Monday, August 20, 2007

Tearing Down Statues

Mark Graber

The following piece just appeared in the Baltimore Daily Examiner. Hope the essay is of some interest.

A good case can be made for tearing down the bust of Roger Brooke Taney that stands in front of the city hall in Frederick. When Chief Justice of the United States, Taney wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856).

The case held that persons of color could not be American citizens and that slavery could not be prohibited in American territories. Taney also wrote opinions striking down free-state laws providing protections for persons of color alleged to be fugitive slaves and declaring unconstitutional crucial Civil War policies. Not exactly the values we hope inspire citizens and children at the turn of the 21st century.

While the bulldozers are rented, we might get our money’s worth and tear down all statues honoring Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln insisted he “never complained especially of the Dred Scott decision because it held that a negro could not be a citizen.”

From a contemporary perspective, the differences between Lincoln and Taney seem almost trivial. The sixteenth president opposed making persons of color citizens of Illinois, advocated federal fugitive slave laws, endorsed slaveholding in the nation’s capital, and insisted that the federal government had no power to interfere with slavery in any state in which human bondage was legal. Their only serious dispute was over whether slaveholders could take their human property to North Dakota, a place few if any slaveholders had expressed interest in settling.

Forgiving famous antebellum politicians for their racism will not immunize memorials in their honor. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and many other influential lawyers let religious bigotry influence their interpretation of the First Amendment. “The real object” of the Establishment Clause, Story wrote, “was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects.” Few 19th-century political leaders demonstrated any enlightenment on women’s issues. A particularly infamous Supreme Court opinion, when maintaining that states could constitutionally prohibit women from becoming lawyers, declared that the “natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”

Many 19th-century Americans who pass with flying colors one test for preserving their statues, dismally fail others. Frederick Douglas, the justly celebrated abolitionist, in his later years made numerous sexist assertions. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a pioneer for the rights of women, often defended gender equality by appealing to racial prejudices.

Limiting monuments to contemporaries provides only a temporary respite from the bulldozers. We are no better able to predict the future than Taney, Lincoln, Douglas or Stanton. Americans at the turn of the 22nd century may equate abortion with murder and think only bigots would regulate the sexual activities of consenting adults. Eating meat may be a crime in all 56 states. If these values or similar are what the future brings, then almost every bust we forge will have to be removed. In consideration for our descendant’s sensibilities, only lightweight materials should be used.

Tearing down statues is appropriate when we realize that the factual basis for the honor was mistaken. Leaving the monument to the war hero who, on further investigation, never spent a day in combat serves no purpose. Tearing down statues when we no longer accept the values underlying the decision to memorialize raises more difficulties. Controversial and largely ad hoc lines will have to be drawn between persons whose values are now considered beyond the pale and those whose mistaken values are excused as a product of their times. All new monuments become subject to a future judgment likely to be as harsh as ours.

Monuments to Taney, Lincoln and others are expressions of what Americans in the past believed were honorable lives. Americans in the present express what we believe are honorable lives by our decisions about whom to memorialize, not by erasing from national memory those persons previous generations believed merited honor.

Tearing down all monuments to Roger Taney encourages the historically false belief that slavery existed in the United States largely because Taney and a few other leaders made evil decisions. The monuments to Taney and other champions of slavery that exist in Frederick, in Maryland, and throughout the United States better serve as important reminders that human bondage existed in this state and country because Americans in the early 19th century believed in memorializing those political leaders who preferred slavery to liberty.


And, why stop at Abraham Lincoln? I say we take down the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial in D.C. because they OWNED slaves!!!

Professor Graber, After reading your post the old "no graven images" thing seems increasingly practical. ;) Thanks for the thought provoking read. Probably was never a cent spent on such that wouldn't have been better spent on better history books or critical thinking courses.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

What better reminder of the errors and hubris of our past, then the monuments of our leaders of the time, especially when surrounded by the mute testimony of their legacy.

Which is why I laugh when various leaders claim that history will vindicate them; history will make it's own judgement. It would be better for them to attempt a Toynbee Convector result.

