THIS COUNTRY’S history has long been an object of pride for most Americans, who have embraced its indisputable achievements while acknowledging but not dwelling on its failures to live up to its own ideals. The Confederacy is among the few deeply divisive historical chapters, regarded with revulsion by most Northerners and with gauzy nostalgia by some Southerners, who tended to whitewash its purpose as a means to preserve slavery and play down its enduring symbols, especially its flag, as folkloric artifacts.
The church shooting this year in Charleston, S.C., by a suspected killer who posed with the Confederate battle flag triggered a backlash against the banner, including in the South, where it has been removed from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds and other public places.
That was a courageous and correct decision, and it leads to further questions: Which other reminders of the Confederacy, or of slavery’s pernicious legacy, also need to go? Should Jefferson Davis Highway, which doubles as U.S. Route 1 in Virginia from the Potomac River to the North Carolina border, be stripped of the Confederate president’s name? Should Fairfax County’s J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee high schools, or the streets of Alexandria, be rechristened because their namesakes were Confederate military heroes?
And what of the statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney at Maryland’s statehouse in Annapolis, or his bust at city hall in Frederick , about 50 miles northwest of the District? Should they be removed in recognition of his contemptible opinion in the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott case, which enshrined slavery and racism and denied citizenship to blacks by arguing that the framers regarded them as an “inferior” race?
A growing movement is afoot to throw all those names in the scrap heap, along with those of slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson and Indian abusers such as Andrew Jackson, for whom annual Democratic Party state fundraising dinners are named. (Iowa’s Democratic Party has already voted to rename its dinner.) Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wondered sarcastically whether the name of George Washington, another slaveowner, would be the next target of those who would cleanse the nation’s history in the name of political correctness.
There’s value in historical introspection. History is complex; the more that Americans delve into that complexity, the better. No doubt, it’s hard knowing precisely where to draw the line between irredeemably offensive historical symbols (such as the Confederate flag) and those whose legacy is politely termed “mixed.”
Yet it’s a dangerous business to airbrush the past, a practice more characteristic of totalitarian societies than free ones. President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation through the trials of World War II; he also forced tens of thousands of American citizens into internment camps because of their Japanese heritage. Should his name be erased from public places and institutions? No.
It’s wiser to learn from history and provide its context than to banish it. In Frederick, in 2008, city officials placed a bronze plaque steps from Taney’s bust, acknowledging that the chief justice, who also served as attorney general and treasury secretary, had “revealed the content of established racism” by his Dred Scott opinion.
That seems to us to be moving in the right direction. Leave the bust; provide some context; teach the history.
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