Tag Archives: Public Iconography
In my last post I argued that the National World War II museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, is openly nationalist and Ameri-centric in its interpretive focus. It might very well be one of the strongest symbols of Americanism in the entire city. What I mean by this statement is that the museum’s exhibits and programming do not simply tell the story of World War II (admittedly from a U.S. perspective) but also encourage loyalty to the country today and adherence to the idea of using America’s position in world affairs to export American freedom and democracy around the globe. The museum avoids making any specific statements on contemporary politics or politicians, but it subtly advocates the idea of a strong, “more perfect” union to promote American ideals today, just like we did in victory during World War II.
If you look out the museum’s windows towards the western part of the city, however, an icon with a remarkably different symbolism emerges nearby: the famous Lee Circle and giant statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This statue was erected in 1884 to commemorate and celebrate General Lee and the Confederacy. The statue has always had a modicum of opposition, but in 2015 the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 to remove the statue. Since then four separate lawsuits have been filed in opposition. The case currently remains in court and the statue, of course, remains standing. Putting aside the question of whether or not the statue should come down, it is nevertheless interesting to see contradictory symbols of Confederate nationalism and American nationalism so close to each other.
As historian Gary Gallagher and numerous other historians of the Confederacy have argued, General Lee was the epitome of Confederate nationalism. Confederate supporters viewed him in the same light as George Washington and took inspiration from his determination on the battlefield. As Gallagher argues, “to be able to wage war, the Confederacy was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of its young men and suffer the destruction of its economy. In terms of military casualties, Confederates sacrificed far more than any other generation of white Americans in U.S. history. Yet the South still fought.” That fight, of course, aimed to achieve disunion with the United States in the hopes of creating a new, independent slaveholding white republic. The erection of a statue to honor that fight in the heart of a major Southern city, just like the creation of the World War II museum to honor another fight eighty years later, was not just an act of remembering and commemorating history but an expression of contemporary values by political and cultural leaders in New Orleans.
Counterfactual history is always a risky proposition when trying to achieve historical understanding and in this case we’ll certainly never know the right answer, but you can’t help but wonder what the fate of the world in 1939 would have been if the cause of Confederate disunion would have been successful in the 1860s.
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.
I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.
The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.
I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?
This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.
Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and
founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.
Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.
Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.
It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.
*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.
I hope readers have enjoyed the holidays in the company of loving friends and family.
As we wind down 2015–a year that current and future Civil War scholars will look back upon with much interest given all that has transpired with the nation’s commemorative landscape and Civil War memory–the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along news that the “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” has published a report on their investigation into the possibility of removing a historic monument dedicated to the Confederacy in downtown St. Louis and relocating it elsewhere. This effort was commissioned by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who broached the topic in April with a blog post suggesting that it was “time for a reappraisal” of this monument and its place of honor in Forest Park, a popular destination in the downtown area.
I wrote about that monument and my own reservations about relocating it a few days after Mayor Slay’s original post. I still hold a lot of the reservations I expressed in that original post, but my thinking on this subject has evolved since that time. The possibility of a change to the monument’s interpretive text and/or a relocation seems much more politically feasible now compared to then, and I am more reconciled to the idea of a relocation although I’m not fully sold on it. The number of changes to Confederate iconography throughout the country since the Charleston Massacre in June has been nothing short of astounding. Whether or not you support these changes, all can admit that they’ve come fast and in bunches.
The committee’s report clocks in at twenty-five pages. Here were some of the big points it addressed and a few of my impressions after reading the entire report:
- In the committee’s very short history of the monument they note that while the United Daughters of the Confederacy provided financial support for erecting the monument, there was “what have been reported to be years of political controversy” leading up to the monument’s dedication in 1914, suggesting that not everyone was on board with the messages it intended to convey at the time of its unveling. Unfortunately the committee provides no further details as to who complained about the monument or what they complained about. The committee also adds that amid the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy held a fiftieth anniversary re-dedication ceremony at the monument that highlighted the “many charitable works” of the SCV and UDC.
- The committee solicited bids from contractors who could remove the monument from Forest Park. They estimate that the cost to dismantle the monument, move it to another site, prepare the new site for the monument, and re-erect it could cost as much as $268,580. Added to the financial challenge here is the Mayor’s request to use only private funds to remove the monument – no taxes. How would this process work and who would be willing to donate money to have the monument removed? The report does not tell us.
- The committee reached out to a number of local institutions about submitting a proposal for receiving the monument. Although neither National Park Service site in St. Louis was contacted, numerous universities, cultural institutions, and Cavalry Cemetery were contacted. The committee requested that each institution, if interested, provide information within their proposal about the institution’s history, its primary audience and attendance numbers, educational programming, a budget for funding the monument, and a statement explaining why the organization would be an appropriate custodian for the monument. Every institution except for one declined to submit a proposal. An official with the University of Missouri-St. Louis left the most detailed response and stated that “I don’t believe that the sentiment of the faculty/staff would be favorable [to receiving the monument] and that the deliberations, in-and-of-themselves, may be divisive for the campus and our key stakeholders.” The monument is a political hot potato and they know it.
- The relatively new and privately-owned Missouri Civil War Museum was the only institution to submit a proposal for the monument. The committee reported that the museum’s proposal offered to take full ownership of the monument at the City’s expense, but that said proposal “was incomplete and non-responsive to the RFP. The museum currently has no place at which it could display the monument. It informed the committee that it ‘is not interested in submitting any detailed plans of interpretation or exhibition of the monument’.” Indeed, a cursory glance at the proposal indicates that few of the committee’s questions were answered with any sort of detail. The tone of the letter leaves the impression that the museum believes it is doing the city and Mayor Slay a favor by relocating the monument to their facility. By allowing the transfer of the monument and all of its “social and political issues and problems” to the museum, they alone should have the right to determine budgetary and interpretive issues at their discretion without the city’s input.
The folks at the Missouri Civil War Museum are good people and their dedication to preserving historical artifacts related to Civil War history is unparalleled within the St. Louis area, but I don’t see this current proposal getting anywhere. I find it curious that the museum’s proposal asks for full ownership of the monument while simultaneously lacking any sort of detailed budgetary, educational, or exhibit plan. Given the relative newness of the museum and its expanding facilities I believe that at some future point the museum could be in a position to have an acceptable plan for housing the monument, but now does not seem to be the right time for such a transfer, and I get the impression that the committee feels the same way.
At this point there is a bigger question of community input that still needs to be figured out in this discussion before determining if and where the monument could be relocated or who might take ownership of it. So far the discussion has taken place entirely at the institutional level, from Mayor Slay’s blog post, to the formation of a monument committee, to the institutions that have been contacted about submitting proposals. Where do the perspectives of the St. Louis community fit into this conversation? Why not follow the example of other cities where town hall meetings and other community forums have been used to expand the conversation? While I respect the Missouri Civil War Museum’s work and appreciate their willingness to accept the monument, there are many stakeholders outside that museum’s realm who have not been heard through this process and–based on the language of the museum’s proposal asserting that all future decisions about the monument will be determined “entirely by our museum officials”–will not have a voice at the table under this proposal.
So…it appears that the committee report’s most useful insight is that no one knows what to do with this thing.