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 three identified the nihilistic ideology and false history behind the broad attack on monuments, and how the 1619 Project works against recognition of the milestones of equality that connect the founding to the Civil War and Reconstruction and, in turn, to the civil rights movement.
The New Confederates and the Civic Rot that Enables Them
It does not seem to occur to the many opinion leaders and public officials who either share the nihilism of the vandals or refuse to stand up to them that the assault on America’s monuments is an assault on America itself. It is a statement that we stand on no one’s shoulders; that we disregard past sacrifice; that there is no shared struggle that truly crosses the ancient lines of race, ethnicity, and religion this country has done so much to overcome. Not even the greatest sacrifice of life in the nation’s history, which Lincoln declared in his Second Inaugural Address was blood “drawn with the sword” paying for blood “drawn with the lash”—the month before Lincoln himself was murdered by an assassin enraged by his commitment to racial justice.
If you want to destroy a civilization, destroy its culture. If you want to erase its values, rewrite its history. If you knock down its pillars, expect the edifice to collapse. Notice that one of the most visible signs of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the taking down of statues of Lenin, just as the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square symbolically marked the end of his regime. The fallen Confederate monuments are to a regime that was rightfully defeated and never should have existed. If, heaven forbid, the American experiment were to come to an end, the toppling of whose monuments would most symbolize that if not those on the list of non-Confederate monuments being targeted? There is a reason that the nation’s most revered monuments are given a special level of security during terrorist attack watches. They are targets for terrorists who want to strike at America’s soul.
Today, of course, so many monuments are under attack not by foreign invasion, but by a new generation of confederates from within the country who consider America itself innately oppressive and therefore worthy of being taken down. In some cases, they have even emulated the Confederacy with demands for autonomous zones. Fifty years from now, it may well be that this moment will be remembered not as the beginning of the end of America but as a passing phase that many of the perpetrators will outgrow, regret, or find roundly repudiated—not unlike the sprees of destruction by radicals during the 1960s or by anarchists before that.
At a minimum, this moment can be considered a stress test of America’s civic health—and it is one that our country is failing. Miserably. During America’s bicentennial in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II, speaking as a descendant of George III, suggested that even Great Britain should celebrate July 4 “in sincere gratitude to the Founding Fathers” for “that great act in the cause of liberty performed in Independence Hall two hundred years ago.” Fewer and fewer American educators and opinion leaders are capable of the level of appreciation for this country possessed by the British monarch.
We are reaping the civic rot of a cultural elite that views America as a malignant force even as many of them draw taxpayer-funded succor from its success. We are paying the price for the failure of an educational system that replaces careful analysis with indoctrination. Remember: Monument creation and preservation is a hybrid exercise of history and citizenship. Both have been disintegrating because historical ignorance is rampant, and the formation of American citizenship is abandoned by our schools. The correct response to historical ignorance is to teach. The correct response to those who destroy is to prosecute. To sit back and condone both is a dereliction of duty. If this moment turns out to be more than a stress test—a foretelling of America’s demise—make no mistake about its cause: It would be death by suicide.
Perhaps it is only natural that so many public officials would reflect cultural deficiencies themselves, but most if not all of them know better. At every level of government, they take an oath to support the Constitution. At countless official functions, they pledge allegiance to the flag and express their basic loyalty to the country. But here they lack the backbone to live up to those stated commitments. They are not being asked to make a sacrifice even close to that made by the memorialized historical figures now under attack. Even if it is only a stress test, this moment speaks volumes about their unwillingness to defend America against a collapse from within.
One thing is predictable if this tide is not turned: More monuments will be vandalized. Expect the destruction to extend to irreplaceable historic structures, museum artifacts, and gravesites. If that happens, blame the vandals first and foremost, but also blame the public officials who kept looking the other way. They should consider themselves forewarned.
