It’s difficult to evoke much concern for the removal of statues of slavery advocates from public property, but the historical revisionism hasn’t stopped there, of course. As the removals have devolved from a policy debate to a mob activity, they’ve engulfed morally sketchy politicians, debatable public figures and, inevitably, people about whom the mob seems to have serious misconceptions. Given that bronze and stone replicas of fallible human beings seem incapable of serving any unifying purpose for people forced to pay taxes to erect them, it’s time to get government out of the monument business. From now on, let private groups celebrate their fandom on their own dime, and on their own property.
First, the statue-removal brigade came after the usual Confederate suspects, for the obvious reason that the secessionists of the time were primarily motivated by the desire to continue owning other human beings. That’s understandable—African-Americans have every reason to resent passing public property for which their tax dollars paid only to see a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who not only fought in defense of slavery, but as his next trick served as the first head of the Ku Klux Klan. Much the same can be said of monuments to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.
But in an age that’s reconsidering race relations and the legacy of slavery, it can be difficult to know where to stop the revisionism. The presidency was dominated in the country’s early years by aristocratic southern slaveholders. That makes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fair game in the eyes of the mob. Owning slaves isn’t all they did by far, as the history books still point out, but they certainly were guilty of that sin.
Then, there’s Ulysses S. Grant, who owned a slave (given to Grant as a gift) for a year. Grant later led Union forces to victory over the pro-slavery Confederacy, and presided over an administration of Reconstruction that gets more credit now than in the past.
It gets even foggier after that. Abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier was targeted by protesters who obviously had no idea who he was.
So was Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish writer who, far from being an oppressor, was himself a slave.
What all of these statues had in common is that they offended members of the public at a time when everything is up for grabs and Americans agree on exactly nothing, including the proper balance of virtues and flaws in fallible human beings. The majority of statues torn down were erected at taxpayers’ expense, maintained on land paid for with money extracted from everybody’s pockets, and offended (rightly or wrongly) people who resent being represented by them.
Less controversial has been the decision by the American Museum of Natural History to remove a statue of Teddy Roosevelt from its front entrance. While the statue is officially on public land, it clearly is intended as part of the museum and is seen as such. The museum is a private entity and is no longer comfortable with the way the statue represents the organization—a decision it has the right to make.
Much the same is true of the statue in Seattle of Vladimir Lenin, the communist dictator of the Soviet Union. While Lenin was a totalitarian and a thug, the statue is located (hilariously, given the subject’s militant socialism) on private property, leaving its fate in the hands of its owners.
And that, in an age in which there are few shared values or heroes, is the best way to deal with monuments. We no longer agree—if we ever did—on which qualities should be celebrated and what failings should be overlooked. We’re increasingly vocal about such disagreements, to the point that people are willing to tear down statues that offend them, and any future images are bound to cause more offense.
A statue on private property, erected with funds only from supporters, dragoons no unwilling parties into the message it expresses. Nobody need feel that they’re being forced to share in the celebration of people or ideals they oppose. A private construction can be left up as long as it pleases the owners or pulled down at their whim. And anybody who damages or destroys the monument without permission is an obvious vandal, subject to appropriate punishment.
Personally, I might raise a statue to Daniel Shays, after whom the tax revolt was named, or to James McFarlane, a leader of the Whiskey Rebellion, or to Henry David Thoreau, jailed for an act of civil disobedience in opposition to slavery, war and overbearing government, or to Harriet Tubman, who put her own life on the line to free the oppressed, or to William McCoy, the Prohibition-sabotaging bootlegger who inspired the term “the real McCoy.” There are plenty of candidates whose actions I might want to commemorate—though I imagine all would rub other people the wrong way for what they did or because of flaws seen as countering their accomplishments.
People who disagree with me should, in turn, be free to erect monuments that offend me and my friends—at their own expense, of course. If I don’t have to pay for it, it’s no concern of mine how they choose to share their messages.
If the confinement of monument construction to a private activity sounds like we’re giving up on the idea that we have much in common to celebrate, that’s probably true. But agreements of the past were overstated anyway. African-Americans didn’t just recently start resenting paying for statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest—they’ve had reason to loathe him from the beginning.
Now, the old disagreements are just more visible than ever and new ones set us ever-further at odds.
To give us less reason to fight, make all statues private projects, to be erected and maintained at the expense of the willing. Private funding of monuments won’t eliminate our disagreements, but it should help keep the resulting conflicts out of the streets.