If Americans Are Free to Tear Down Every Monument We Disagree With, There Will Be No More Monuments

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“When you start wiping out your history; sanitizing your history to make you feel better? It’s a bad thing.”

— Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, earlier this year, on the removal of Confederate monuments.

In response to the deadly clashes between left-wing extremists and right-wing extremists in Charlottesville this weekend, progressive protesters took it upon themselves to make a citizen’s arrest of a Confederate soldier. Protesters gathered around the Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina, tied a lasso around the neck of the statue, and yanked it to the ground. The protesters violently kicked and beat the statue before realizing it was too heavy to move. According to reports, police officers watched the vandalism take place and did nothing.

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Here is a description of the monument, which was erected in 1924:

An armed and uniformed soldier stands atop a granite tower adorned with the Confederate seal. On the base of the monument are four stone cannon balls and two lighted lamps. In total the monument stands approximately fifteen feet high.

Should we have Confederate statues in America?

Let’s let the historians and elected politicians in charge of such things make that ruling. However, I can say with complete assurance that if the precedent in society is that every American has a right to deface, vandalize, and otherwise remove every monument that offends us, our society is gonna run out of monuments fast.

Find me a single monument in America that we can all agree on. I ask this sincerely. We’re a big country. We have a proud, politically dynamic history and a lot of monuments to different eras, wars, and heroes. Sometimes, those people and wars are controversial and even politically incorrect by today’s standards.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of our most well known American monuments and theorize the arguments which could historically be made against them.

Cruel, Slave Owner Monument:

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According to mountvernon.org:

At the time of Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon enslaved population consisted of 317 people

[…]

Sources offer differing insight into Washington’s behavior as a slave owner. On one end of the spectrum, Richard Parkinson, an Englishman who lived near Mount Vernon, once reported that “it was the sense of all his [Washington’s] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man.” Conversely, a foreign visitor traveling in America once recorded that George Washington dealt with his slaves “far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia.” What is clear is that Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.

Stolen Indian Land Monument:

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According to Indian Country Today:

… Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills, land that is sacred to a number of tribes. It’s also land that, according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, was to belong to American Indians forever. But after an expedition led by General Custer discovered gold there in 1874, the Fort Laramie Treaty was soon scrapped and the Lakota relocated to reservations.

The Lakota and others say that Mount Rushmore isn’t just a piece of art they dislike; it’s a piece of art they dislike that, to put it in European terms, has been forcibly installed in their own church.

Man Who Killed the Most Americans in History Monument:

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According to civilwar.org:

Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000 … Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts. It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the amount of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.

Evil Slaveowner, Philanderer Monument:

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According to The New York Times:

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Man Who Murdered Hundreds of Thousands of Japanese in Seconds Monument:

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According to NPS.gov:

Truman and his advisors concluded that only bombing a city would make an adequate impression.  Any advance warning to evacuate a city would endanger the bomber crews; the Japanese would be forewarned and attempt to shoot them down.  The target cities were carefully chosen.  First, it had to be a city that had suffered little damage from conventional bombing so it couldn’t be argued that the damage came from anything other than the atomic bomb.  Second, it must be a city primarily devoted to military production.  This was complicated, however, because in Japan, workers homes were intermingled with factories so that it was impossible to find a target that was exclusively military.  Finally, Truman stipulated it should not be a city of traditional cultural significance to Japan, such as Kyoto.  Truman did not seek to destroy Japanese culture or people; the goal was to destroy Japan’s ability to make war.

So, on the morning of August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped the world’s first atom bomb over the city of Hiroshima.

The temperature near the blast site reached 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit.  The sky seemed to explode.  Birds ignited in midair; asphalt boiled.  People over two miles away burst into crumbling cinders.  Others with raw skin hanging in flaps around their hips leaped shrieking into waterways to escape the heat.  Men without feet stumbled about on the charred stumps of their ankles.  Women without jaws screamed incoherently for help.  Bodies described as “boiled octopuses” littered the destroyed streets.  Children, tongues swollen with thirst, pushed floating corpses aside to soothe their scalded throats with bloody river water.

Approximately 80,000 people were killed as a direct result of the blast, and another 35,000 were injured.  At least another 60,000 would be dead by the end of the year from the effects of the atomic fallout.

Built by Slaves Monument:

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According to Politifact:

Perhaps the most compelling evidence were records of payments from the commissioners for the District of Columbia — the three men appointed by George Washington to oversee the construction of the Capitol and the rest of the city of Washington — to slave owners for the rental of slaves to work on the Capitol. The records reflect 385 payments between 1795 and 1801 for “Negro hire,” a euphemism for the yearly rental of slaves.

Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting, the task force reported. And slaves appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.

Slave crews also toiled at the marble and sandstone quarries that provided the stone to face the structure — lonely, grueling work with bleak living conditions in rural Virginia and elsewhere. “Keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset — particularly the Negroes,” the commissioners wrote to quarry operator William O’Neale in 1794.

Built by Slaves Monument:

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According to whitehousehistory.org:

Stonemason Collen Williamson trained enslaved people on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia, Virginia. Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish masons to erect the walls of the President’s House. The slaves joined a work force that included local white laborers and artisans from Maryland and Virginia, as well as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other European nations.

Man Who Refused Jewish Refugees During the Holocaust Monument:

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According to The U.S. Holocaust Museum:

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially “stateless.”

The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States.

[…]

Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” US diplomats in Havana intervened once more with the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis, but without success.

What If White Nationalists Were Free to Have Their Way With This Monument?

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Ugh.

I’m not apologizing for Confederate monuments. I’m a Yankee. My state fought for the Union. There are very good arguments out there for the removal of Confederate monuments respectfully and placing them in a rightful spot in American history museums. But precedent, rule of law, and civility matters. Declaring something offends you and then destroying it via raging mob is a slippery slope. Never forget that mob justice is what led to some of the worst human rights violations in American and world history.

I’ll give the final word here to Condoleezza Rice:

“I am a firm believer in ‘keep your history before you.’ So I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at those names, and realize what they did, and be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history.”

What do you think?

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