Too many seem to think that an empty mind is an open mind. To be sure, America’s tradition of free speech means that no private citizen can be compelled to express loyalty to the United States, its ideals, or anything else. That freedom is part of the American exceptionalism that the new confederates fail to appreciate. But they do have an obligation to follow the law, and this country has an obligation to foster citizenship rather than undermine it. The most important way to do this is by civic education, but monuments also have a critical role to play. Those who built America are gone, as we all will be some day, but our landscape should not be barren of reminders of who they were and the ideals they advanced.
Those who disagree can just look at the South, with a landscape that for so many generations was barren of monuments to those who advanced Reconstruction yet abundant with monuments to the Confederacy that stood in opposition to its basic ideals. Inextricably tied to the success of Counter Reconstruction and the proliferation of Confederate monuments is the fact that even half a century past the civil rights movement, so many Americans are unaware of Reconstruction. Now that there is a chance to recover the self-respect that was lost in allowing that state of affairs, a broader national self-loathing threatens to eclipse it.
The new confederates who wantonly target America’s heritage have attacked monuments that would never have stood if the Confederacy had won. Sure, they take the opposite position on white supremacy, but what the two have in common—disloyalty to the United States—is its own brand of ideological poison that would achieve some of what the old Confederacy never could. They fail to recognize a basic tenet of citizenship: The Confederacy deserved defeat. The United States does not. Many people who lack this ill intent are assenting to their demands when they should instead be standing against what they are doing.
A Truly Reconstructed America Must Preserve and Keep Building
It should outrage anyone concerned about racial justice that police and (for several months) a hastily installed fence were needed to protect one of the earliest post–Civil War monuments, the Emancipation Memorial featuring Lincoln, from being toppled by a mob. Like its copy in Boston, it could be removed anyway if previously introduced legislation were to become law. Sometimes known as the Freedmen’s Memorial, the statue was dedicated in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park in 1876. It depicts Lincoln standing with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation while a newly freed slave, barely clothed and wearing broken shackles, begins to rise from a half-kneeling position, his head held high. The freed slave’s position and scant clothing were an obvious reference to a widely known English eighteenth-century image that galvanized support for abolition, often accompanied by the inscription, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” (Benjamin Franklin remarked that “it may have an Effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet in procuring favour to those oppressed people.”) Moreover, the artist’s design might not have been entirely allegorical: When Lincoln arrived in Richmond shortly before his assassination, he was swarmed by people who had just been freed from slavery, reportedly including one who fell to his knees before Lincoln told him to kneel only to God.
The monument was paid for by former slaves, beginning with Charlotte Scott, who spearheaded fundraising with the first $5 she earned in freedom. It was unveiled by President Grant and dedicated in a keynote address, with much of the government in attendance, by Frederick Douglass. As with New York’s Theodore Roosevelt statue, however, context does not matter for those who deem it unsuitable for a public square. Neither does the sacrifice involved in producing such artwork. The mob that would take it down refuse to see anything but white supremacy. They are so monomaniacal in their outlook that it does not occur to them how happy actual white supremacists would be to see them succeed in removing a Lincoln statue from a park that bears his name. Of course, the argument against the statue is also fueled by the pseudo-history that insists on diminishing Lincoln’s role in emancipation. That rationale also posits that the voices of the freed slaves who actually lived the history and thought otherwise do not matter.
The most powerful of those voices is Douglass himself. His dedication speech commemorating Lincoln included the appeal to “build high his monuments . . . and let them endure forever!” A few days later, he wrote to a newspaper the following about the need for additional monuments:
The mere act of breaking the negro’s chains was the act of Abraham Lincoln, and is beautifully expressed in this monument. But the act by which the negro was made a citizen of the United States and invested with the elective franchise was pre-eminently the act of President U.S. Grant, and this is nowhere seen in the Lincoln monument. The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man. There is room in Lincoln park for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.
This expresses a view that is the opposite of nihilism—and, incidentally, a direct repudiation of recent efforts to delegitimize the accomplishments of Lincoln and Grant. It captures the gaping blind spot of the statue topplers: that instead of looking for reasons to tear down, we must add the monuments that are missing.
