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.
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.