The monuments wars, which have mostly focused on statues of Confederate leaders in the South, have come to New York. Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a 90-day review to identify “all statues and monuments that any way may suggest hate or division or racism.” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has said the statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle should be among those considered for removal, based on the “oppression” he brought to the native population of the Americas. Other targets include Ulysses S. Grant, who once issued an anti-Semitic order as general during the Civil War.
If there were right-wing infiltrators in New York’s city government trying to discredit the campaign against Confederate monuments, they couldn’t have come up with anything better.
There are times when the removal of public sculptures is appropriate and even laudable; the argument that such removal invariably amounts to erasure of history and Islamic State-style vandalism is nonsense. Few of the conservatives making such claims would apply them to Ukraine’s recently completed removal of monuments to Communist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.
In the case of Confederate monuments, there are several good arguments for taking them down. One, they honor men who took up arms against the United States, even if they were later pardoned. Two, those men fought to preserve an evil practice fundamentally at odds with this country’s founding ideals: the ownership of humans by others. Three, they were usually set up with the express purpose of promoting the myth of the Confederacy as a noble cause — and, worse, of affirming a very literal white supremacy.
Nonetheless, most Americans — in some polls, even a slight majority of African-Americans — believe the Confederate monuments should stay as symbols of history. It’s a contentious debate that stems from a painful part of our past: the betrayal of the newly freed black community after the Civil War for the sake of national reconciliation.
One of the more compelling arguments from the monuments’ defenders is that removing them will be a slippery slope: First Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, then George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners, and then others who don’t conform to modern standards of morality — even Abraham Lincoln, who voiced opinions that would be considered racist today.
The ill-considered monument review in New York seems almost tailor-made to show the slippery slope in action. The attack on Grant is particularly misguided. Yes, he did issue an infamous 1862 order expelling Jews from the territories under his command for the stated purpose of combating illegal cotton trade (which was countermanded by President Lincoln). Grant himself later repudiated it. As president, he became, in the words of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, the Jewish community’s “great friend in Washington.”
As for Columbus, he was a complicated man of his time, a great explorer who was also responsible for the deaths and enslavement of the native population. He lived in an era when all cultures, including those of the natives in the Americas, normalized cruelty and oppression to an extent we find shocking today. For better or worse, we are all part of the world he made.
The fate of Confederate statues should be decided by local authorities — with transfer to museums or historic parks probably the best options. Other historical monuments, with very rare exceptions, should be left alone. If we want to make amends for past injustice, let’s have more monuments to heroes who fought to extend justice to all. Thankfully, there is no shortage of candidates.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.