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The Bust of Grant and the Indiscriminate Destruction of Monuments

Grant statue toppled

Grant’s bust in San Francisco, toppled. The “Stop” in the street beneath Grant could not be a more appropriate message. (photo: Twitter/Joe Rivano Barros)

For some people, Ulysses S. Grant’s monument in San Francisco toppled last Friday not with a clang but with a loud “I told you so.”

“First, it’s Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, but just you wait,” those people have said. “It won’t stop there.” Their slippery slope argument forecast people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson next. It didn’t matter that the two Virginians helped found the entire country, they’ve said; the pair would be punished for being slaveholders, even though slave holding was legal and widely accepted in their day. That historical record would not be enough to satisfy the forces of presentism, which interpret past events using today’s values.

As of last Friday, according to ABC News, some 22 Confederate monuments have come down across the country—either by force or by mandated removal. In Richmond, Virginia, Jefferson Davis got yanked from his pedestal on Monument Avenue, and Williams Wickham was pulled down and burned in the city’s Monroe Park.

And from there, the slippery slope has, indeed, continued.

In Portland, Oregon, Washington and Jefferson statues were both targeted last week. “You’re on native lands,” one protester spray painted on Washington without offering to vacate those lands himself. New York City announced plans to look at its own Washington and Jefferson statues, even as it said it was taking down a statue of Theodore Roosevelt from in front of the American Museum of Natural History because the statue is racist. In Albany, New York, Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler came down from in front of City Hall because he’d owned slaves.

Christopher Columbus, who’s already been falling from grace in a kind of reputational tailspin over the last few years, found himself knocked down even more pegs. Last week, his namesake city in Ohio voted to remove his statue in front of City Hall. In Richmond, protesters threw his statue into a lake. A statue in Manhattan came under fire, but New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself of Italian descent, defended Columbus. “[T]he statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York,” Cuomo said. While that might be true, Columbus also enslaved a lot of unsuspecting natives and gave the “New World” the gift of small pox, which killed thousands—acts, Cuomo rightly says, “which nobody would support.” I suppose it’s little wonder that Columbus Day isn’t quite celebrated the way it used to be.

Ironically, the “marble man” version of history often enshrined by statues is the very thing bringing those statues down right now. Our heroes aren’t perfect, so they don’t deserve to be honored at all, or so goes the current thinking on the streets—although I wonder how much thinking is actually involved. We’re hearing lots of loud, angry voices who are justifiably loud and angry over racial justice issues—but, in the heat of the moment, some of those voices for right are intermingled with voices of underinformed, outraged righteousness, and that’s a bad mix. Throw in a minority of people who are in it for the sheer joy of the chaos, pandemonium, and violence, and that becomes a really bad mix, especially because it undermines the legitimate message of more peaceful protestors.

Public outrage has seemed so indiscriminate that even the Lincoln Memorial appeared to be a target. For people seeking racial justice, an attack on Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” seemed counter-intuitive, yet images circulated widely on the web of graffiti-marred marble walls spray painted with “BLM” and other slogans. The Park Service, though, quickly debunked those images as fake, apparently fabricated by right-wing agitators trying to stir up additional animosity against the protesters. The incident added another troubling wrinkle to a complicated story.

In the midst of all this chaos, I don’t know anyone who had Ulysses S. Grant on their bingo card of destruction. Grant won the Civil War, which brought an end to slavery. Had there been no victory, the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally ended the South’s “peculiar institution,” would’ve been a moot point. Grant was also the most vigorous Civil Rights president until Lyndon Johnson, and his work to suppress the KKK was particularly important.

In his memoirs, Grant asserted in no uncertain terms that

The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that ‘A state half slave and half free cannot exist.’ All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true….

Grant did marry into a slave-holding family, though, and he himself owned a single slave, a 35-year-old man named William Jones, whom Grant freed. (Jones was, as Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site points out, the last enslaved person owned by a U.S. president.) During the war, Grant also exhibited some anti-Semitism with General Order 11, which expelled Jews from their homes as a supposed war measure. Years later, as president, he set a much more sympathetic tone.

Apparently, though, those were tarnishes enough on Grant’s reputation to merit him some good old fashioned vigilante justice in San Francisco. For good measure, protesters also toppled statues of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the National Anthem, and St. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary. San Francisco’s archbishop rightly protested that protests were being hijacked by violence.

The Grant monument located in Golden Gate Park, consists (consisted) of a bust sculpted by Robert Schmid, which sat on a granite base originally cut by convicts from Folsom Prison. As I recounted in my book Grant’s Last Battle, “The stonecutters union balked, and controversy erupted. The base was recut. Controversy also rose over the monument’s $8,000 price tag. Because of all the trouble, dedication dates are hard to pin down: 1894, 1896, and 1904.”

I hope the city reinstalls Grant’s bust atop its pedestal. He did, after all, save the country—no small thing. That his views on slavery evolved over time, as did his attitude toward Jewish people, are both credits to him, as well. Isn’t that the exact sort of character development we hope to see in people as they learn new things, see new points of view, and have new experiences? It’s called growth. It’s called wisdom.

Did Grant have flaws? Sure. All of these historical figures did. We all do. Do any of us want to be defined by our shortcomings, or would we rather have people see the good in us? Aren’t we all complex individuals? For that same reason, we need to take the time to understand the complexity of these bronze-cast people in the context of their own times and places. What can we learn from them? What can we learn about them? And from those things, what can we learn about ourselves? 

That’s not to say all statues should remain up, just that each deserves individual consideration. Each statue—like the people they represent—is a product of the time it was raised, and each raises its own set of questions today. (See my piece last week for more on this.)

A community has the right to decide what it wants to do with its statues, but those are discussions for level heads and less-heated tempers, after open conversation, with decisions by officials held accountable by elections.

Even as I write this, other monument struggles continue to unfold. In D.C.’s Lafayette Square, police stopped protestors on Monday from tearing down an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. States are considering bills to evict Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol’s statuary hall. A court fight is unfolding in Virginia over the fate of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue even as ropes still dangle from Jeb Stuart’s statue following an unsuccessful attempt to pull it over. The slippery slope continues downhill.

To some, this all feels like revolution. If protestors follow due process, then change will never come, they say. They must seize the moment.

But vandalism is still vandalism. Mob rule is not democracy. Revenge is not justice. It is possible to support both peaceful protest and due process. It is possible to look at people—past and present—as individuals and not as stereotypes.

Mob rule does not reflect public opinion—and often reflects public ignorance.