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Monumental Slaves to History

I find the arguments raging in the States over the removal of historic statues fascinating, if only because they reveal how blinkered folks can be on both sides of the debate.

William Walcott, 'Pulling down the statue of King George III in New York, 1854'

The removal of statues is no new thing, even in the US, as William Walcott's oil canvas, reproduced above, shows. However, the Civil War seems to produce a class of argument all its own. Not so long ago, the popular country singer Brad Paisley wrote, "the Stars and Bars offend some folks, and I guess I see why". In fact, it's pretty damned easy to see why, and while I have an interest in nineteenth century history in general, and in the Civil War in particular, I'd find it difficult to get too riled up about people taking down statues to Jeff Davis, Nathan Forrest, or J.E.B. Stuart.

Having said that, I do have to make a couple of distinctions. I don't believe people should go around destroying or removing memorials that honour those hundreds of thousands of ordinary soldiers who fell in the course of the war, and I wonder about the logic of taking down statues of Robert E. Lee, a man who freed his own slaves, and who defied the orders of his President to bring the war to an earlier conclusion than would otherwise have been the case. Purists can make the argument in favour of Lee's removal, I'm sure, but I have a hard time with it myself.

Of course, purists might also want to look at some statues north of the Mason-Dixon Line too. General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant was a slave owner, as was General William T. Sherman. But, if we go down that road, we'd have to admit that George Washington had as many as 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon property, so perhaps we need to take down his statues, along with those of Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, et al. Twelve of the first eighteen presidents were slave owners, but I've yet to hear anyone clamber for the renaming of New York's Madison Square Garden, or Jefferson, New Hampshire for that matter. Perhaps, if we want to be consistent, we should be pushing to erect of a swathe of statues to John Adams, and to rename a parcel of spots after him in recognition of the fact that he was the only one of the first five presidents not to own a slave. Ironically, Adams has far fewer statues than any of his fellow early presidents, and the Adams Memorial in Washington DC, although designed, was never built.

Above: monuments to slave owners Grant and Sherman in Washington DC.

Below: Spot the odd man out; Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Munro.

Given these unfortunate - perhaps even unpalatable - facts, I would have to say that, if we aren't willing to see the argument through to its logical conclusion, and to remove ALL the statues that might offend on the grounds that they glorify those who once extolled slavery, then we shouldn't be making the argument at all.

Above: If history offends you, should we simply destroy it to make ourselves feel better?

Perhaps, rather than imitating ISIS, and pulling down any graven image that causes us offence, our time might be better spent trying to learn from history, rather than rewriting it to suit a perverse urge to create a past that is somehow less grubby, less unpalatable, but at the same time less real than the one we have inherited. We are all slaves to our history. We benefit by acknowledging that fact, but belittle ourselves by tearing it down in an attempt to avoid it's uncomfortable truths.

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