In this case, Douglass did not get his wish, at least not in the literal sense of a statue of a man. It would be nearly a century after the Emancipation Memorial that a monument to Mary McLeod Bethune appeared in Lincoln Park.
Now let us look forward. Why not add to the park the figure of a man, perhaps Douglass himself? Douglass also implied that he would like to see a monument to Grant reflecting the progress he advanced after Lincoln’s death. That never came to Lincoln Park. Tellingly, there is no public monument to Grant in the former Confederacy outside of battlefields, and there is no statue of Grant in any public square in America that shows him in the civilian dress of a president. That is just one reflection of how Counter Reconstruction sought to ensure that monuments honoring Reconstruction would never be.
The question we should be asking is: What can we do to reverse that? In a truly reconstructed nation, how should we honor those involved in America’s second founding? The question is not limited to the Reconstruction era’s preeminent leaders. Where are the monuments to the approximately 2,000 African-American public officials elected or appointed in the years following the Civil War? Start with South Carolina’s Joseph H. Rainey, the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose grave should be located and properly marked. Mississippi’s Hiram R. Revels, the first black U.S. senator, does has a grave marker, but no other monument, even though his portrait once hung in the homes of many African-American families.
Richmond, please don’t leave Monument Avenue empty. The city has an abundance of choices to replace the Confederates that were recently removed. In addition to the best-known national names, consider Virginians who fought for the Union and advanced the goals of Reconstruction. Here are two ideas: Gen. George H. Thomas, one of the Union’s best tacticians (and whose statue in D.C. was among those vandalized), and John Mercer Langston, the lawyer, educator, and diplomat who became Virginia’s first black congressman. Perhaps the three Reconstruction Amendments themselves can get monuments. The Fifteenth in particular would be a reminder of the value of the right to vote, as would monuments to those who were killed for exercising it. The U.S. Capitol, for its part, should add a statue or portrait of John A. Bingham, the principal author of the foundational first section of the Fourteenth Amendment.
This constructive aspect of America’s pressing questions surrounding monuments lags well behind the current zeal to remove them. Efforts have been few and largely recent, including a small marker dedicated in 2016 naming all who were killed during the Hamburg Massacre and the designation in 2017 of four historic locations in and near Beaufort County, South Carolina, as the first national monument dedicated to Reconstruction.
Hopefully, this is just the beginning of reversing what for so many years was a surrender to the Confederacy in symbolism. It is well past time for America to regain the self-respect lost when the Confederate cause was mythologized and Reconstruction demonized. Of course, there are also monuments that should be built to more recent subjects. Just don’t leave Reconstruction behind. That this effort must take place while there is an even more sweeping attack on America’s self-respect is unfortunate, but we must affirm our respect for America’s best traditions. To do otherwise is to disrespect the opportunities that this country has given to more historically marginalized people than any other. We must never surrender to the new confederates who deny this in order to marginalize America itself.
We were once the future generation for whom monuments were built. When it comes to those who were loyal to this country, we must protect what we have been given and envision the monuments waiting to be built. Next year will mark Grant’s 200th birthday. The nation’s 250th birthday is five years away. Don’t disrespect those milestones by toppling their monuments. Bring them back and then add more. We must get to work. Future generations will be watching.
 An actual freed slave, Archer Alexander, may have been the model for the one in the statue according to tradition, the accuracy of which is unclear. Id. at 116-17 (1997); Harold Holzer, Emancipating Lincoln 158 (2012).
 Observed in a personal visit to Georgetown, South Carolina, in 2016 and confirmed in 7/1/2020 and 12/12/2020 conversations with Mary Boyd, a researcher at the Georgetown County Museum. Rainey does have a portrait in the Capitol, and for the 150th anniversary of his December 1870 swearing in, a special exhibit and a room named for him.