Some declared Bowser an anti-American Marxist who was trying to erase history; others complained that the report should count as an illegal contribution to President Trump’s reelection campaign. After a torrent of criticism, including from the White House, the Bowser administration removed the federal sites from the report’s recommendations Tuesday night.
But what about actual historians? Are those who have devoted their lives to the study of our slave-owning founders and their monuments similarly outraged?
In a word, no. Thanks largely to that third word: “Contextualize.”
“Contextualizing these monuments makes perfect sense,” said historian and Thomas Jefferson biographer Annette Gordon-Reed, in an email. “Removal, particularly of the Washington [Monument] and Jefferson Memorials, does not make sense, given the formative role they both played in the founding of the United States.”
“I see plenty of space for additions on or alongside the otherwise nondescript Washington Monument,” wrote historian Alexis Coe, author of a recent best-selling biography of the first president. “I welcome, with a standing ovation, any proposal that calls for an uniform evaluation of all monuments and holds them to a standard.”
The report also evaluated dozens of schools and government buildings named after other slave-owning presidents, including James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler, “Star Spangled Banner” songwriter Francis Scott Key and founder Benjamin Franklin. (Franklin enslaved people when he was a young man, though he became an outspoken abolitionist in his later years.)
Trump has repeatedly criticized the removal of Confederate statues, warning that those who want to take them down want to “erase our heritage” and wouldn’t stop at Confederate figures.
“So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?" he said in 2017, in response to the unrest in Charlottesville. “You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
The Washington Monument was first proposed a few days after the death of George Washington in 1799, though construction didn’t begin for nearly 50 years. At first privately funded, the original design included a rotunda and a huge statue of Washington standing in a chariot pulled by horses. But it had to be scaled back because of a lack of donations.
Funding ran out anyway, and the obelisk stood at 176 feet for years. Finally, in 1876, Congress approved spending to finish the 555-foot monument to celebrate the nation’s Centennial.
Even at the time of its groundbreaking, there were calls to “contextualize” it. An abolitionist newspaper sarcastically asked if any of Washington’s old slaves “will be there to assist in the ceremony?” And, indeed, the labor of enslaved people was used in its construction, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
In recent years, both Mount Vernon and Monticello, the historic homes of Washington and Jefferson, have added information about the enslaved people who labored there, though the information is not always greeted with enthusiasm by visitors.
Other structures in the capital city that have recently drawn controversy were also criticized by contemporaries, Coe pointed out.
Fencing now protects a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington’s Lincoln Park, after protesters called for its removal, saying its depiction of a Black man crouched before the Great Emancipator is offensive. But it isn’t just that modern opinions of it have changed; abolitionist Frederick Douglass called for contextualizing soon after it was unveiled in 1876.
“The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude,” he wrote in a letter to the editor. “What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man. There is room in Lincoln park for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”
Neither the mayor nor the committee had the authority to remove monuments on federal land. The committee suggested only that Bowser make recommendations about them to the federal government before that was yanked from the report.
But what about the argument that removing or changing monuments erases history?
“There’s a lot of good to come of arguing over what should and should not be commemorated,” said historian Seth Bruggeman, author of “Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument.” “It’s when that conversation stops, and a monument is left to stand in for the argument — when it begins to do the remembering for us — that we begin to lose sight of history.”
Gordon-Reed agreed. Washington and Jefferson “were at the very center of the American Revolution and the early Republic. Jefferson’s Declaration has inspired people all over the world. We’re not giving that up. There’s plenty of room, in both places, to talk about all aspects of their lives. That would be a healthy and good thing. Americans should be reminded of the reality of our origins — the good and the bad.”
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