Christopher Wren was England’s genius architect. He was born nearly 400 years ago, and he made London beautiful after the Great Fire destroyed most of the old city. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, his masterpiece, and his epitaph concludes, “If you seek his monument, look around you,” by which was meant all the places he’d left behind for those who came after him.
Today, if you seek our monuments, you’ll find many toppled.
Don’t misunderstand. I’ve never shared our national tolerance — even fondness — for the Confederate battle flag, created to be the emblem of an army that warred against the United States. I’ve never been able to fathom how Andrew Jackson got away with defying the Supreme Court’s ruling against his Indian policy, a defiance that culminated in the atrocity lamented as the Trail of Tears.
Across the ledger, as general and as president, Jackson defended the nation against the British in the War of 1812 and against South Carolina’s threatened secession over tariffs. He also championed the “common man” and supported extending the right to vote to all adult white males.
Today, we’d hardly consider a proposal to deny the vote to women and to men who aren’t white-skinned, an enlightened giant leap for representative democracy. But in a world where only kings voted, allowing men who owned property to vote had been a stride in the right direction. Removing that property requirement was truly progress in its day.
We need to evaluate history’s moments and characters by looking backward and forward. It’s proper to compare the past to where we are today, but it’s also needful to mark how far they came from their past.
None of this justifies or excuses slavery, nor is American guilt limited to the South. Northern textile manufacturers profited from plantation cotton, Northern shipowners profited from the slave trade and after the war, Northern states compelled Southern states to allow freed slaves to vote even while some Northern states denied the right to vote to their own Black residents.
Our Civil War was a war about slavery. Yes, Lincoln entered the war to preserve the Union, but when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he declared, “My whole soul is in it.” Yes, states’ rights was a factor. The founders carefully balanced the power allotted to the states and their new federal government and in the nation’s early years, states’ rights was cited by both North and South in debates over issues ranging from tariffs to free speech. It’s unfortunate that a legitimate constitutional principle was hijacked to justify slavery in the 19th century and segregation in the 20th.
The Confederacy’s real “Lost Cause” was slavery.
Still, it’s easy to understand generosity toward defeated Confederates. Those soldiers and officers were Americans, too, counted among the war’s 700,000 American casualties. Generosity is consistent with Grant’s surrender terms and his Appomattox declaration that “the war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.” Mercy lay at the heart of Mr. Lincoln’s call to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” his plea for “malice toward none,” “charity for all” and a “just and lasting peace among ourselves.”
That peace and mercy, however, was conditioned on his resolve to “finish the work we are in” — the restoration of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Monuments, whether statues or military bases, that glorify men whose prime contribution to the nation was armed insurrection in defense of slavery, and its descendant Jim Crow, are unseemly and insupportable.
I distinguish between those men and patriots like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, whose participation in slavery was a grievous fault but whose life’s work created the nation that did abolish slavery and today continues the struggle to fulfill its founding commitment to equality.
I’d add a general caution against excess zeal, however understandable that zeal may be. Some critics, for example, propose replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. They condemn its slave-owning author, Francis Scott Key, and the song’s forgotten, unsung third verse, which denounces runaway slaves who fought as British Royal Marines and helped defeat American forces at a critical battle.
The tune, which Key didn’t compose, was originally the anthem of an English gentlemen’s club, written in praise of love and wine, which is why Prohibition activists objected to making it our national song. As for Key’s culpability as a slaveholder, 19th-century composer Richard Wagner wrote remarkable music, including a wedding march. He was an avowed anti-Semite as well. Must we stop walking down the aisle to “Here Comes the Bride?” Must we stop driving Fords because Henry Ford shared Wagner’s virulent prejudice against Jews?
Germany dealt with its Nazi past by destroying and preserving. German law bans the swastika and anything that “approves of, glorifies or justifies” national socialism. A Holocaust museum rose where Gestapo headquarters once stood. Cobblestone “stumbling blocks” mark German streets, commemorating men, women and children deported to death camps from those houses and neighborhoods. In Poland, the railway gate to Auschwitz still remains as a silent reminder of iniquity and annihilation.
Let Confederate leaders’ images survive in museums as points of information, not of honor. Let Confederate soldiers’ monuments memorialize the appalling slaughter and sacrifice of Americans lost in defense of a great evil. Let Emmett Till’s plaque and the Sixteenth Street Church stand as tributes to generations victimized by bigotry. Let our national anthem inspire us to become the land of the truly free.
Righteousness is an incremental struggle. Deuteronomy enjoins us “not (to) forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
“Monument” comes from the Latin word for “remind.” Our monuments should help us celebrate our triumphs. They should compel our grief at our sins and failures.
But even more, we should seek monuments that remind us of the great gulf remaining between what we say we want to be and who we so far really are.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.