Historians Weigh In On The Confederate Statue Debate: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Allen Guelzo, Ph.D and Edward O'Donnell, Ph.D.

Recent events have sparked a national debate on how we should deal with Confederate statues commemorating controversial figures. These are tough questions with no easy answers.

Historians are often as divided as the general population on this topic. In this Torch episode, history professors Edward O’Donnell from College of the Holy Cross and Allen Guelzo from Gettysburg College move us through historical context, varying ideologies, and discussions of possible outcomes and solutions.

Confederate Statue of Robert E. Lee Statue, Lee Park Charlotesville, VA.
Robert E. Lee Statue, Lee Park Charlotesville, VA.


The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

Historical Context of Confederate Statues

The Great Courses: Since there’s a lot of debate going on now in the country about the status of Confederate statues, we thought it would be interesting to talk to you both about some of the historical background of these statues. So, can you just give us an overview of how cities ended up erecting Confederate statues after the Civil War?

Allen Guelzo: Right. That is a very, very big question, simply because there are so many statues that are erected in the post-Civil War years in so many different places serving so many different interests. Sometimes they’re very specific. They’re about an individual. They’re about an event. Sometimes, they’re very generic.

At that point, the whole idea of what particular individual it represents starts to get very vague it becomes a mass-produced thing, at which point specific means start to get very hard to pin on things. You’re looking at monumentation and memorialization which is going all across the country. It is very hard to start isolating one or two or three specific things or purposes these monuments are supposed to serve.

Ed O’Donnell: That’s true to a large extent, but also, I think sometimes if we look at the timeline, we can learn a little bit more about what these monuments meant. You see conflicting numbers, but there seem to be about 1,500 Confederate monuments of some sort, statues and memorials, throughout the country. The vast majority of them were erected between 1890 and 1930, and so that means that the real building project of them doesn’t begin until fully 25 years after the end of the war.

Learn More: Early Civil Rights: Washington or Du Bois?

When you look not just at Confederate monuments but people who study monuments and study historical commemoration always point out one really pretty consistent truth, which is that monuments don’t tell us much about the thing they’re trying to tell us about. They tell us much, much more about the period that they went up in, that they were created in, and the people that created them.

The question there, is what’s happening in the 1890s, the early 20th century that prompts people mostly in the South, but not exclusively in the South, to start putting up hundreds and hundreds of these monuments all across the South, some of them generic but some of them quite specific?

Often, statues reflect the time period in which they were erected, more than the statue itself. Click To Tweet

Allen Guelzo: You look at that period, 1890 to let’s say 1930, and the first thing that springs to mind of course is Jim Crow. There is a sense in which a lot of these monuments really are about white supremacy. They’re about making statements about who is in charge in the South.

At the same time, in looking at that time frame, you’re realizing that there’s two other things at work here as well. That is, the 1890s are the time when the South economically is starting to finally recover from the economic impact of the Civil War, which is to say that between 1865 and 1890, there’s not a lot of monument-building because they can’t afford it.

Learn More: 1865: Bind up the Nation’s Wounds

They’ve been ruined economically. Monuments are expensive. They don’t pay dividends to people. They don’t produce anything.

The other thing is that between the 1890s and 1930, this is when the generation of those who had been in the Confederate Army is starting to die off. They’re reaching points in their own personal life trajectory where perhaps they’ve accumulated assets. They can now make contributions. They want to erect monuments to their youth.

In some cases, these are people who are also doing this because they came back from the war, those who actually did manage to come back. They came back maimed, or disinherited, or psychologically mauled, and in a way what they’re doing is they’re putting up monuments as last hoorahs to their own youth.

Or in the case of Robert E. Lee, to someone who was their long-dead commander, but it really is to themselves and what they went through, years and years, in some cases half a century before. Again you’re dealing with the multiplicity of meanings.

The statue of a civil war soldier.
Civil War monument

Nostalgia or Supremacy?

