Thomas Jefferson. Christopher Columbus. Edward Colston. Robert E. Lee. Controversy has surrounded the statues of these historical figures and many more. What do statues mean? Should controversial statues be taken down?
This is a heated debate that has been ongoing in both the USA and UK for many years. After four years of controversy, the statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee has been taken down. In 2017, Charlottesville’s plans to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee led to a white supremacist rally ‘Unite the Right’ which ended in violence and deaths.
Are statues to remind us of history? To commemorate an individual’s achievements? To symbolise a political motive? Many people argued that confederate monuments were created to further white supremacy, as many were constructed during times of tension over civil rights, and should be taken down as they are ‘symbols of oppression.’ Others argued that statues ‘serve as a haunting reminder of where we’ve been, and won’t return’, and the statue of Lee is important ‘to remember he existed, remember his mistakes, and preserve that memory to avoid repeating it.’
It is easy to blame the faces of historical figures that we see in statues and monuments for the ills of our history. Robert E. Lee was, in fact, against slavery, but fought for the South because he was a Virginian. His military efforts were commendable, even though he was on the losing side of history. Controversy around his statue is understandable, but history cannot be easily divided into right and wrong. As Shapiro claims, Lee was a ‘very human figure’ and for that reason ‘people view him in different ways.’ However, the views that Lee was a total villain or a total hero are both short-sighted. He, like many other controversial statues, should instead be seen as a reminder of history, and a starting point for discussions over what the statue and the historical figure represent.
Despite the variety of opinion surrounding statues during the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ protest, many agreed that care must be taken to ensure that removing statues does not ‘spiral dangerously out of control’ and lead to the removal of monuments of Founding Fathers.
Fast forward four years, and this has all changed. In 2020 alone, almost 100 confederate monuments have been removed, and yet the hunger for watching a statue topple has not been satiated, and the precedent for removing controversial figures has been set. Last week, New York City Hall unanimously voted to remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson, which had its proud place in the hall since 1833. This is because, as a former member of the New York City Council put it, he was a ‘slave-owning paedophile.’
Thomas Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers. He was the third president of the USA, and authored The Declaration of Independence, where he famously wrote ‘all men are created equal’. In the original draft, he denounced the slave trade as a ‘cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberties’.
Despite this, Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime, and saw slavery as an ‘investment strategy’. He is also thought to have fathered six children by a sixteen-year-old slave. His emancipation efforts were minimal, leading to abolitionist Moncure Conway to remark that ‘Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.’
However, it is not flippant to say that Jefferson lived during a time where slavery was common, particularly in the Southern states. The commonality of Jefferson’s actions does not excuse him, but it does – in part – explain them. Many individuals at the time, including George Washington, condemned slavery. Thomas Jefferson was not without his faults. But that does not take away Jefferson’s achievements, nor his important role in the founding of the USA.
Jefferson is not the only historical figure to have their statue removed due to ties to slavery, and certainly will not be the last. In the UK, 84 controversial statues have been identified due to their ties to slavery and colonialism. In 2020, the statue of Edward Colston – who was a significant figure in the making of Bristol – was toppled into the harbour during a BLM protest, and many other statues followed a similar fate, such as the vandalism of the statue of Winston Churchill. In response, Boris Johnson claimed that ‘To tear [statues] down would be to lie about our history.’
The attempt to morally cleanse our society by removing statues of individuals whose actions are unacceptable by today’s standards is an unempathetic and misguided perspective on history. There is immorality and suffering in the foundations of every single country on Earth. As Rob Natelson argues when writing for The Hill, we should commemorate individuals who ‘performed extraordinary feats that, on balance, made the world a better place,’ and ‘if we disqualified all figures because we now reject their society’s practices, we would commemorate few people indeed.’
Current generations have the privilege of hindsight and information that enable us to condemn individuals who lived hundreds of years ago. However, just like our ancestors, we do not live in a perfectly moral society – nor can such a thing exist, literally or philosophically. Undoubtedly, there are practices in the present day that will be condemned in decades or centuries to come. It goes without saying that many individuals who accomplished commendable achievements also did condemnable things, including individuals today. Commemorating historical figures does not glorify their faults, but reminds us that humanity is imperfect; yet despite this, we can hope to achieve a fairer and better future.