ECW is pleased to welcome guest author Frank J. Scaturro. Frank is president of the Grant Monument Association and the author of President Grant Reconsidered and The Supreme Court’s Retreat from Reconstruction. He is currently writing a book about New York City’s largely forgotten sites from the founding era. The views expressed are the author’s own.
This essay draws context from the Civil War and Reconstruction often overlooked in the national controversy over monuments. Part two discussed how Confederate monuments are in a separate category, but for reasons grounded in a context that is widely misunderstood and therefore misapplied. Unfortunately, the loss of historical context has spilled over into a wholesale assault on monuments to America’s pillars.
Such commentary ignores the fundamentals of why a historical figure is recognized. It exploits a certain faux sophistication that recoils from the seemingly simplistic act of admiration and inflates a person’s flaws, even frailties widely shared during his or her historical period, in order to snuff out the ability to recognize human achievement and sacrifice. Does it make a difference in protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution from vandalism whether its occupant was a slaveholder or an abolitionist? It is sophistry to allow what should be obvious—that all people are flawed—to morph into nihilism. We do not accept such a standard for ourselves and our peers. To dismiss the value of Washington’s and Jefferson’s public careers because they were slaveowners requires shoddy historical analysis. To overlook Grant’s achievements on racial justice, which were more sweeping than those of any of America’s other top leaders, because before his public career he briefly owned a slave his father-in-law gave him—a slave whom he emancipated—is a parody of shoddy historical analysis.
The arguments publicly advanced for monument removal, whether by vandalism or by lawful process, usually go to the issue of race, but while a strong argument is to be made that race was the most important issue ever to challenge this country on a foundational level, it is no argument for indulging in sophistic reasoning to the point of monomania. Take the case of Woodrow Wilson, a former president of both Princeton University and the United States, whose name is being removed from Princeton’s public and international affairs school because of his “racist thinking and policies.” This long-overrated president indeed advanced racially regressive policies, but what does it say if administrators at his own university let this override their esteem for him as a lion of both the progressive movement and internationalism, themes that dominated his presidency?
If progressives guilty of the sin of racism are to be denied any place of honor, Wilson is only the beginning. For that matter, look harder, and you will find slaveholding Native Americans and racist women’s suffragists. Live by sophistic reasoning, die by sophistic reasoning.
History is complex, even messy, but it is not the dumpster load peddled by the mob and their apologists. Forget about trying to make the contortions of logic that rationalizing the destruction or removal of so many non-Confederate monuments requires. The impulse has no unifying theme higher than abject nihilism about America. That nihilism is a powerful weapon against finding, let alone appreciating, core objective meaning in history. Those who deny a monument’s objective meaning, who insist that the only context that matters is the momentary impulse of the present, have made the very argument advanced in recent times for keeping Confederate monuments in place under a whitewashed understanding of history.
Such denial was evident when activists refused to appreciate Theodore Roosevelt’s 1939 memorial on its own terms. It features a statue of him on horseback flanked by two figures, a Native American and an African, allegorical guides who represent the continents where he hunted. (Remember, this statue was located at the Museum of Natural History.) The architect of the memorial specified that the three men would constitute a “heroic group,” and all three clearly project that with idealized physiques. The sculptor said the guides could be seen as representing “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” Even though Mayor de Blasio’s ill-advised commission had decided to keep the statue in 2018, the museum declared in June 2020 that the “hierarchical” placement of Roosevelt and the figures’ depiction were “racist.” That judgment, transparently a reaction to the mob, overrides any other, past or future. In another setting, it would be easy to imagine the same critics deriding those who fail to appreciate art on its own terms as narrow-minded troglodytes, but never mind when they are the ones doing the criticizing.
Another criticism relayed by the museum is the sculpture’s projection of colonial power. This is interesting not only because it goes to the confirmation bias that results from viewing monuments through the predispositions of a narrow ideology, but also because it reflects another reality about the ideology fueling the current wave of protests: denunciation of colonialism in every context except that of the overthrow of British colonial rule that gave birth to the United States. Among all the monuments being attacked, none mark America’s foundations and greatest achievements more than those dedicated to America’s founding during and immediately after the American Revolution and to its second founding through Union victory and Reconstruction. Those are two of the three greatest milestones of equality in America. The third is the civil rights movement of the twentieth century.
The Milestones of Equality Versus the 1619 Project
Those milestones are inextricably connected. If you respect equality, respect who wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. In 1852, Frederick Douglass connected its “great principles” to his own vision of the forthcoming downfall of slavery and denounced the “slander upon [the] memory” of the Constitution’s framers. Lincoln repeatedly did the same. After Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s Dred Scott decision denied the proposition that the words of the Declaration applied to “the enslaved African race,” Lincoln attacked this argument: The words “all men” meant what they said and “contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere.” As the Confederate government was being formed, its vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, conceded that Jefferson and other founders held race-based slavery to be wrong but declared “the assumption of the equality of races” upon which their argument rested to be “an error.” So the new Confederacy was “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man . . . .”