The Great Courses: Absolutely. There’s an additional multiplicity in the role of just public statuary art in general, because as Ed pointed out, you have the meaning that’s captured by the content of the statue, or you have the meaning that’s captured by the moment in which it was erected, but you also have the meaning in its persistence and current culture, which is I think part of what we’re grappling with now. What does it mean for a public statue not just to be erected but to be maintained within a public space?

What does it mean for these statues to be maintained in our public spaces? Click To Tweet

Ed O’Donnell: There’s a certain endorsement. Most of these are monuments in public spaces, many of them with at least a bit of public financing or that public land has been provided to them.

Another thing to think about is, when we talk about Southerners, it’s quite common when you refer to Southerners that it just means white people in the South. If you’re in a state like South Carolina or Virginia, in many places, African-Americans before the Civil War, after the Civil War, in 1890 are if not a majority of the population, near a majority, a substantial percentage.

These are symbols of a particular version of the Civil War, a particular memory of a certain subset of Southerners in the Civil War, but very much not part of the memory and the meaning of the war that African-Americans would have for it. It’s a much more complex situation than we sometimes realize.

Then when we think about the context of Jim Crow, in some ways, some of these monuments perhaps did go up as just general statements of loss and mourning and sentimentalism and nostalgia, but in many cases they go up as explicit monuments to white supremacy, using the words white supremacy in the text of the monument, such as in the one that was removed from downtown New Orleans.

In some cases, it’s hard to disentangle this, but clearly these monuments go up as symbols not just of memory of the war but also of the restoration of some kind of society that somewhat looks like the pre-Civil War period, where African-Americans have almost no power whatsoever, and are living in great poverty, and in fear of retribution if they try to exercise any of the rights that they won at the end of the Civil War.

Allen Guelzo: Let me give you an even stranger case, and that is the Lee monument on the Gettysburg battlefield. It’s not strictly speaking a monument to Robert E. Lee, although he is the main figure on the top of it. It’s really the Virginia State Monument.

The inscription at the bottom is, “To Virginia’s sons.” I haven’t got the words exactly, but it’s to the sons of Virginia, those who were from Virginia and fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was erected in 1917, and there were an interesting set of speeches that were given. One speech came on behalf of the federal government, and it as all about, “These were brave men and we’re honoring brave men.”

Then there was a Confederate veteran named Lee Richmond who gave an address that was all about white supremacy and the Lost Cause. At that point you stand back and you say, “Okay, which one is it, or are both trying to impose a meaning on this statue?”

The Virginia memorial statue at Gettysburg battlefield
The Virginia memorial statue at Gettysburg battlefield

Today, do these meanings get down from their pedestals and walk around anymore? There are monuments, and then there are memorials. Even though there’s a big overlap between the two, over time, monuments are not steady in their meanings. Sometimes the meanings die off. Sometimes a monument, sometimes a statue is just there, and people walk past it and say, “What is that?” Sometimes it’s really not much more than a roost for pigeons.

Learn More: Remembering the War

When you play the thing out over time, when you play it out over location, when you play it out over the contestation of meanings, then suddenly the whole business gets very messy, and it’s not nearly so straightforward as people would like to say when you put it to a binary situation where it’s take it down, it’s evil, keep it up, it’s our life’s blood. No, it’s really neither one nor the other. Each of these monuments acquires and loses stories over time.

Memorial vs. Monument in the Confederate Statue Debate

The Great Courses: Can I ask you, Allen, to tease out a little bit about the difference that you see between memorial and monument?

Allen Guelzo: Monument is, generally speaking, something that you put up as a statement about who is or who is supposed to be in charge, or what those in charge are supposed to be like. I think that captures monuments.

Memorials are simply remembrances that something happened to these people in this place. They’re not really statements about power.

The problem is that the line between memorials and monuments isn’t really all that clear and distinct. The Lee monument in Charlottesville, that went up in 1924, so that’s what has some people saying, “This is the apex of white supremacy in the South, and therefore it’s teaching people about white supremacy.”

