President Trump has expressed regret about the removal of commemorative monuments whose honorees are tainted by participation in slavery. While I respect his sentiment I find it inadequate, because the symbolism and function of historical statues are more complicated than either the president or the iconoclasts make it sound. I think the president could do good by addressing the controversy at greater length and with more complexity (even if it is entirely predictable that any attempt by him to do so will be met by distortion and snarky ridicule). If I could write a speech about monuments for the president, it might go something like this:
All good Americans—and almost all Americans are good people, I can tell you that—regard slavery as a stain on our national conscience that is painful to remember, not because we participated in it, but because it is an ugly part of our nation’s history . And of course the memory of slavery is most painful, and most infuriating, to those Americans whose ancestors were the people who suffered its abuses, and other abuses after slavery ended—our African-American brothers and sisters. The abuse that African-Americans suffered at the hands of their fellow Americans is a terrible fact that we must all keep before us as an enduring lesson, because it was wrong, it held us back, and it must never be repeated. We are all Americans together, all brothers and sisters, bound by common love of one another and our country. A wound to one American is a wound to all, and we must never forget that.
No American enjoying a public park should feel the sting of indignation provoked by reminders of unjust deeds displayed in public as if they were something to be proud of. If I knew of a way to make that occurrence simply impossible, I would do it immediately, and I think any other American would, too. But I feel serious misgivings about the cries to take down all the statues of Americans who were associated with slavery.
Let me be as clear as possible: I think we must have a national commitment to healing our wounds, and addressing the legitimate sense of indignation that many Americans feel when they pass by these monuments. Many communities have removed monuments, and while I acknowledge their right to make that decision, I think there are better ways to achieve the healing we need than the wholesale removal of all reminders of past injustice for which the loudest voices are calling. These ways would include the erection of new statues that celebrate the achievements of Americans who heroically opposed slavery and other injustices—men like Frederick Douglass, a truly great American who should be held up as an example for all of us today, and for our children and their children’s children for generations to come. He would have been a great president, Frederick Douglass, and it’s a pity he never had the chance, but it didn’t stop him from giving a lot to our country, and his statue should be everywhere.
But as for the movement to take down the old statues, which is so divisive right now, I oppose it for two reasons. The first is that the symbolism of these statues includes more than slavery.
If the people of the United States should ever decide that the author of the Declaration of Independence is unworthy of honor—and it will never happen, believe me—but if it did, it would cause rejoicing and laughter among all the tyrants and ideologues who believe that human beings have no rights to lose in the first place.
Americans should remember how important it was to our beloved President Lincoln to reunite and heal our country after the Civil War. Many of the Civil War memorials we see around us were erected in a spirit of national reconciliation, as a way of restoring the Union without imposing a permanent stigma of crime and humiliation upon the states and people that had rebelled and then been readmitted. In the year 1900 a section of Arlington National Cemetery was established for heroic war dead of the Confederacy, and many brave men were reinterred there, where they rest in the ground to this day. These memorials do not celebrate the unworthy cause for which these men died, and they avoid even hinting at it. They are monuments to the service and courage of soldiers, soldiers who were, among others things, the fathers and brothers and husbands and comrades of many Americans who were then alive. Many Americans alive today have ancestors who fought and died under General Robert E. Lee. We do well to honor this spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, for the time may come when we will need it, too.
A more important case is that of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and one of our founding fathers. This slaveholder was author of the Declaration of Independence, where he wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While it is regrettably true that in his lifetime Jefferson deprived human beings of freedom, it is also true that through his writings and statesmanship Jefferson helped give freedom to many, many more, of all races, including ourselves, and for that we are all in his debt. Americans must celebrate that legacy, and the great man who bequeathed it to us, because unless we do, we will be unable to preserve it for our children and grandchildren and future generations beyond.
On July 4, 1776, the freedoms and rights that Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were honored in only one place on earth, here, in the British colonies becoming reborn as the United States of America, our beloved country. And even today, those principles are despised in many corners of the globe: China, Cuba, Russia, North Korea, Syria, Iran . . . the list goes on and on. If the people of the United States should ever decide that the author of the Declaration of Independence is unworthy of honor—and it will never happen, believe me—but if it did, it would cause rejoicing and laughter among all the tyrants and ideologues who believe that human beings have no rights to lose in the first place. They would welcome our disavowal of Jefferson as a sign of surrender to their own low opinion of humanity.
I assure you, those who want to emulate the Chinese Red Guards and replace the ideals of Thomas Jefferson with those of Mao and Stalin are not pointing the way toward a better future for America, or for the world that looks to America for ideals and hope.
That brings me to the second reason for my opposition: the symbolism of the movement that wants to tear our statues down. This is not the first social movement of its type; they have occurred in many of the tyrannies I just mentioned. I assure you, those who want to emulate the Chinese Red Guards and replace the ideals of Thomas Jefferson with those of Mao and Stalin are not pointing the way toward a better future for America, or for the world that looks to America for ideals and hope. Their call for a cultural revolution in America isn’t about relieving the pain of memory, because the only pain they care about is the pain they are planning to inflict. But they won’t get the chance, I assure you, not while I’m president.
So I don’t think the wholesale removal of old monuments is the way to go. As I said in beginning, we must commit ourselves to relieving the burden that grieves and divides us, but we must do it in ways that promise the best chance of actual healing. Local communities have the right to decide what kind of art should adorn their public spaces—and in exercising that right they should be able to deliberate in civil discussions and without harassment by violent mobs.
But above all the American people must confront this challenge by deliberating together, with respect for one another and for the pains that history has dealt us in unequal measures. Because our common mission is to make a greater America for all our children and grandchildren. And with God’s help, we will.