The Statue Debate: How to Decide What Should Be Taken Down & What Shouldn’t

By Glenn Sacks

One can find negatives about practically any historical figure, even the most noble ones, and the statue debate has gotten bogged down in debating the weight of these negatives. Thomas Jefferson has been lumped in with Jefferson Davis, and George Washington has been lumped in with Confederate leaders—after all, they were all slaveholders, right?

This is the wrong framework for the debate. When considering a statue, the key question is this—“Was this person, in their time, historically progressive, or historically reactionary?”

Washington and Jefferson—in their time—were progressive figures. By contrast, confederate icons like Davis, Robert E. Lee, John C. Calhoun, and others fought to uphold a reactionary order—the domination of the plantation owners, what abolitionists of the time called “The Slave Power.”

Washington, Jefferson, and other founding fathers were flawed men, but also men of great vision and courage. It is crucial to remember that much of what they and the other founding fathers created hardly existed at that time. This includes:

  • Abolishing a state church and precluding any church role in government
  • Replacing a monarchy with an elected executive
  • Creating a government where an elected legislative body is designated the most powerful
  • Creation of a judiciary with the power to check the other branches of government

To help put this achievement in perspective, consider that even today 12 European countries still have the ridiculous spectacle of a monarchy, and four—including England—still possess the even sorrier phenomenon of a state church. Nine still have various versions of a state church tax. Americans should be proud that our founding fathers swept away all this nonsense 230+ years ago.

“You’ll Be Back”, King George’s mocking song from the musical Hamilton, humorously captures what many at the time thought—the American experiment was radical, unwise, and doomed to failure. The founders led this courageous step into a new world and largely succeeded, and we should continue to honor them for it.

Protesters’ attacks on statues of Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment—figures who played key roles in destroying slavery—are very unfortunate. How much of this is intentional but misguided—and how much is simply protesters’ ignorance—is debatable.

Other statues belong only in museums, and protesters have been correct to target Davis, Lee, Calhoun, and other symbols of the Confederacy. These figures were reactionary—they sought to block America’s march forward towards free soil and free labor. Their wealth and the wealth of those they protected was not created through innovation and technology, as was the wealth of the rising business class which dominated the North. It was instead wealth beaten out of slaves, little different from wealth in ancient times. That these reactionaries—the most destructive traitors in American history—are honored has no justification.

Monuments to Confederate soldiers—not leaders of the Confederate government or military officers, but the soldiers themselves—present a more complicated question. These men were duped (or sometimes coerced or forced) into joining the Confederate Army, and while the cause they fought for was vile, it is not inappropriate to pay respect to their bravery and sacrifice.

Many non-confederate targets are also problematic. Teddy Roosevelt’s statue in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has drawn controversy, and appropriately so. Roosevelt is not a progressive figure—he played a key role in America’s de facto colonial domination of the Caribbean and Central America. He was a champion of America’s war of annexation against Spain, where under the guise of fighting for freedom we made colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, and made Cuba into a semi-colony. Moreover, Roosevelt engineered the complicated, illegal scam to pry off a part of Colombia, form the nation of Panama, install a puppet government, and use Panama for our own purposes. Statues honoring him are misguided.

It is also appropriate to remove memorials to those who brutalized the indigenous population, such as President Andrew Jackson, who engineered the “Trail of Tears”, and explorer Christopher Columbus. While opposition to Columbus memorials is often seen as an outgrowth of modern “PC” culture, Columbus was condemned during his lifetime and taken back to Spain in chains to stand trial for his crimes.

The debate over statues has become a battle between those who agree with President Trump that all statues should remain where they are to honor the “Great American Heritage”, and those who want to tear down any statue which honors men with flaws. The statues should instead be considered on a case-by-case basis by asking a single question--“Did this man move us forward or hold us back?”