I suspect that partly that’s true, but at the same time, the meanings shift over time. Monument has a way of fading into memorial, and sometimes memorial has a way of feeding into simply being a marker. I come back to the Union monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield. Most of these were put up in the 1880s and the 1890s, about the same time as the Confederate statues we’ve been talking about, and those were really put up as monuments.

Statue of Union Calvary Soldier at Gettysburg ca. 1890
Statue of Union Calvary Soldier at Gettysburg ca. 1890

They were making statements about the justice and the rightness and the pureness of the Union cause, but as the generation that had actually done the fighting fades away, the monuments gradually became more in the nature of memorials. People talked about them as symbols of national sacrifice.

Today, people wandering around the Gettysburg battlefield and the monuments are really, I think for the most part, for most people, they are markers of where military units stood. There’s not really a lot in the way of reflection of either monument or memorial. That is what time tends to do to these things.

Ed O’Donnell: Time also gives us different perspectives on history, too. Part of the whole point about whether or not a Lee memorial was erected as a symbol of white supremacy or fondness for remembering what happened during the Civil War, there are a lot of people that look at that memorial today and say, “Americans have been taught for more than a century that the Civil War was about states’ rights and about honor, and had essentially nothing to do with slavery.”

I think decades now on of revisiting that question, historians, certainly it would be hard to say exactly the number, but a great majority of American historians, particularly those who study the Civil War period, certainly rank slavery as a primary cause of disunion and civil war. Southerners themselves, including the Ordinances of Secession in many of the Confederate states, said their number one reason for leaving the Union was to protect slavery.

When someone looks at Robert E. Lee, they say, “A, he fought for a cause that was fundamentally designed to destroy the Union. He fought for a cause that was fundamentally designed to protect and perpetuate and even expand slavery on into an endless future.” There’s a question about whether or not it’s appropriate to honor somebody like that now, regardless of the motivation that went into putting his statue up.

We see this internationally. In South Africa, they’ve taken down many, many of the memorials to the white colonizers that were the forerunners of the apartheid regime. There’s a time in which, as each era evolves, where people look differently at things because of our changed understanding of history and our deepening understanding of history.

A Possible Solution for Confederate Statues

Allen Guelzo: I think I’d be a little happier at seeing some of these removals take place if it really was proceeding according to a pattern, according to the kind of thought-out process that Ed is describing. What I’m afraid of in the current environment is that in fact it’s not really a lot of thought. What is happening in many places is really a kind of iconoclasm. There’s a big difference between a thoughtful reflection on history and iconoclasm. Iconoclasm’s about image smashing. It’s about establishing one’s own sense of moral purity in the present as opposed to an impure past.

Iconoclasm is irreversible and often, doesn't age well. Allen Guelzo, Ph.D. Click To Tweet

I have two real big problems with iconoclasm. One is that you can’t reverse it. Once you’ve smashed things, they’re gone. The English Reformation is an example this way. The Tate Gallery … The U.K. probably lost about 90% of its religious art during the Reformation. Is that something that we look back on now with a lot of pride? That’s the other question, too. That is, iconoclasm feels really good at the moment, but generally it doesn’t age well.

The problem we are facing today is, how do we understand monuments and memorials without it turning into a kind of cultural iconoclasm which, in a fairly short period of time, we’re very likely to regret?

Ed O’Donnell: That raises some of the interesting options that some people have come up with. One is to tear them down like they did in Durham not long ago. The other is to carefully remove them and then put them in a warehouse and think, like in Baltimore and other places, “What are we actually going to do with these in the future?” Some answers to that are to put them into a current museum or actually to build a museum of Confederate memorials and monuments, so that people can go and learn about them but not have quite so many of them in the public square.