You mean statues should be treated differently than Constitutions? I'm not sure Prof. Levinson would be willing to apply your principle to, say, Article II, Sec. 1, cl. 2-3.

I agree that your essay serves a purpose, though I think you've exaggerated some facts to make it. Lincoln "endorsed slaveholding in the nation’s capital"? Endorsed? He advocated fugitive slave laws???? His only serious dispute with Taney involved slavery in the territories?

All those assertions are either plain wrong or highly misleading.

That said, I agree, in part, with your basic point that we need to be careful when we apply today's values to the past. The questions we should be asking are, "what was the purpose for honoring this person originally?", and "do we still honor this person for this purpose or some other?". If we don't have good answers to these questions, then we might well wonder whether a memorial serves any continuing purpose.

It's perfectly legitimate to honor flawed persons. There are, after all, no others. But if the flaws become the reason why some people continue to honor them (e.g., statues of Jefferson Davis), then we're at risk of honoring that which undermines our most important values.

Attempts to censor historical symbols impair objectivity in the interpretation of history and encourage distortions and fabrications of history by people on both sides of the issue.

Roger Taney's racism was fairly common among public officials of his day. For example, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas said in his first debate with Lincoln,

Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, ("never,") and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, ("no, no,") in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? ("Never," "no.") . . . . . .For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.) I believe this Government was made on the white basis. ("Good.") I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. ("Good for you." "Douglas forever.")
-- from

The better argument is to tear down monuments to Confederate "heroes" like Lee and Davis. Those people were traitors who rebelled against their country to create a haven for slavery. The continued beatification of them is insulting and offensive to southern blacks and a celebration of the worst sort of bigotry.

Nonsense! Even Benedict Arnold has a statue . . . censoring history is NEVER the answer.

Yeah, but nobody thinks Benedict Arnold is a hero, and nobody put up statues of Benedict Arnold and British flags to justify discrimination 100 years after the revolution.

The South lost the Civil War, and unfortunately, they were never Denazified. And we've seen the result.

What "discrimination" would there possibly be to justify with such statues? British vs. iced tea?

Of course, this dialogue on our nation's earliest and their evils can only lead eventually to their contemporaries. So much for Lincoln freeing the slaves.

Very thought-provoking essay, Professor Graber.

I agree that Mark's essay is unusually interesting. Where I disagree with some of the responses (and with Mark?) is that there is any general principle we can apply to deciding which past statues (or names of airports, etc.) to maintain. It is simply foolish to denounce all "remodeling" of the public square. Did Charles, for example, oppose tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Bahgdad, or the renaming of Leningrad (for starters: there are literally hundreds of such examples). Concomitantly, I presume that no one supports tearing down the statues in Luxor that honor some really terrible tyrants. At some point in time, aesthetics trumps "meaning." We can, of course, also change public square by adding statutes, such as honoring the Sioux as well as Custer. Ultimately, we make all such decisions pragmatically.

Professor Graber's essay makes a point worth expanding on. The idea that human vision unalloyed by attitudes of the day can see through to the end of history, whether by divination, by superhuman ability, or by untainted simplicity, is dangerous. Preachers, pundits and jes' folks variously use it to key up crazed followings; all three types are doing so in our time.

But the sort of "gotcha" history that levels all past visionaries is dangerous in a different way. It crushes efforts to learn from history and draw the best possible trajectory we can into the future based on what that history shows. It condemns us to a solipsism of the moment. The "gotchas" help abate the first folly: if one can see old warts in a true light, one stands a better chance of seeing new warts for what they are. But we make "gotchas" our last word on giants from the past at our own peril.

Lincoln illustrates these points as well as any figure I could name, in or outside of American history. He had what we would now say are flaws, but he is certainly no Roger Taney.

No single speech of his better illustrates both points than his remarks on the Dred Scott decision, which, warts and all, can be read here:

I don't particularly care whether Taney's statue torn down, so long as it's understood full well why it deserves to be spat on.

