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.

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This essay draws context from the Civil War and Reconstruction often overlooked in the national controversy over monuments, which, while long running, has become much more pronounced since 2020. Just as importantly, it reflects on what monuments are in the first place—how they merge history and citizenship—and the distinctive place they have in American society.

Self-respect Versus Counter Reconstruction

Two years after his retirement from the presidency and the end of military enforcement of Reconstruction that soon followed, Ulysses S. Grant lamented what he saw in the South. “They have not forgotten the war. . . . I do not see what the North can do that has not been done” to advance reconciliation between the two sections that recently fought the Civil War “unless we surrender the results of the war. I am afraid there is a large party in the North who would do that now.” He believed in going “as far as possible in conciliation, but not far enough to lose self-respect.”[1]

Grant was talking not about monuments, but about the unacceptability of allowing a persistent Southern resistance to deprive African Americans in the former Confederacy of their recently secured voting rights. That had been the final achievement of the trio of Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth, which respectively conferred emancipation, equal protection of the laws, and a prohibition on racial discrimination in voting rights. But the Counter Reconstruction resistance attained what history recorded as “Redemption.” The guarantees of equality unraveled despite relatively weak attempts by Grant’s Republican successors to salvage what they could until Congress’s failure to pass an 1890 federal elections bill. With the federal government’s abandonment complete, an emboldened South took a new offensive to impose Jim Crow by state law during the 1890s.

That is the period when the now controversial Confederate monuments began to proliferate throughout the South. In Richmond, Monument Avenue eventually looked the way it would have looked if the Confederacy had won, with its founding heroes lining the streets of its capital. The first to be dedicated was Gen. Robert E. Lee’s grand equestrian statue, in 1890. And the trend would continue, with Confederate monuments, the return of the Confederate flag as an active symbol of government, and Confederate holidays that sent the message about the new order throughout the South. Numerous states adopted the birthdays of Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis as public holidays, and one added that of Stonewall Jackson—which is one more state than ever did the same for Grant’s birthday.

During the early twentieth century, the devotees of the Myth of the Lost Cause and the related racialist Dunning School condemned Reconstruction for trying to confer equality on a race they held to be unworthy of it. W.E.B. DuBois observed the phenomenon in 1935: “Not a single great leader of the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction has escaped attack and libel. . . . We have been cajoling and flattering the South and slurring the North . . . .”[2] The country had lost a measure of its self-respect, and its symbols reflected this—both those that were up and those that were absent. During this period, monuments in the South honoring Reconstruction would have been unthinkable.

That observation goes to a critical lesson being lost in the debate that has been raging over Confederate monuments—a debate that has spilled into monuments generally. As a society, we should always think about what to affirm at least as much as we think about what to condemn. That means we should tread lightly in the removal of monuments from the public square, and we should not focus on which monuments deserve removal without also considering what should be in their place.

Monuments Merge History and Citizenship

To be clear, monuments are not unalloyed exercises in history. History should be a truthful recollection of the past, nothing more and nothing less. When history recounts the lives of individual people, every detail that provides helpful context should be included, but the historian still must differentiate between the fundamentals of a subject’s life and the incidentals. At a basic level, the fundamentals are usually clear. The fundamental importance of George Washington is what he did in his public career to help create the United States of America. It is not how he navigated eighteenth-century Virginia plantation life in general or the institution of slavery in particular, neither of which he significantly shaped or changed (although he did sign into law a reaffirmation of the Northwest Ordinance’s prohibition of slavery in the vast territory that would later become several states). Those details are necessary to provide the full context of his life, but they are incidental to why he deserves so much attention.

Freeze-frame any historical period, and it quickly becomes apparent that the era contains any number of serious problems waiting to be addressed. Even those who accomplished the greatest feats in the time they had were unable to solve them all. What is fundamental is what they did accomplish—how they moved the ball forward—not the list of existing evils they did not solve. Moreover, it is not unusual for leaders to perform great deeds in one area while exacerbating or even creating problems in another. Complete and balanced history shows humanity’s complexity and, when done judiciously, provides perspective as to what is fundamental and what is incidental. This is the stuff of historical debate—debate that is fraught with the perils of making value judgments that might reveal the limitations of the historian more than the subject.

Some write or study history. Others do not. Historians may or may not choose to judge their subjects. They are more likely to do so to the extent that their subject connects to the polity of which historians are citizens. Even assuming that historians, who after all are products of their own times, are correct in their value judgments, judging historical figures becomes more difficult the more mixed their public deeds are between the praiseworthy and the condemnable.

Memorialization, while inextricably linked to producing history, is a different exercise. In the context of public monuments, it is an exercise of our citizenship. That we belong to a polity means we are called upon to manifest our respect for the values that define our citizenship. Like the writing of history, memorialization has an obligation to truth, but unlike pure history, monuments avoid detachment and the distraction of incidentals because their purpose is to convey a broader point about the fundamentals. They are a hybrid of history, politics, and ultimately culture. They serve a variety of purposes, among them to identify pillars of our country and of culture more broadly.

Monuments to abstract ideals, often depicted in allegory, serve a purpose, but so do monuments to people. They are reminders that so much of what we value is the product of human agency, which typically entailed tremendous sacrifice.

The American tradition of monument-building therefore is not and should not be neutral. Put the Confederate aberration aside for a moment. Look at a list of monuments across the country today and notice that they collectively reflect a degree of complexity and nuance that can be summarized as our recognition of American pluralism and the competition of ideas. That includes a flexibility toward appreciating art that speaks in diverse idioms and was produced during different times. Champions of tolerance should be the first to understand this. America’s policy toward public sculpture is decidedly not the Taliban’s.

Mayor Bill de Blasio learned this the hard way in 2017 when he convened a commission for the purpose of finding objectionable monuments in New York City to remove. It soon became apparent that the commission was a really bad idea, and it closed out its work with the face-saving gesture of relocating a single statue.

Monuments to those who served at any level of American government have in common that their subjects helped create or took an oath to support the Constitution—and sometimes little else besides having attained stature in their time and place. Their creation was a political statement that the American experiment is worthy of respect, but they also required a degree of nonpartisanship and forbearance, not to mention the generosity of spirit that goes into a eulogy emphasizing the value of a life over its flaws. The most unblemished public life still presents at least footnotes worthy of criticism. In other cases, the fundamentals themselves can tug in different directions, as when Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights record is compared to his Vietnam War legacy. At a bare minimum, monuments make a statement that it is better to reserve a small space to focus on a public servant’s good than to keep our landscape purged of his or her memory altogether.

Member-named congressional office buildings and much of the statuary on Capitol Hill are the products of members deciding to put aside differences and memorialize recently departed colleagues from across the aisle. The president you consider our worst is (or, if alive, will be) sculpted in a public space. The same is true of any number of politicians, soldiers, writers, artists, and even representatives of religious denominations you disagree with. It is tempting to read too much into the government’s message in having such monuments until you realize that if all the statues came to life, they would have among them innumerable disagreements.

Many public statues in the United States are of people who had nothing to do with statecraft and in some cases were not even American. Not all sculpture in public spaces is designed to convey a message by the government, but when it does, it must reflect loyalty to the country and the core principles embodied in its law.

[1] 2 John Russell Young, Around the World with General Grant 360–61 (1879).

[2] W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction 723 (1935).