Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.
To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:
Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.
Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.
Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.
It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:
Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?
Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.