As unrest still rolls across the country, statues of Confederate leaders are coming down. For example, in June Mississippi retired its previous flag with a Confederate symbol—which the state used for over 125 years. Yet the move to tear down historical symbols reaches far beyond the dark history of the Confederacy.
In recent months, a number of non-Confederate statues and memorials have been officially removed, vandalized, torn down, or faced protests. These include statues of Ulysses Grant, the Freedman’s Memorial, and a statue of Teddy Roosevelt riding above a Native American and enslaved man. Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson as the namesake of its school of public and international affairs. These events have reinvigorated divisions over historical narratives and how we signify our history.
Many on the Left insist that we wrongly venerate American figures, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, hiding or ignoring their sins, especially their slave ownership. Consequently, their monuments should come down. Meanwhile, critics on the Right decry these efforts as “cancel culture,” the erasure of history, and as an outright hostility toward America itself. President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore captured the tenor of many on the Right:
Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children… Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution… To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.
Last week the president followed up on the themes he raised in his Rushmore speech by announcing the creation of a 1776 Commission to promote a more “patriotic education.” According to announcement, the commission’s purpose is “to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character.”
Complicating both conservative and liberal narratives is the confusing and messy reality of the past months of unrest when determining who was responsible for vandalism was difficult. In upstate New York, some person or group tore down and damaged beyond repair a statue of Frederick Douglass. A number of conservative media commentators were quick to label this the act of the Democratic mob despite no evidence of who attacked the statute. Two drunk white students in 2018 vandalized statues of Douglass in the same area (and one witness claims they were shouting the N-word while taking it down).
What is most revelatory about this renewed debate are the narratives that conservatives and progressives employ in order to justify or decry our history. One narrative insists on lionizing historical figures, the other on demonizing them—yet both distract from the ongoing pursuit of the American ideals of justice, liberty, and equality.
Purpose of Memorials
Before considering these two narratives, it is important to understand the function of statues and memorials in society and how they relate to our understanding of the past. In a recent New York Times column, conservative writer Ross Douthat offers a frame for considering our monuments and memorials:
Our monuments and honorifics exist primarily to honor deeds, not to issue canonizations—to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.
Consequently, as Douthat continues, “To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes.”
This is an entirely sensible approach to memorials and the historic contributions they honor. The problem begins when narratives prevent us from viewing monuments this way. Whatever the intention behind statues and monuments, for many, perhaps most, they function as mirrors for whatever historical account is associated with the figure or deed honored. This is why a school tour from Richmond, Virginia, and a tour from Springfield, Illinois, might have entirely different reactions to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. In particular, historical narratives that lionize and demonize the past prevent us from viewing monuments and memorials with the measured gratitude that Douthat prescribes.
Our American Lions
Historical narratives are king, and they are often characterized by not only recognition of a figure’s contribution to our history but also the need to venerate their personal character. We lionize. And in the American mind, achievement itself is an indicator of venerable character. The line between recognition for specific deeds and veneration for character is not just blurred; there’s often no line at all.
For most of the past century, American historians of all political persuasions accepted a degree of lionization. Histories that lauded American exceptionalism blended with lionization while ignoring or minimizing darker spots of our past. This reached a pinnacle during the Cold War as historians crafted histories that emphasized the consensus liberalism of American history over and against the Soviet Union.
Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in her book This America, “Especially after the Cold War began, American historians, keen to shore up Americanism in a Manichean battle with communism, offered stories of ideological consensus rather than conflict.” Lepore goes on to note how beginning in the 1970s more and more liberals drifted away from studying the American story and pursued histories of smaller groups or transnational movements. This contributed to a Rightward shift of the American story. Lionization increasingly became a conservative approach to history, and the abdication of liberal historians laid the groundwork for distorted narratives of demonization.
Douthat concedes that “our civil religion, back when it had more true believers, sometimes treated departed presidents like saints,” citing the heavenly fresco of George Washington on the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda. But that civil religion is alive and well today on the Right, emboldened in reaction to revisionist narratives from the Left.