Sojourner Truth - In the Debate About Confederate Statues
Sojourner Truth, African-American Abolitionist ca. 1870

Another interesting option is to build competing or complementing narrative memorials. Leave the Lee memorial up there, but put a Sojourner Truth memorial there, or something along those lines where they can be in conversation, and also put a new interpretive text next to the Lee monument that explains the context in which it went up.

There’s a lot of debate about that, whether that actually accomplishes what it seems like it might accomplish. Would people actually pay attention to the competing memorials or the revised texts? It’s an interesting question, and all of those options are better options in many ways than simply smashing memorials, because as you point out, Allen, that’s an irreversible and often regrettable decision.

Allen Guelzo: It’s curious to say this, but sometimes ignorance can be a good tonic. I don’t mean ignorance in the sense of never having learned anything. I mean ignorance in the sense of monuments or locations or statues that have simply lost whatever sting they might have had.

The Great Courses: One needs to, though, be in a position where you can afford ignorance. There’s certainly a sense in which, for instance, the African-American population in the South has no interest in receding into ignorance about some of the meanings of these statues, There are, in the South, the slave market in Charleston, South Carolina now has a current use, and there are spaces that have moved on, but it seems like in the South now that there’s something asking to be acknowledged that hasn’t been yet.

Ed O’Donnell:  Right. The slave mart in Charleston, South Carolina is a great example. If you went to South Carolina 10 years ago, you had to ask where to find it. It was tiny, underfunded, and almost consciously destroyed many times, but it was saved, and then that was growing recognition, a little more funding, but it still has to compete with all the mint juleps and happy times theme of a lot of that Antebellum tourism that they sell there quite vigorously in Charleston.

Ida B. Wells for the confederate statues Debate
Ida B. Wells, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

I think you’re right. I think there’s a desire for stories that have been suppressed and stories that haven’t been told to be told, and stories of people who suffered under these regimes and also people who courageously resisted, somebody like Ida B. Wells, just one of the most extraordinary figures in the American history, who does receive a lot of attention in schoolbooks but not a whole lot on the landscape. That’s a story of a Southern woman who exhibited incredible courage in the midst of essentially a several decades-long reign of terror of lynching across the South. It really made a mark in that effort.

I think there’s a lot more work to be done not just with monuments but just with spreading a more up-to-date and more inclusive understanding of American history so that when we say the word Southerner, we don’t just think white Southerners, because African-Americans make up a big portion of the Southern population, and their story needs to be told just like anybody else’s.

Allen Guelzo: Using the term Southerner itself as a generic term to refer to anyone who lives south of the Mason-Dixon line, that’s also got difficulties, because what’s a Southerner? When Southerners want to talk to me about their heritage, I scratch my head and I think, “Heritage? What exactly do you mean?” Because there’s more than a few souths, so whose heritage are we talking about? I think Kentucky is considered the south. It never joined the Confederacy.

Ed O’Donnell: Yet it has 56 Confederate memorials on public property.

Allen Guelzo: Yeah, exactly. Tennessee did join the Confederacy, but eastern Tennessee, resolutely Unionist. Missouri was a slave state. So was Delaware. Are they in the same category as Alabama or Louisiana? Is Louisiana in the same category as Florida? Whose heritage?

That even extends to Confederate emblems. Which Confederate emblems, the Confederate flag? All right, which Confederate flag? That Virginia monument at Gettysburg has a flag on display, but it’s not a Confederate flag. It’s the Virginia state flag. By the way, it’s the same Virginia state flag as flies over the Virginia state capitol today.

Again, you’re back to trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle and get things into a complete definition, and they don’t yield very easily to the convenient definitions.

Ed O’Donnell: Right, but even those flags are also interesting, because they’re part of that story as well.  Look at a state like Virginia or Georgia. Many of them, you go back and look at the history of those state flags, they added what we could call the Confederate flag as part of their state flag. That was not in 1870, 1890, 1910.

It was 1948, ’49, ’54, because that’s when the civil rights movement was gaining traction and it was becoming a national political issue about endorsing civil rights. It was a way of putting a marker down and saying, “Over our dead bodies.” Even those flags are freighted with a history that’s worth knowing.

