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The Rights and Wrongs of Taking Down Monuments

There is good reason to take down Confederate monuments. But rioting and vandalism are the wrong way to go about it.


Controversial statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Charlottesville, Virginia. (TOMP1/Billy Tompkins/Cover Images/Newscom)


The current debate over taking down Confederate monuments gives me a strong sense of deja vu. Most of the arguments on both sides are the same as those made when I last wrote about this issue in 2017. Indeed, many are the same as those made back in the 1870s, when Frederick Douglass condemned early efforts to honor Confederates on par with those who fought for the Union, and denounced what he called the "nauseating flatteries" of  Confederate  General Robert E. Lee, from which "it would seem . . . that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven."

Douglass was right back then, and he is still right now. There is good reason to take down Confederate monuments. At the same time, it is both wrong and counterproductive to do so by means of rioting and vandalism, as has happened in some places in recent weeks. Moreover, some of those who (rightly) advocate taking down Confederate statues themselves honor left-wing perpetrators of comparable or even greater atrocities.

I made a more detailed case for taking down Confederate monuments back in 2017. Here, I will just include a few key points:

The issue comes down to this simple proposition: the government should not honor people whose principal claim to fame is that they fought a bloody war in defense of the evil institution of slavery….

You don't have to take my word for the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause, or even the word of the overwhelming majority of Civil War historians. Take that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself, who unequivocally stated in 1861 that the cause of his state's secession was that "she had heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races." Or that of Davis's vice president, Alexander Stephens, who famously avowed that "slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution" and that protecting it was the "cornerstone" of the new Confederate government. Consider also the Southern states' official statements outlining their reasons for secession, which focus on slavery far more than any other issue….

[R]emoving Confederate monuments does not require any "whitewashing" of history. No one claims that we should erase the Confederacy and its leaders from the historical record. Far from it. We should certainly remember them and continue to study their history. We just should not honor them.

Robert E. Lee, whose statues are a focus of many monument controversies, was no exception to the pro-slavery nature of Confederate leaders. He was a staunch supporter of slavery who chose the Confederacy over the Union in large part for that very reason and denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as a "degradation worse than death."

Nor can the Confederates be defended on the ground that they were fighting for the "self-determination" of the people of the southern states—at least not if blacks count as part of the relevant people:

The Confederacy cannot even be justified on the theory that the majority of the people in any state or region have a right to secede for any reason they want. As John Stuart Mill pointed out at the time, southern secession lacked majority support in any state, once you recognize that blacks count as people too, and were a part of the relevant population whose consent secessionists had an obligation to secure. African-Americans were some 40% of the population of the seceding states; it's a safe bet that the overwhelming majority opposed secession. Between blacks and the substantial minority of southern whites who wanted to stay in the Union, it is likely that secessionists did not enjoy majority support in any state.

In a follow-up post, I criticized "slippery slope" arguments to the effect that taking down Confederate monuments would also justify taking down monuments to the Founding Fathers and any other historical figures who owned slaves or held racist views:

The [slippery slope] argument fails because there are obviously relevant distinctions that can be made between Washington and Jefferson on the one hand and Confederate leaders on the other.

One crucial distinction it misses is that few if any monuments to Washington, Jefferson and other slaveowning Founders were erected for the specific purpose of honoring their slaveholding. By contrast, the vast majority of monuments to Confederate leaders were erected to honor their service to the Confederacy, whose main reason for existing was to protect and extend slavery…

lT]he Founders deserve commemoration because their complicity in slavery was outweighed by other, more positive achievements, such as establishing the Constitution. By contrast, leading a war in defense of slavery was by far the most important historical legacy of Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders. If not for secession and [the] Civil War, few would remember them today.

