Monuments to nuance

So, one hallmark of the post-Floyd era is a movement to tear down certain historical monuments and statues, or at least to push to have them removed.

Generally speaking, I think it’s a healthy thing to reevaluate how history is written and interpreted. In addition to the traditional, moral Golden Rule is a more capitalist version of that axiom: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” The same is true of history.

A typical result is that history is romanticized in the direction of those who authored it.

We know that has led to a glossing over of the horrific plights of all sorts of groups of people, from Native Americans to African Americans and more.

Of course, history has also been known to be quite forgiving — the adulterous behavior of a business or political leader is often forgiven, orover time, in the face of larger accomplishments or contributions to society. Some sins seem to stick more than others, but history tends to airbrush blemishes and highlight the “good side” of historical figures.

The emergence of the “cancel culture” has been a shift in that philosophy. There are some who now believe anyone who ever owned slaves or endorsed their ownership should not be recognized with the historical affirmation of a statue or the like (the same is true of post-Civil War segregationists).

This has led to some seemingly confounding situations, such as a statue of Union war hero and eventual President of the United State Ulysses S. Grant’s being pulled down by protesters in San Francisco.

Grant is a fascinating American figure.

He was the son of a fervent abolitionist, Jesse Root Grant. While Ulysses Grant did not inherit his father’s rabid opposition to slavery, he was hardly comfortable with the institution. He married into a Missouri family of slaveowners in the 1850s and acquired a slave in 1858 from his father-in-law. But Grant couldn’t do it. He couldn’t force the man to work and within a year, he formally granted him his freedom.

You know Grant’s legacy as a general — he ended a long line of Union generals who could not get the better of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, eventually securing Lee’s surrender.

But you may not know the hallmarks of Grant’s presidency – he prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, appointed African Americans and Jewish Americans to important federal offices and even created the nation’s first national park — Yellowstone.

Which brings me to my thesis: We should judge our fellow women and men on the totality of their contributions to history.

For me, that means a clear delineation between Civil War Confederate leaders and Union leaders, such as Grant, as well as Founders of the United States.

Let’s take Jefferson Davis. The Confederate President served in a variety of capacities in the U.S. government pre-Civil War (Secretary of War; U.S. Senator, etc.), but none of his contributions were anywhere near as substantial, historically, as his presidency of the insurrection.

And let’s call it what it is, even here in the Deep South — secessionists are, by definition, seditious, disloyal and treasonous. To honor Davis is to honor a failed effort to end the union. Perhaps ending a government’s rule could still be justified, if the cause were honorable, such as the American Revolution, but the cause was not honorable — it was at least in part to preserve slavery as an institution.

That is a monument which should be moved from a place designed for public adoration and admiration, to a venue where history is viewed warts and all, such as a museum or cemetery.

Compared to Grant — well, there is no comparison to me. During an era when slaveholding was widespread, Grant owned a single slave for only a year and couldn’t stomach it. He then spent much of the rest of his life advocating for American blacks, including winning the war that ultimately secured African Americans their permanent freedom, then passing government reforms that increased their legitimacy.

Grant is an analog, in my eyes, to American Founders, such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the like. All four owned slaves, around 100 years before the Civil War was fought.

But to view their actions a quarter millenium ago through present-day lenses is a dangerous way to analyze history. Actually, I just defined something called “presentism.”

The nation’s oldest historical society — the American Historical Association — says of “presentism” that it “encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior.”

I’m not going to list the contributions of Washington and Co. to the country they founded, but needless to say they are prodigious and worthy of continued celebration.

University of Richmond historian Julian Hayter said it well recently on 60 Minutes:

“I would say the difference, the critical difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee, and men like Lee, is that while Washington and Jefferson were com– complicated individuals– and by our standards– thought about ideas in– in an entirely anachronistic way– they also baked in the Constitution the components that allowed people to dismantle– the slave system. They built as much as they destroyed. I cannot say the same thing for the Confederacy.”

I guess this is the problem I have with the “cancel culture” in general — it tends to treat all “crimes” as “social justice felonies” regardless of context such as the era of the offense, or the degrees of wrongdoing. Context still matters, even as we wrestle as a nation with institutional — and blatant — racism.

On the other hand, I understand that some will hold the view that any association with slavery is a “cancelable” offense. I think that is misapplied “presentism,” but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a completely unreasonable view — just one with which I strongly disagree.

Anyway, the “fanatical middle” here is that some monuments should not longer be heralded as homages to heroes, while others should. In other words … NUANCE!

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to follow me!

4 thoughts on “Monuments to nuance

  1. Nuance requires the willingness to learn all sides of an issue and have the critical thinking skills to come to some sense of the truth. That takes a bit of effort and it is much easier to just ape what someone else says. I appreciate your take on Grant – I have always found him fascinating.

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  2. Good, well-reasoned essay. Thanks. As a Southerner whose ancestors fought in the Confederacy, I never gave the statues a second thought. I can now, at least, see how others think differently. But I can’t fathom the cancellation of Eppes, or other similar people. And we really, really, really did screw over the Native American Indians, beyond comprehension.

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