With Union victory and the Reconstruction Amendments that followed, that generally stated promise of equality was finally incorporated into the Constitution with an explicit guarantee not only of emancipation, but of full political equality. After Counter Reconstruction undid the enforcement of many of those guarantees, it took the better part of a century for the civil rights movement to recover them. The iconic appeal to do so was by Martin Luther King, whose “I Have a Dream” speech invoked the Declaration as a “promissory note” and challenged America to “live out the true meaning of its creed . . . that all men are created equal.” Of course, he also invoked the Emancipation Proclamation. Part of the power of that speech was where he delivered it: the Lincoln Memorial. By doing so, he was connecting the milestone of equality of which he was a part with the founding and the Civil War–Reconstruction era.
King called the Lincoln Memorial “hallowed ground.” This was 57 years before it was spray-painted during the recent riots. The memorial stood across from the Jefferson Memorial in one direction and the Washington Monument in another—and now King himself has a monument nearby. The presence of all these monuments is a visible testament to the American creed of freedom and equality, built and affirmed by the achievements and immense sacrifices of different people in different eras but still bound together by what Lincoln called the “electric cord” in the Declaration. There are some who seem to think there is an inconsistency between full-throated condemnation of the killing of George Floyd, which it is easy to forget was the immediate trigger for protests, and full-throated defense of these monuments. They have it completely backwards.
Those who sanction vandalism have been ominously silent about King. That is sadly fitting, because the destruction contradicts both King’s philosophy of nonviolence and the American creed in which he believed. This is no accident. The creed itself has long been attacked in some academic circles and most recently crystalized in the New York Times’ 1619 Project. That project, which seeks to transform historical memory throughout the culture and educational system, casts slavery as America’s true foundation, its protection the fundamental cause of the American Revolution. The project’s lead essay posits that “[a]nti-black racism,” not the American creed, “runs in the very DNA of this country.” It indiscriminately attaches that trait to “white people” throughout U.S. history and even accuses Lincoln of believing that “free black people were . . . incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.”
In essence, the project replaces the racialist Dunning School of a century ago with its own racialist falsification of history. Scholars across the ideological spectrum have lambasted it for being (in the words of founding-era historian Gordon Wood) “so wrong in so many ways.” It confuses healthy self-criticism with a factually corrupted, transparently agenda-driven political polemic. It ignores how the American Revolution championed freedom and equality in a world so starved of both. It ignores how the institution of slavery had already saturated much of the world and how the founding generation’s revolutionary ideals set the North on the path to barring slavery even as the founders tolerated that original sin where it was most deeply entrenched. It advances Dred Scott’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence rather than Lincoln’s, which it whitewashes from its own recollection of the sixteenth president. Notably, its essays barely mention Douglass and omit King’s name except once, in a photo caption.
The tarring of Lincoln includes 1619 writer Jamelle Bouie’s declaring without any sense of irony in a New York Times op-ed noting the significance of Juneteenth, “Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party freed the slaves”—as if recognizing the role played by the slaves themselves somehow necessitates delegitimizing Lincoln’s role. This comes full circle with Confederate apologists, who sanitized the Civil War of slavery with pretzel-like logic to demonstrate how those who ended slavery did not intend to end slavery. Dissatisfied with viewing slavery merely as America’s original sin, the 1619 Project declares it to be its cornerstone—the very cornerstone the Confederacy claimed for itself. This in turn supports the Confederate argument that their rebellion, not the Union cause, was the rightful heir to the American Revolution. In short, the 1619 Project repudiates the entire historical context invoked by Martin Luther King to support his call for racial justice. It advances a version of history that would have helped the segregationists in their cause. Who needs Confederate apologists when we have the 1619 Project?
If there remains any doubt that this rewriting of history is nihilism cloaked as virtue, consider that the 1619 Project’s creator and lead writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, retweeted a New York Post column that decried the destruction of property and statues that included the nation’s founders; the piece was entitled, “Call them the 1619 riots,” and she declared in response, “It would be an honor.” In another social media thread, when she was asked about the propriety of toppling Grant’s monument in San Francisco—after all, the subject was “a man of his time”—she tweeted, “Hitler was a man of his time. Osama bin Laden was a man of his time,” an absurd statement and obscene comparison. She deleted the tweet but did not retract her indifference. In truth, such an attitude illustrates the difference between an ideology rooted in charity and one rooted in malice.
[Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up the series by looking at how the assault on America’s monuments has become an assault on America itself. Not only should the best of American traditions be defended, but we need to explore the addition of the monuments never built to mark Reconstruction.]
 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine, Aug. 18, 2019, at 20.