Moreover, the slippery slope rationale for keeping Confederate monuments in place creates a slippery slope of its own:

If we should not remove monuments to perpetrators of evil for fear that it might lead to the removal of monuments to more worthy honorees, that implies that eastern European nations were wrong to remove monuments to communist mass murderers like Lenin and Stalin, and Germany and Italy were wrong to remove monuments to Nazi and Fascist leaders. After all, there is no telling where such removals might lead!…  [T]aking down German monuments to Hitler and Goebbels might lead to the removal of monuments to Immanuel Kant, who expressed racist sentiments in some of his writings. Getting rid of monuments to Lenin and Stalin might lead people to take down monuments to Picasso, who was also a communist. Where will it all stop?

The case for taking down Confederate monuments is strong. But it doesn't follow that rioting and vandalism are the right way to do it. When the monuments in question are privately owned, the vandals are violating the property rights and freedom of speech of the owners. In a free society, private individuals must have the right to put up such statues and images as they wish—even ones that express awful viewpoints, such as support for the Confederacy. When the statues are publicly owned, removing them by wanton destruction still usurps decision-making authority from the public.

The fact that pro-Confederate sentiments have become unpopular is not a reason to resort to mob rule to get rid of them. Those who think otherwise should recall that allowing mobs to suppress unpopular minorities has rarely worked out well for racial and ethnic minorities, including African-Americans.

Moreover, rioters and vandals are unlikely to limit their destructive activities to memorials whose removal is justified. In recent weeks, they have damaged or torn down such monuments as a statue of Ulysses S. Grant (the general who did more than any other military leader to defeat the Confederacy, and later sought to protect black rights as president) and the Boston Common memorial to the 54th Massachusetts, the African-American Civil War regiment made famous by the 1989 film Glory. Anyone who imagines that such actions somehow strike a blow against racism is seriously misguided—at best.

Removal of monuments by rioting and vandalism creates genuine slippery slope risks in a way that removal through peaceful persuasion generally does not. The latter works through the development of a relatively broad social consensus, which limits the influence of delusional extremists. By contrast, any small group of thugs with spray paint and power tools can tear down or deface a statue, no matter how ridiculous their reasons for doing so.

Even when vandals target monuments whose removal is justified, conducting the removal in this way is likely to be counterproductive. The point of removing Confederate monuments is not just to to get rid of the statues themselves, but to develop a strong social consensus that recognizes the wrongness of the Confederacy's cause. Removal through persuasion can help achieve that goal. Indeed, it has already taken major steps in that direction. The image of the Confederacy in popular culture today is vastly different from what it was several decades ago, even if there are still significant pockets of pro-Confederate sentiment out there.

Over the last several years, some 130 Confederate monuments were removed through peaceful means. The public debate accompanying these actions helped open people's eyes to the evils of slavery and racism, and the true nature of the Confederacy. By contrast, removal through rioting and vandalism does no such thing. In the eyes of anyone who doesn't already support removal, it just makes critics of honoring the Confederacy look like a bunch of hooligans and thugs. Wanton destruction is unlikely to persuade; if anything, it is more likely to discredit the cause and spark a backlash.

Finally, it's important to recognize that the moral standards that condemn Confederate monuments should be applied to monuments to left-wing perpetrators of historical atrocities, no less than those venerated by the right. Thus, if you support removing Confederate monuments (as you should!), you cannot simultaneously defend monuments to the likes of Vladimir Lenin or—worse still—put up new ones. Lenin was a brutal mass murderer who founded a regime that killed tens of millions of people and inspired similarly oppressive dictatorships in numerous other nations around the world.

I recognize there are close cases where it is hard to tell whether the good a historical figure did outweighs the evil by enough to justify honoring them with a monument. Such situations are unavoidable in a world where we cannot honor everyone, and there is room for legitimate disagreement about exactly where to draw the line. Communist and Confederate leaders are relatively easy cases, since the vast evil they perpetrated far outstrips the very small good. We should stop honoring such people. But that just end should be pursued by just means.

UPDATE: I should mention this excellent op ed on the same issue, by conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who reaches similar conclusions, but based on somewhat different reasoning.