We need to draw some fine distinctions here. Study the specifics of each individual to decide whether he or she is still worth honoring. The rule of thumb should be that those who contributed a great deal to the development of our country deserve to be recognized, however flawed they were as human beings.
The Founding Fathers easily pass the test. Jefferson, Washington and other Founders were slaveholders, but they also produced a Declaration of Independence that declared “all men are created equal.” The Constitution did not make good on that promise for far too long, but eventually it was amended and laws were passed to extend the blessings of liberty to all Americans.
Grant fought to defeat the Confederacy as a Union general and then, as president, he fought against the Ku Klux Klan. That far outweighs the fact that he briefly owned one slave whom he freed before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass said of Grant: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” Grant deserves to be honored more — not less. There are 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederate officers. All of them should be renamed — one of them for Grant.
So, too, should we continue to honor Theodore Roosevelt, even though, like most of his white contemporaries, he would be judged a racist today. He was not only a war hero, a great conservationist, a trust-buster and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, but also the first president to invite an African American — his friend Booker T. Washington — to dine at the White House.
I can see why the American Museum of Natural History in New York is taking down a statue of Roosevelt on horseback towering over a Native American man and an African man. As the president’s great-grandson said, “The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward.” But I am glad that the museum will continue to honor Roosevelt in other ways — and I hope a statue of TR by himself will be one of them.
Andrew Jackson is a harder case. He enhanced democracy for white Americans, but he was also a slave owner and he inflicted great suffering on Native Americans including on the Trail of Tears. We should stop honoring Jackson, but his statues should come down through the democratic process — not through the kind of mob action attempted Monday night near the White House.
Confederate leaders, by contrast, aren’t a close call at all. They were traitors who fought to preserve slavery. Whatever personal virtues they might have had are inconsequential compared with the evil that they did. Yes, Robert E. Lee was a brave man and a skilled general, but so was Erwin Rommel. Yet there are no statues of the World War II German general scattered around America — nor are U.S. Army bases named after him. Just as we should stop honoring Lee, so, too, should honors be denied to markedly inferior Confederate commanders such as Braxton Bragg and Henry Benning. There is no excuse for naming U.S. Army bases after these losers — to adopt one of Trump’s favorite insults.
Yet this is where Trump and much of the Republican Party have chosen to draw a line in the sand. In Tulsa, Trump complained that “the unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments.” “Our” history? “Our” monuments? Trump was born in New York, not New Orleans. New York fought for the Union.
That Trump has adopted the history of the Confederacy as his own makes obvious his real agenda. This isn’t about “preserving” or “remembering” history; we can keep alive the history of the Civil War without paying tribute to the losing side. If Trump truly wanted to honor our past, his Treasury Department would have replaced Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman.
This is about preserving white supremacy. Monuments to the “Lost Cause” were expressly erected to maintain support for segregation. As a towering Confederate monument in Augusta, Ga., puts it: “No nation rose so white and fair / none fell so pure of crime.” Communities that maintain such monuments are implicitly endorsing their white-power message.
When we celebrate Confederates, we do so because of their racism. By contrast, when we celebrate other great Americans, from Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt, we do so despite their racism. That’s a crucial distinction that should not be lost in the heat of the moment.