Erasing History? Monuments and Memory

The year 2015 saw impassioned debates over whether to remove monuments to prominent Americans now deemed to be fatally flawed for one reason or another, as well as other monuments glorifying events now seen to be embarrassing or shameful, such as the monument in New Orleans commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. There have been impassioned debates for and against the removal or relocation of such monuments, with at least as much heat as light being generated.

One of the claims we hear by people opposed to the removal or relocation of such monuments is that to undertake such actions is to “erase” history. Apparently, the existence of a particular monument is an explanation of history that is timeless. Such a claim betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of history, the relationship between history and memory, and the role monuments play in marking and expressing historical memory.

First, let’s remember what history is … and what it is not. History is not the past: it is a reading of the past that inevitably is also an interpretation of it. That’s right … historical narrative, however expressed, is inherently interpretive, marked by what it includes, what it omits, what it values, and what it emphasizes. There is no such thing as “just the facts” history, nor is that history “objective.” After all, in determining what facts to include, you exclude others, and an honest historian will have to admit that some “facts” are simply not recoverable. Carol Reardon reminds us of this very simple premise in her fine book exploring the Confederate assault on the Union center along Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. What you call that charge is in itself an act of interpretation. Is it Pickett’s Charge, the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack, or Longstreet’s assault … or something else? As Reardon suggests, even simple questions defy easy answers. When did the Confederate artillery bombardment begin? How long did it last? How many cannon participated? What damage did it inflict? Try giving me a “just the facts” answer to any of those questions that goes beyond vague assertions and carefully qualified wording.

History is a creative act undertaken by human beings seeking to understand the past, both on its own terms and for the light it may shed on present issues … and often the questions asked by historians about the past reflect present concerns. This is evident when it comes to battlefield preservation and interpretation, for example. The Gettysburg battlefield is a narrative that’s an exercise in historical interpretation. You can see that in the monuments and markers that populate the battlefield, in the choices of what to preserve and how, and so on. Anyone who ventures there simply to learn the facts will be sorely disappointed, in part because it depends what facts one wants to learn. This became evident two decades ago when people began talking about the need to explain why there was a battle at all and what impact it had on the civilian population, black as well as white. Some people wanted to limit their understanding of “the facts” to the battle itself as an exercise in killing between two groups of organized armed men, as if it was simply a sporting contest. Yet the “sporting contest” analogy sells short one’s understanding of the importance of sporting events: a history of Super Bowl III that simply focused on the game that took place in the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969, would be poor history when it comes to assessing the importance of that contest.

History is not erased: it is rewritten. Yes, it is revised, and it is revised all the time … because we learn more about what happened (look at the use of archaeology on battlefields such as Little Big Horn), because we have new questions to ask, because we test older interpretations that we now find wanting, and so on. Ranting about “revisionist” history misses the point that all history is revisionist (and people who rant about it do so because their particular understanding of history is now being challenged). There are interpretations fashioned by scholars who do their best to be fair and who employ evidence skillfully, and there are interpretations that are drowning in bias and incompetent displays of the the historian’s craft, so simply to say that all history is subjective simply doesn’t tell us much. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult than that.

And so we turn to monuments. Monuments reflect an interpretation of the past that in most cases meet the creators’ desire to remember a person or an organization or an event in a particular way. Take, for example, the equestrian statue of Winfield Scott Hancock on East Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. Why is it there, and not somewhere along Cemetery Ridge, where Hancock did much to contribute to Union victory? Why did the sculptor pose Hancock as he did? Answering those questions involve how people wanted in remember Hancock as well as how they wanted to interpret his service (in contrast, few people recall that Hancock is also featured on the Pennsylvania monument not far from his scenes of greatest service on July 2 and 3).

Or take the monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., facing each other across the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. The Jefferson Memorial was erected during a time of Democratic resurgence in American politics where Jefferson’s reputation was on the rise, and it celebrates him as a great Democrat as well as a great democrat. Other aspects of his life were slighted or ignored altogether, as Martin Luther King, Jr., might point out. Yet the same is also true of the King Memorial. Erected at a time when Americans chose to celebrate a certain version of King as enshrined in the “I Have a Dream” speech of August 1963, it has much less to say about the Vietnam war that King came to oppose, a war remembered a short walk northwards from his memorial. We want to remember people in a particular way, and that’s that. In the future, other people may disagree, and I have no more right to claim that my interpretation should prevail because it’s “history” and to challenge it is to “erase history” than someone else does to tell me that I can’t challenge what they choose to remember or how they want to remember it because to do so is to “erase history” or is an exercise in “political correctness.” Need I remind you that Stone Mountain and Birth of a Nation are also exercises in political correctness for their time, as are the inscriptions on the monuments erected by several southern states in honor of the service of their state’s Confederate forces at Gettysburg?

Note: ranting about “political correctness” is best read as “I can’t really deal with the merits of your interpretation, so I’ll deride it largely because it doesn’t reinforce my own preferences and prejudices.”

Monuments are primarily commemorations and expressions of historical memory. As such, they are time-bound, not timeless. They are much more about the people who erected and dedicated those monuments than about the people and events they commemorate. As times change, as values change, as perspectives change, and as people change, they will view those monuments differently. In some cases, they will come to question whether those events still need be commemorated, or whether they should be commemorated in the same way. The past does not get to tell the present what to think about the past, and to defend monuments largely because they make the defender feel comfortable about their understanding of history is problematic.  Recall the addition of Confederate flags to the Lee Chapel surrounding the Valentine sculpture. That act was a revision, a re-envisioning, and a repurposing for the people who decided to augment that space. So was the recent decision to remove those flags and to restore the space to its original condition. You can’t criticize one without criticizing the other.

I have no general rule on what to do that would cover all such cases. I do have general principles grounded in the belief that memorials are expressions of the time and people when they were erected, and that they may not reflect the prevailing sentiments of everyone, then or now. They are acts of memory; the story of such monumentation is the history of memory, not of the event or person itself. Removing or relocating such monuments does not erase the history of the event or the person being commemorated; it shows that the history of memory is always evolving. If you removed every single monument at Gettysburg, nothing about the battle itself would change, any more than destroying a battlefield eradicates the history of that battle, however much it may damage our ability to understand it or remember it. But it is time to have a more serious discussion about these matters, rather than the polarizing debate that comes with namecalling and simple-minded claims about what’s at stake of what a monument really represents. Nor is that discussion limited to scholars and historians, or outsiders who want to tell other people what to do at the same time they resent being told what to do. There are far more stakeholders and constituencies involved, and is worth remembering, for example, that if the people of New Orleans put up four monuments, subsequent generations have an equal right to discuss whether they should remain. The earth belongs to the living, Jefferson once said, and past generations do not have the right to bind future generations to comply with what those past generations chose to remember about the past and how they chose to remember it.

3 thoughts on “Erasing History? Monuments and Memory

  1. OhioGuy January 10, 2016 / 11:06 pm

    “There are interpretations fashioned by scholars who do their best to be fair and who employ evidence skillfully, and there are interpretations that are drowning in bias and incompetent displays of the the historian’s craft, so simply to say that all history is subjective simply doesn’t tell us much. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult than that.”

    This. I think, is an excellent point.

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