In terms of memorials, one of the most exciting projects going on right now, which people might want to look into, is the Equal Justice Institute, which is an institute that does many things involving civil rights, and incarceration, and so forth, but one of the projects they started years ago was to document every single known lynching that took place in America from the end of the Civil War up to the 1960s. That research has revealed many, many hundreds more, if not a few thousand more, numbers than people previously believed. That’s one aspect of that research.

The other aspect is that they are going to build a national monument, a national memorial to lynching, something that would have been unthinkable 20, 30, 40, certainly 100 years ago. Other less tidy, less nostalgic aspects of our history are being told, and that’s for the good.

History’s not supposed to be a photo album. History’s supposed to include the good as well as the uncomfortable, the triumphs and also the mistakes. I think in other parts of our public sphere, we’re seeing some very interesting projects occurring that are all linked to the present. The Equal Justice Institute is pursuing this historical project, but they’re really concerned also about current-day injustice.

History is supposed to include the triumphs as well as the mistakes. Click To Tweet

Allen Guelzo: There are injustices that have been swept behind curtains, and which have to be memorialized if we want to talk about a realistic history. The suffering, loss, robbery, the indignity of neglect, these are all parts of our history as well.

In remembering those parts of it, we’re adding a dimension of humanity to how we understand ourselves. History is not simply a matter of discovering who was virtuous and who was perfect. It’s also a matter of discovering that, humanely speaking, we are full of people who made mistakes. We are full, in our history, of people who took wrong turns.

We’re full of moments when unspeakable things were done. We have to remember those, because it’s only by remembering them that we actually gain the impetus to do the things that really are virtuous and right and noble. Sometimes we need what has happened in terms of evil to be there to remind us about how absolutely important it is to do the good, and how little we can expect the good to happen automatically.

Ed O’Donnell: I would add to that also that not only just remembering what happened in the past, but also seeing how what happened in the past is directly connected to the world that we live in today. It explains a lot of the conditions that certain people live in, some of the opportunities people live in.

The place that I always turn is to a great quotation by James Baldwin. I’ve used this quotation many times. He said, “History does not refer merely or even principally to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within itself, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

American Writer - Confederate Statue Compromises
James Baldwin, American writer and social critic c.1929

I think that’s a really important thing, and a good argument along with what Allen just said, about why history does matter. It’s not just fascinating, interesting stories. It actually has real power and real meaning in our current circumstances. If we want to understand poverty, if we want to understand injustice, if we want to understand mass incarceration, if we want to understand war, all these things that are going on right now, history is step number one.

Competing Ideologies Around Confederate Statues

The Great Courses: Do you have any theories as to why? Why did Charlottesville happen now? Is there something about the current political climate that is really causing this issue to come to a boil?

Allen Guelzo: In some respects, I think it’s a function of the competing forces of ideology. A great deal of what I have heard in the controversies centered around Charlottesville and around some of the other Confederate monuments, for instance Monument Avenue in Richmond, really cast these things in ideological terms. It’s very curious, because sometimes it means that the ideological origins of these protests don’t really have a whole lot to do with American culture at all.

Go back to the statue of the generic Confederate that was torn down in North Carolina. The people who were involved in the tear-down of that particular statue were not, shall we say, just ordinary American progressives. What they really were, was a coalition of some very ideologically pointed people, democratic socialists, organizations of that sort, Triangle People’s Assembly, the Workers of the World Party.

Symbolism can fluctuate this way, and a white supremacist imputation of a certain Confederate statute… We impugn that. That’s white supremacy, but if the group that’s tearing it down is a Marxist organization, is the pulling down of that itself an ideological statement for an ideology which, if anything, is even more reprehensible.

Ed O’Donnell: In some ways, I see that point, but I would draw the line, frame it somewhat differently, in terms of from the very beginnings of American history, we’ve had rebellion and defiance and small versions of radicalism have really been at the heart of American history. You can go way back into the colonial period. Look at something like Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675-76, and many, many upsurges.

