The right way to deal with dishonest Confederate monuments

  • Defenders of Confederate monuments accuse modern-day critics of “presentism” — using our present-day values to unfairly judge people in the past.
  • But lots of people back then knew slavery was wrong — including many Southerners.
  • There’s a better way to deal with Confederate monuments than either tearing them down or defending them to the hilt.

“Sixty Minutes” did a commendable job on Sunday covering the current political fights over Confederate monuments. Much of Anderson Cooper’s report focused on Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, whose black mayor wants to radically alter Monument Avenue, arguably the most prominent boulevard of white supremacist statuary in the U.S.

Confederate monuments are “the greatest example of nostalgia masquerading as history,” Mayor Levar Stoney told Anderson Cooper

Stoney wants Richmond to do what New Orleans just did — remove and warehouse these romantic monuments to the rebellion — leaving just the 1996 statue of Arthur Ashe to greet visitors to Monument Avenue.

In New Orleans, local resistance was so strong that the company scheduled to remove the statues backed out after one of its cars was firebombed. The city finally hired an out-of-state contractor.

“I really did want to make a definitive statement as a white man from the South,” New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu told CBS. “It’s not unclear anymore about what the Civil War was about and who won, and what the values are that we should really revere.”

Set aside for a moment what Landrieu did. Consider just what a huge shift in thinking this is. One hundred years ago, as the Daughters of the Confederacy was erecting hundreds of statues throughout the South, African-American viewpoints were systematically excluded from history books. The KKK was enjoying a revival, and not just in the South.

Now, a politician in a major Southern city is admitting that this whitewashing of history was wrong, and it was time that it changed.

But is removing the statues the right thing? I don’t think so.

And to their credit, “60 Minutes” producers found two academic historians who agreed … while disagreeing sharply on what should be done.

Is criticizing the rebellion ‘presentism’?  

“Should Mount Vernon be up today? Should we go burn Monticello down tomorrow? Certainly, Thomas Jefferson believed in white supremacy,” said William J. Cooper, retired LSU professor and former president of the Southern Historical Association.

Professor Cooper thinks the statues are fine as they are, and he bristled at Anderson Cooper’s suggestion that they stand for “bad history.” 

The professor said, “One of the things that bothers me most as a historian is what I call presentism.” That is, he explained, “judging the past by the present, figuring we’re the only moral people — and nobody else could be moral if they didn’t think like we think.”

No one was brought in to directly challenge the professor on this point. But he’s wrong, and it matters.

Anyone who has dipped their toes into the waters of academic history is familiar with the Sin of Presentism. It is our modern tendency to judge long-dead people who, in our eyes, should have known better.

“Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards,” as historian Lynn Hunt put it.

Here’s the problem with crying “Presentism!” when defending Confederate generals and politicians — those guys really should have known better. Not only do they fail to measure up to our standards, they failed to live up to the moral code of millions of their contemporaries in both the North and the South.

Many Southern slaveholding politicians knew that slavery was wrong. They knew that the United States would someday have to manumit all of its enslaved citizens or else face civil war.

We can argue whether Washington or Jefferson should have worked more aggressively to shut down the economy of human chattel. But neither man believed slavery should be preserved at the cost of a rebellion and a civil war.

The Confederacy, by contrast, was founded on this very belief. It was loudly proclaimed in the secession documents of each of the 11 states that joined the rebellion.

Only after the war, when Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders sat down to write their memoirs, did “states rights” replace slavery as the “real” cause of the Civil War. This revisionist view was carried forward by the Daughters of the Confederacy and, more shamefully, the large majority of historians.

Keep them up but tell the whole story

I’m excited to visit Richmond. Tanya Anderson, author of our best-selling book Gunpowder Girls, raves about their Civil War museum at Tredegar Iron Works.

Monument Avenue is a major tourist attraction for the city, and I expect to spend quality time there, too. But it will hardly be in a spirit of reverence. I know why those statues are there — they were part of a campaign to change the way Americans thought about these traitors to our republic.

So no, I’m not in favor of removing or even relocating these memorials. But I find the status quo unacceptable, too.

That was why I was delighted to know that the city is relying on the counsel of historian Julian Hayter at the University of Richmond.

“I think the statues should stay — with a footnote of epic proportions,” Hayter told CBS. “I think we lack imagination when we talk about memorials. It’s all or nothing. It’s ‘leave ’em this way’ or ‘tear ’em down,’ as if there’s nothing in between that we can do to tell a more enriching story.”

Hayter envisions large glass-encased signs at each memorial where people can read the full story — about the real causes of the war, about who put up these monuments in the first place, and what their motives were.

But that kind of re-interpretation gets expensive in a hurry. I have a different solution.

Every town with a Confederate monument can afford a smartphone audio tour. Do some research, record some tracks, then stick a yard sign in the ground at each monument with a phone number or web address on it. Then people can decide whether they want to learn the truth about the dashing figure towering above them in bronze.

Dig deeper

I’m enriched every time I read Lynn Hunt’s “Against Presentism.”

The problem with conservative critics of “presentism,” like William C. Cooper, is that their views of leading Confederates are strikingly similar to those of the revisionists who put up these statues in the first place. Take, for instance, this guy at the AEI think tank who asserts that Robert E. Lee “spent the rest of his post-war life trying to reconcile the south to the Union.” Sorry, but Lee should have spent those five years atoning for his abominable treatment of African-Americans before and during the war.

The Southern senator Henry Clay helped forge compromises that kept the country from breaking apart over slavery for 30 years. Clay also owned 60 human souls and considered blacks to be second-class citizens.

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