical figures deemed as important to society through monumentation, they are considered unpatriotic, not real Americans, politically radical, etc. etc. So yes, I question the very premise that statues can help diverse societies cohere around a shared understanding of the past.

I am personally interested in Jurgen Habermas’s ideas around “constitutional patriotism,” or the notion that societies work to develop a respect and appreciation for civic ideals central to a republican form of government: freedom, liberty, civil rights, democracy, checks and balances, and the rule of law, etc. rather than the veneration of specific individuals from history. Individuals can help students of history appreciate these civic ideals in action, but I think there are more appropriate methods for achieving these ends, most notably the use of primary sources and facilitated dialogue between historians, educators, and students.

To your second question, I don’t know if I have a great answer to offer. I would begin by saying that it is definitely important for us to study individuals personal lives so that we can see what factors shaped their future actions and beliefs. It is very significant to Ulysses S. Grant’s story to understand the context of his interactions with slavery in the 1850s. At the same time, it is obviously true that those actions alone cannot define Grant’s entire legacy. In fact, those connections to slavery actually help us better appreciate how far he evolved in supporting civil rights as president in the 1870s. All of these factors live together in tension when studying Grant’s life, and professional historians are far from unified in their interpretations of Grant’s “real significance” to history. So it’s no surprise to me that society at large has a very conflicted attitude towards Grant’s significance. As a historian, all I can hope for is that all people make a genuine effort to appreciate context, complexity, and nuance when studying the past.


To briefly expand my original response, I wasn’t really sure how to address the “racial justice activists vs. Lost Causers” dichotomy. For one, there are plenty of Lost Causers still around today – they have not been removed to the dustbin of history and you only need to get onto social media for about five minutes to see Lost Cause-ism in action. One of the challenges in ascribing a motive for tearing down Grant’s statue in San Francisco is that we still don’t know who did it or what the motivation was for doing it. Was it taken down for racial justice? Was it because of Grant’s slaveholding past or his Indian policies or something else entirely? Do all that many people outside of history even know that Grant enslaved a man? I don’t really know. Within the context of the summer of 2020, I think Grant simply became a symbol of governmental power that was targeted because of that symbolism and not necessarily because of his legacy or “real significance” to American history. That no other statues or monuments of Grant have come down since then suggests it really was about the politics of 2020.

Cheers

Notes on the Value of Historical Knowledge as Helping to Avoid Future Mistakes

A friend shared the following quote from the late author Michael Crichton in his book Prey. It’s been rattling around in my head since I saw it.

“We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as a result of bad thinking by less able minds—and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.”

I have mixed feelings about this sentiment.

Of course, without having read the book I don’t know the context in which Crichton uses the term “we.” Putting that aside, I think the quote speaks to the value of studying history while at the same time going too far in trying to make history a tool to solve future social problems.

On the one hand, Crichton argues that societies fail to acknowledge mistakes from the past, but then follows by saying that each generation does acknowledge past mistakes but is too quick to dismiss those mistakes as “bad thinking by less able minds.” It would be very easy to find examples of both in action. All too often, the way history is taught to young people in a formal education setting is a form of what the late James Loewen described as “chronological ethnocentrism.” Put simply, the past is left in the past. Chronological ethnocentrism “lets [history textbook authors] sequester bad things, from racism and robber barons, in the distant past,” Loewen argues. “Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all ‘know’ everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now.”

Another point not always acknowledged is that it isn’t so much that people from the past were less intelligent than people in the present. It’s that they did not have access to the same tools, technology, and information that people in the present have.

On the other hand, Crichton seems to imply that each generation ends up making “fresh errors” because of historical ignorance, and that by extension a strong sense of historical literacy will help those generations avoid making the same or new mistakes in the future. In other words, it’s a return to the old quote from George Santayana about those being ignorant of the past being doomed to repeat it.

To me, this part of Crichton’s point oversells the value of history.

The reality is that new mistakes will be made regardless of an individual or society’s collective historical knowledge. There will always be new mistakes because unprecedented circumstances, contingencies, and surprises will emerge that history cannot provide an answer for. A specific outcome from a particular historical event does not mean that the same outcome will emerge in a similar future event. To cite but one example, the 1918 influenza pandemic did not prevent another pandemic from emerging a little over 100 years, nor did it provide a solution for reducing sickness and death in this current plague. History alone cannot save us.

Growing up, I got into history for two different reasons. One is that history is simply interesting to me on its own terms. Regardless of what artifacts, documents, or books might have to say about the present, they hold a power in their own right for what they can say about the time period in which they were created. Secondly, I was interested in understanding how present day society arrived at its current social, political, and economic situation. But I don’t know if I ever got into history because I believed it provided a blueprint for the future. I don’t think it can.

There’s a lot of value in studying past case studies to see what worked and what didn’t; to be inspired by good acts while being aware of bad ones; to do our best to avoid the mistakes of the past. But when it comes to predicting the future . . . I’ll leave that to the meteorologists, social scientists, and data analysists.

Cheers