There’s been a long history of insurgent groups. Sometimes they’re insurgent groups like abolitionists, who are fighting against slavery, which they ultimately triumph in, but sometimes they are also insurgent groups that are, depending on how you want to label them, neofascist or fascist. Sometimes this kind of radicalism exists on the right and the left going back well back into American history.

What we saw in Charlottesville is in many ways a continuum of that tradition. I think it does reflect in the fact that in this case it’s white nationalist, whatever you want to call it, white supremacist, neo-Nazi ideology. The fact that that’s on display there does reflect a larger political cultural shift in the last 30 years or so, but there were white nationalist, white supremacist organizations in the 1960s exerting violence and doing whatever they could in the name of maintaining white supremacy. These guys in Charlottesville are seeking to restore white supremacy.

The Great Courses: I wonder if there’s not an additional complexity in this situation with the fact that this was a civil war that ended in the messy but ultimate reunification of a country, so that in the end, we are looking back at countrymen on both sides. There’s a sense that Southern identity is tied to national identity in a way that can’t be untied. Does that make this particularly messy?

Allen Guelzo: I hope it does. I sometimes hear Southern heritage or Southern identity talked about as though it was something emerging from a foreign country. When I hear that, that poses a problem for me, because I decline to recognize a definition of American beyond citizenship. Someone who wants to either add to or subtract from that fundamental reality of citizen seems to me is starting to push things in directions that I’m not terribly happy to see us go in.

Then when I hear discussions about Robert E. Lee from the other side, “Robert E. Lee is a symbol of white supremacy,” The reality is, Robert E. Lee could have, at Appomattox, with just one word, have turned his Army of Northern Virginia loose as a guerrilla force and sent them fleeing to the hills, fleeing to the mountains, yet Lee categorically stopped that in his tracks. He said, “We have lost. The war is over. We are now part of one country, and we have to live that way.”

I’m not saying that to make Lee into the shining knight that some people have made him into, because he was not. His postwar career has both shadows and light. The light part of it is that he really becomes a major voice for reunifying the country. He discourages any attempts at trying to revive any kind of Southern independence. He refuses to join Southern exile groups abroad, even though they want very badly to recruit him to do so.

He will not countenance students at the college where he is president, Washington College, harassing the freed slaves in their churches or in meetings or their schools. He expels a student who he finds guilty of that.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mount Rushmore National Memorial South Dakota USA
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota, USA

Founding Father Memorials vs. Confederate Memorials

The Great Courses: And about others. There’s been some discussion of statues to our Founding Fathers who were slaveholders, or Lincoln’s own attitude.

Allen Guelzo: Absolutely. We could say the same thing about Ulysses Grant, because Ulysses Grant before the Civil War was a slave-owner. You could say, “He fought for the Union against slavery.” Not in the first year of the war, he didn’t. If you look at the orders that he hands out, he’s giving out very conventional orders about repelling fugitive slaves from Union Army camps, about returning fugitive slaves to their owners. That’s going to change in 1862 for Grant.

The funny thing is, you could actually take a great deal of the careers of both Lee and Grant before the Civil War, there’d be some large interchangeable aspects of their careers. What do we do now? Do we take down the monuments of Grant? Do we take down half of the monuments of Grant? I don’t know. This is how messy it gets, and this is why the simplistic approach is liable to be the sort of thing that we wake up several years down the road wondering, “Why did we do that?”

The Great Courses: Yeah. Ed, what is your take on this? Is there a difference between the issues of Confederate statuary art and the issues that are attached to the memorials for Founding Fathers?

Ed O’Donnell: It’s all very complicated, as Allen was saying. I think the defense of people like Jefferson and Washington, who owned hundreds of slaves between them, and somebody like Robert E. Lee is that Jefferson was not solely defined by slavery, nor was Washington, even though they were complicit in it in a very substantial way. Their principal achievements are in founding the American republic, and creating a nation and creating a language, even if it was not quite intentional, like Jefferson when he writes, “All men are created equal.” He’s not thinking about slaves. He’s not even thinking about poor white people in many respects.