President Trump’s announcement of a new national monument to American heroes illustrates the Right’s tendency to lionize American historical figures. The monument will be a garden, venerating individuals and their character as heroes rather than specific contributions or events. The order even dictates that the design must include accurate representations of the individuals honored rather than a more abstract design.
Conservatives often identify with the Founding Fathers to an almost religious degree. From this telling, the American story begins with an emphasis on the personal righteousness of the founders and the subsequent progress of our history: grand statesmen, who were flawed but better than others from their time, crafted a form of government that produced a near perfect union. There’s certainly some truth to this narrative, but it leads with personal veneration.
We approach our history with a vested interest in its morality, leading us to polish away the imperfections. We identify with historical figures in the same way that we identify with sports teams—and when something threatens that interest, we double down. We defend both the character and contributions of historical figures for our tribe, and statues and monuments become the battlegrounds for our historical narrative wars.
Writing on the 1619 Project, Matthew Feeney of the CATO Institute captures this approach well:
We can and should applaud the progress that the U.S. has made since its founding while accepting that there is much work to be done. Such work requires an honest look at history that treats the Founding Fathers and America’s founding documents as men and historical writings, not prophets and religious texts.
Feeney hits the nail on the head when describing veneration in religious terms. It is ironic that so many conservative commentators decry cancel culture as a secular religion obsessed with race—as if the civil religion of lionization lacks the same zealous qualities.
Not Lions, Demons
The answer to long-held narratives of lionization is often a counter narrative that goes beyond correcting the errors of undue veneration. In the same way that conservatives lionize the personal character of historical figures, a growing counter narrative demonizes their personal character, rejecting the deeds and contributions of figures like Washington, Jefferson, and in some cases Lincoln as inextricably linked to their personal sins and hypocrisies.
Since statues have become another culture war issue, assigning agency and responsibility for this narrative is often difficult. Many on the Right take any criticism of these figures or the way their monuments function as demonization and cancel culture. Insofar as the counter narratives try to correct the excesses of lionization, revisions are worthy of consideration. Our historical narratives have often been shallow at best and largely inaccurate at worst. A prime example of this is the history of Reconstruction. As historian and scholar Eric Foner argues, flawed narratives around Reconstruction lasted for decades, well into the mid-twentieth century, buttressed in part by how historians lionized Andrew Johnson and demonized the Radical Republicans.
The danger lies when the revision goes beyond correcting our flawed histories to a repudiation both of the character and contributions of historical figures. This tendency quickly devolves into a moralistic and often punitive exercise as shallow as the lionized narrative it attacks. One can say that Jefferson and Washington were hypocrites; one can say that they were racists; but saying they did nothing worthy of recognition is false and close-minded.
To succumb to a narrative of vilifying characters and deeds flattens the complexity of our history. This wrongs the past and the present. The focus becomes not struggling honestly with the injustice of our heritage but distancing oneself from the identity of the past. Not only is this self-centered moralism, it’s also simply impossible. As the great writer James Baldwin said, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
We can no more easily remove a historical figure once sufficiently expunged than we can remove a limb from our bodies. The course of history lies in our bodies, hearts, minds, and habits. Just as the traits of your grandfather lie in your father and also lie in you, so the traits of a nation lie in each generation, built on the cumulative foundation of countless generations before it. History is not deterministic, but it does determine much. Believing that any one generation can fully escape or overcome the traits of the past through repudiation is hubris.
Taking Their True Measure
How should we think about historical figures? The through line between lionizing and demonizing embraces the tension and paradoxes of American history, rejecting the self-righteous seduction of narrative certainty.
The goal is not to disembody history from the real men and women who created it but to not let their personalities obstruct the work they did that we now build upon and the mistakes they made that we now learn from.
When debating the Constitution, James Madison captures this lesson well in Federalist 14, answering objections to the Constitution as an untested government absent from history:
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Unpacking Madison’s argument in a bicentennial reflection on the Constitution, Professor William Lee Millers writes:
What Madison is describing, and what he himself eminently represented, was not some recourse to raw thoughtless, bookless practice, or “experience” in place of political thinking but exactly political thinking as it should be. The error in one direction—“blind veneration”—is to drop the great names and books and references, the tag lines and themes—Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu—without at all doing what Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, and Montesquieu did—to think. The error in the opposite direction is to speak out of one’s own immediacy without that training and guidance, without that cumulation of thinking of many others, to reason with and against.