I think I agree with much of what Sandy says, but I think there may be a principle operating here, not perfectly, but in a rough sort of pragmatic way. I would have no problem with the people of a liberated nation tearing down the statues put up by their former conquerors. The same would be true for statues put up by a deposed dictator. The principle involved may concern our relationship to the people who put up the statues (or chose to maintain them). To what extent do we regard those people as our ancestors, as people we identify with, even as we recognize their numerous warts.

An analogy. Most of us have pictures of various ancestors where we live. When new addition show up, we tend to add pictures (sometimes moving the new baby to the place of honor, but rarely removing entirely). Of course, as we grow older, we learn more of our ancestor's warts. What would cause us to replace the pictures?

What would cause us to replace the pictures?

Mark, with families, it is usually only a significant disgrace that will bring down the memorial. When the pain of that disgrace is stronger than the positive memories, it is easier to remove the person from the family history than to keep them there. From families I have experienced, those who hit that memory hole were those who unapologetically abandoned their parents or parents who abused their children.

Which is why it should be concerning that even the brutal, repressive, and sadistic Saddam is being looked at fondly by the Iraqis under our occupation. You tend to canonize the bad guys only when the current guys are worse.

This post is driven by a rather base elision. The elision runs in two dimensions. First, it's not mentioned that the quotation of Lincoln comes from a political debate with Douglas. Whereas the Dred Scott decision is a legal precedent issued from the nation's highest court. When Lincoln's words had relevantly similar legal or practical effect (e.g., in the Emancipation Proclamation), the differences between his and the words of the Dred Scott Court were rather less "trivial."

Second, even in the context of the Douglas debates, Lincoln expressed sentiments that differ from Taney's in very nontrivial ways.

In short, c'mon.

I don't think Q's "com'on" is strong enough. Graber wants us to believe that the differences between the Great Emancipator and Roger B. Taney were "almost trivial"; that Roger B. Taney was a "champion of slavery"; and that Mark Graber is an intelligent and thoughtful man.

I think one of those three must fail. They cannot all be true.

Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong has a post about the article here.


I don't remember having strong objections to tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein either way, but that was different from "censoring history" -- maybe it would be better today for the people of Iraq to still see said statue and remember what he did to them -- I was too young to care about renaming Leningrad, but I think even "remodeling" as an affirmative effort to censor history is wrong. Why exactly is that not an acceptable "general principle we can apply to deciding which past statues (or names of airports, etc.) to maintain"?

Mark Graber is doing the exact same thing that Lincoln accused Stephen Douglas of doing:
"In his quotations from that speech, as he has made them upon former occasions, the extracts were taken in such a way as, I suppose, brings them within the definition of what is called garbling,—taking portions of a speech which, when taken by themselves, do not present the entire sense of the speaker as expressed at the time."
So from now on may he be known to the world as "Garbling Graber."

Careful, or PHG will get all upset and never post here again!

Taney was a scum sucking pig who should have been arrested and put on trial, along with Davis.

Taney teamed up with Davis to illegally and unconstitutionally use the Courts to do what no legislature, no law, no human could do --- force slavery down the throats of people in the territories.

You could say he sped up the timing of the civil war, he made things so bad, there had to be a war to resolve it. But that is no credit, that was a crim in itself. Literally a crime.

Even Justice Scalia of the USSC said the Taney "decision" was the single worst decision in US history. It was the most blantant example of legislating from the bench.

The legislation Taney forced upon the US was his declaration that blacks were, essentially, not even human. Blacks were property.

But even much worse, Taney decreed that blacks were SO inferior, that no one -- no congress -- no state -- no people -- could give blacks the status of human.

Blacks were not even HUMAN according to Taney.

Learn what the decision was about, not this BS about Taney saying blacks were not citizens. That's BS we tell our kids. He said they weren't HUMAN. And could not be made human by anyone.

Learn the truth about the decision.

Plus, instead of resigning, he stayed on in the Civil War and tried everything to destroy the USA.

Lincoln should have hung him. Really, this "man" caused more death and suffering than any other man in US history.

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