What Are Monuments?

Recently there have been a number of articles about monuments in Southern cities about the War Between The States, known more widely throughout the country as the Civil War (if it is known at all). South Carolina flew the Confederate flag on its capitol grounds; Alexandria, Va has its Southern soldier facing south, leaning on his rifle with his head bowed. Richmond has an avenue lined with Confederates on stone pillars. Every Southern city that could afford their version up to the early 20th century has something similar. There are even a couple of statues in the nation’s capitol.

So, how long do/can we keep events alive in our memories? There are a number of attempts to move the Confederacy into the memory cellar of people who still have it in an upstairs room. The flag has been moved off South Carolina’s capitol grounds; it took the murder of nine black people in their church to accomplish this. The mayors of Charlottesville and New Orleans are trying to move their statues to less central places. Depending upon the amount of discord this raises, and it seems to be raising a lot, other cities may attempt the same.

However, this will not be easy. Richmond, capitol of the Confederacy, has a boulevard lined with Virginia confederates and I am sure there is a cleanup group for them. From what I have read and watched on tv, there are two groups with opposite positions, and a majority that really doesn’t care. Paris is full of statues of Napoleon, who was a loser himself. However, his Frenchmen who put them up are the same as Frenchmen today. Like a couple of kings, he represents France in its greatest hours.

In our southern states, there is no such attitude unifier. About half of our black population lives in the south, and they cut the possible number of important Confederate supporters by about half. In addition, there are the Yankees who have moved south since WW II for whom that “War” carries little interest.

As these two examples seem to show, old allegiances can last as long as people have a sense of ties to past events. Germans are an example of what can happen when commitment to a set of values brings such destruction to a social system that it has to be reconstructed. In the case of the Confederate states, they were legally readmitted to the union, but basically walled off economically and socially until Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

So, monuments seem to be attempts to retain loyalty to people or events from the past that some group thinks important. People such as Lincoln and Churchill and Beethoven have monuments because they contributed to national goals and people. In the case of a divided nation, how do we deal with people whom we have come to view as historically important? George Washington owned slaves, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, in fact, fourteen members of of the Constitutional Convention delegates owned slaves.  Should we remove them from our view?

Using this example, how much of our history do we want to erase? How do we decide?

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