We have to think critically about our past with a recognition that the judgement of history can be malleable. How often do we venerate the political genius of Madison, but fail to do the hard work of Madison for our own time?
Most nations rely on distant and often mythic pasts to form their historical narratives. America is a relatively young nation (although a relatively old republican government) with a unique founding. More so than perhaps any other origin story, America’s founding is suffused with moral reasoning and argument. In an important way, our country was argued into existence.
Moral ideals are readily accessible in the transcript of our history. This makes lionization and mythic veneration unnecessary, but it also makes our history more susceptible to cynical debunking. By definition, the more ideals and moral principles you have, the greater degree of hypocrisy you invite. This creates enduring paradoxes for American history that the country should embrace, not paper over or reject.
When we tell stories to our children about the history of our country, they are told in simplified forms that are more lore than scholarship, and that form is appropriate for a developing mind. But often, our sense of history never matures. Writing in The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explains the dangers of such “heroic stories.” He cautions that so long as our histories remain adolescent narratives, they invite blind acceptance or rejection.
Presidential historian Jon Meacham writes in his book The Soul of America, “We can learn the most from those who came down before not by gazing up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly but by looking them in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not as gods.”
Frederick Douglass provided us with perhaps the greatest example in the American canon of taking the true measure of a man’s historical contributions alongside his character. In a speech dedicating the Freedman’s Memorial in April of 1876, Douglass delivered a compelling and nuanced assessment of Abraham Lincoln’s public life.
He begins by pointing out the all too clear shortcomings of a nineteenth-century white politician:
It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln, was not our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President.
Douglass continues, “He was ready and willing at any time during the last years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people.” Douglass then shifts midway through the address to deliver a model of historical judgement:
Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events—and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass goes on to list Lincoln’s contributions to the enslaved. The structure of the address leads with the faults and shortcomings of Lincoln, a sober appraisal of his actions and goals as a white president. He papers nothing over. And from there, Douglass goes on to take a broader view of both his character and contributions. This framing enables us to understand the justice and liberty that Lincoln helped usher in alongside the costly and tragic failings of the man and his time. These failings are not minor details to mitigate or ignore but are wrapped into the arc of American progress.
When discussing historical figures and monuments, many Christian conservatives are often quick to note that no man is perfect or without sin, but they neglect the biblical model for understanding heroes. Dr. Dru Johnson, director of the Center for Hebraic Thought at The King’s College, explains:
The biblical authors don’t celebrate heroes in Scripture and then tack on, “but of course, they’re not perfect” as a superfluous qualifier. No! They go the opposite direction. They soberly explore the depths of their sin and light up the deep fractures that caused them to sin against God and against humans… Notable people in Scripture are portrayed within a despite-this-person’s-huge-failings framework at every opportunity.
The goal is to emphasize the redeeming work of God. In the context of American history, this type of framing would “soberly explore” the faults of historical figures to emphasize the enduring nature of the ideals put forth at the founding and slowly struggled toward since.
By approaching heroes and history like Douglass and the biblical narrative, the aim is not to divorce character from deed, but to reframe our tribal approaches to the American story. The more that we lionize and demonize figures, the harder it becomes to understand both their individual characters and the work they did to draw us closer to our ideals. Consequently, we make it more difficult for plural citizens to unite around shared causes of justice, equality, and liberty.
We should question our history not because we ourselves could have done better than our forefathers, but because the insistence that our forefathers could have done no better so often serves to justify complacency and blindness to the darker lines of our past that continue to the present day. We should resist attempts to reject our history not only because doing so is impossible, but because progress in American history has come from demanding closer fidelity to our ideals—not rejecting them.
As the late Senator James Williams Fulbright said, “The highest devotion we can give is not to our country as it is but to a concept of what we would like it to be.” The more our historical narratives account for the full tension and complexity of our past, the better equipped we will be to continue the work of expanding the best elements of the American project.