The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Historians question Trump’s choice of ‘heroes’ for national garden monument

At an event honoring the Fourth of July at the White House, President Trump spoke about plans to build a “National Garden of American Heroes.” (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Among the combative and unusual ways President Trump chose to celebrate Independence Day, some historians were particularly puzzled Saturday by his announcement for a new monument called the “National Garden of American Heroes” populated by a grab bag of historical figures chosen by his administration.

The garden, Trump explained in a Friday night speech at Mount Rushmore, was part of his response to the movement to remove Confederate statues and racially charged iconography across the country.

“Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” Trump said. “This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped.”

In response, Trump said he plans to build “a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.” Among the statues to be erected in the garden — spelled out in an executive order — are evangelical leader Billy Graham, 19th-century politician Henry Clay, frontiersman Davy Crockett, first lady Dolley Madison and conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.

“The choices vary from odd to probably inappropriate to provocative,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.

“It’s just so random. It’s like they threw a bunch of stuff on the wall and just went with whatever stuck,” said Karen Cox, a history professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, after struggling for several minutes to describe the order outlining the proposed monument. “Nothing about this suggests it’s thoughtful.”

Perhaps worse than the scattershot nature of the selected heroes is the apparent political motivations behind the monument, said Cox, who is writing a book on Confederate monuments. “It doesn’t address the reality on the ground, the real debate and turmoil going on in this country,” she said, including the anger and ongoing protests about systemic racism and inequality.

In his executive order, Trump rails against those who have pulled down or vandalized some statues as well as localities that have removed others. Several cities and states have decided not to honor the Confederate leaders who fought against the United States to preserve slavery.

“My administration will not abide an assault on our collective national memory,” Trump says in the order that stipulates that the garden should include “historically significant Americans.” Among them would be presidents, Founding Fathers, religious leaders and “opponents of national socialism or international socialism.”

“It seems like a pretty naked attempt to seize on a cultural conflict to distract from other issues,” said Grossman. He noted Trump’s executive order establishes a task force and gives it 60 days to submit a report detailing locations and options for building the new garden monument.

“There’s no rush here. The only real emergency is that there’s an election coming up,” Grossman said.

To hurry such work defeats the whole purpose of erecting statues, he said. Monuments are exercises in reflection, he said, a chance to plumb our collective memory and reflect on who we are as a country, what we value most and want to honor and pass down to future generations.

“For starters, you might want to consult different communities about who their heroes are and not just choose your own,” Grossman said. “You might also want to consult professionals, like actual historians.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday night.

Trump’s list of “heroes” includes five African Americans, but no Latino and Hispanic figures such as labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez.

While Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — well represented by existing monuments — and Republican heroes Ronald Reagan and Scalia made the cut, the list doesn’t include a single Democratic president such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson.

Adam Domby, a historian at the College of Charleston, noted the lack of any Native Americans on Trump’s list, even noncontroversial ones such as Sitting Bull or Sacagawea. The oversight is particularly galling, Domby said, given Trump announced it at Mount Rushmore — a monument that sits on land considered sacred to Native Americans and found by the Supreme Court to have been taken illegally from them.

At Mount Rushmore, Trump exploits social divisions, warns of ‘left-wing cultural revolution’ in dark speech ahead of Independence Day

One hero who made it onto Trump’s hero list, however, was frontiersman Daniel Boone, who fought Native Americans in wars and skirmishes throughout his life.

“This list they put together, it raises so many odd historical questions,” Domby said. “Why did they choose Gen. [George S.] Patton but not [Dwight D.] Eisenhower — because of the movie ‘Patton’? They include some African Americans, but only ones that might be considered ‘safe’ or ‘comfortable’ like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. Where’s W.E.B. Dubois? Where’s Malcolm X?”

One of the more puzzling selections is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union officer in the Civil War. Domby suspects Chamberlain was included because his character appears in the 1993 movie “Gettysburg,” or maybe perhaps because Chamberlain ordered his Union soldiers to come to attention and show respect to Confederate soldiers as they surrendered.

Other figures named in the executive order include: John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, Betsy Ross, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

The proposed monument drew derision from critics, who saw it as an attempt to capitalize politically on the divisive cultural debate over Confederate monuments.

“Trump, your Garden of Heroes is sleight of hand. You want to focus on monuments, but your policies have undermined voting rights, health care, immigrant justice & protections for the American people, esp poor & low wealth,” William Barber, a reverend and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said in a tweet.

If Trump believes so strongly in history, “how about a national monument to opponents of southern secession? And to abolitionists?” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Douglas Blackmon said on Twitter. “There are no Asian American heroes. Like Sadao Munemori who attacked two machine gun emplacements in Italy, then gave his life diving on a grenade to save his unit. He’s not a hero? Wrong color?”

“The tragedy is an undertaking like this could actually be a good idea if serious,” said Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University. “You could engage artists who are hurting for work right now. You could be innovative and really rethink the idea of what it means to memorialize things and how we do that. You could even break out of the whole classical/neoclassical forms we’ve been stuck in when it come statues. But I don’t think that’s what Trump has in mind.”

In the executive order, Trump says all statues will be lifelike or realistic, “not abstract or modernist representations.”

The order calls such statues “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.”

But that misunderstands the nature and function of such statues, said Cox, the historian in North Carolina. “Monuments are much more a reflection of those who put them up. They aren’t so much about the past as they are a reflection of our values and ideals in the present,” she said. “That’s why they’re often so problematic.”