What should we do with Confederate monuments?

The pace at which Confederate monuments have been removed in the past two weeks suggests a tipping point. Several folks have asked me “if we remove Confederate monuments, where does it stop? Do we remove the Washington monument too?” A reasonable question, and my short answer is No we should not remove the Washington monument, but let me give a summary of my reasoning.

First, the Confederacy was a traitorous rebellion against the United States. Military officers fighting for the Confederacy violated their oath to defend and protect the US Constitution. And loyalties to States did not override this responsibility–the point of the Constitutional Convention was to create the United States of America, and to keep the dissolution into individual states as nations that was probably inevitable if we had continued under the Articles of Confederation our first “Constitution.”

I do not think that leaders or the cause generally of a traitorous rebellion should be honored with Statues and Monuments in public spaces. If you want to have a Confederate flag on your personal property, that is your choice and right under the 1st Amendment. I don’t believe the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee should have ever been honored in public spaces, but the question at hand is what to do now.

The second reason that I believe Confederate Monuments do not deserve places of honor is that most of the ones erected in public spaces came well after the Civil War, and their purpose was to impose White Supremacy and the active blocking of living into the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They were tools of public intimidation to prevent freed Slaves, Blacks and anyone who could not pass as White from being full citizens. I do not think they should remain in public places. This multimedia site focuses on “Silent Sam” at UNC Chapel Hill, but it shows that there were two waves of Confederate commemorations.

The first occurred in the two decades after the Civil War when statues and monuments were erected in Cemeteries to honor the dead. I think these were and are fine to remain, and defeated nations deserve the right to grieve lost sons, husbands and fathers. The second wave, however, were symbols erected in opposition to following what our nation said we were going to do after the Civil War, and were a continuation of willful violation of the U.S. Constitution. They should come down. I agree with folks who say we do not need to erase history–we need to actually learn and wrestle with it–and not a sanitized or whitewashed version of it. Moving monuments to museums is fine, but each statue does not have to be treated as if it were human remains. They are stone and metal. Some of them can just go away.

How about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founders who owned Slaves and agreed to a U.S. Constitution that enshrined Slavery and a hierarchy of human value marked by Race that we struggle against today (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution)? I believe they deserve their places of honor in Washington DC, because they saw to the structure of a nation in the U.S. Constitution that has kept the United States whole for over two Centuries. However, I do not think they are worthy of worship, or even reverence as near demi-Gods, precisely because of the many of the compromises made with respect to Slavery and Race that were not explicitly acknowledged. For example, the word Slavery does not appear in the U.S. Constitution until it is banned by the 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, even though one of the primary reasons the constitutional convention was called was to develop a compromise on Slavery. This avoidance does not strike me as particularly brave, and it set the tone for the rest of our history to this point, or saying one thing and doing another, when it comes to Race.

Bottom line for me, do not take down the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial, but do take down statutes honoring the Confederacy (and put some of them in museums, so we can learn the actual history of how they came to be put up in the first place). Just my two cents.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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