Yet, he creates the language of natural rights that other generations of Americans will have the space in which to pour new meaning into that, so that women at Seneca Falls, for example, can take that Declaration of Independence and make it a document that is a declaration for women’s rights. Jefferson’s list of positive accomplishments, and helping create a country that eventually gets around to doing the right thing, that eventually gets around to including everyone, or to the largest possible extent, in full citizenship, and Washington’s in that same category.

People who look at Lee say, “He fought …” There’s certainly balancing ideas about Lee, but if you say, “What did Lee fundamentally do?” He fundamentally left the American army, resigned his commission, and then signed on to a rebellious effort that was designed to pull the Union apart, and that movement was to pull the Union apart was to pull it apart for not the sole purpose but the fundamental purpose of preserving slavery into the forever. If you read the documents, they’re pretty clear on that.

If you compare him to Grant, for example, Grant does have, like a lot of people that first year of the war, he’s caught between federal policy, Lincoln’s desire to make slavery not an issue and so forth. Grant’s not one of the greatest presidents, but Grant’s record in the early years of his administration are very impressive when it comes to pushing for equal rights, pushing for the enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment.

Ed O’Donnell: Yeah, he backs off of that. I think if you keep a scorecard and you say, “Are there things that we should honor these people for? Have they done enough that is worthy of praise that we can acknowledge the negative side of the ledger but not have that result in them being written out of the pantheon of great Americans?”

I think that’s the argument in favor of somebody like Washington and Jefferson being honored, and in fact now, if you go to Monticello, if you go to any of the Founding Fathers’ homes, they’re all busily working on giving voice to the story of slavery and giving voice to actual enslaved people, Sally Hemmings. All of that is being very substantially … That story, you can’t go there anymore and not be affected by those stories that are now being told.

That’s I think a way that I would choose to situate it. I think there are some people that are not as worthy of our adulation, certainly to the tune of hundreds of statues, and that other people, though they did have a record that has regrettable aspects to it, particularly on slavery, that we need to look at it as a scorecard and see that some people are worthy of admiration so long as we really do also mention and discuss and acknowledge the fact that they did participate in and uphold this institution of slavery in their day.

Allen Guelzo: I’d go a step further. I’d say this. If someone were to come to me today and propose erecting a statue to Robert E. Lee, I would probably say no. I would say, “Knowing what I know about Robert E. Lee, I’m not really sure that’s what we want to put a statue up for.”

On the other hand, if someone comes to me and says, “Here’s a statue which has been in place since 1924, or since 1917. Let’s tear the thing down,” I think I’d be equally reluctant to join in, if only because of my own concern about cultural iconoclasm. Not only I think is the scorecard idea a good one, I also think there’s a question of looking at the landscape and saying, “What is here already, and what should be here in the future?”

Instead of putting up more statues of the same, we should be putting up statues that point in different directions. I think this is what Ed was getting at when he was talking about Ida Wells. Can we look to another population of statues to add here?

I think we can do that, and we can do that in a way that, as Lincoln said, “swells the chorus of the union under the direction of the better angels of our nature,” rather than giving in to a vindictiveness, sometimes a not terribly well-informed vindictiveness that we will in a short time end up regretting.

The Great Courses: How do you see this moment playing out over the next few years? Are we entering a time of iconoclasm, or do you think we’re going to enter a dialogue that saves us from that?

Ed O’Donnell: That’s a big question. I think a lot of it has to do with larger factors that are taking place,the tremendous flux that our economy is in, driven by all kinds of factors. A lot of these popular insurgencies now and in the past have been driven by economic pressure and economic dislocation. That’s not going to stop any time soon. Some of those factors are going to be there.

I think there are other things. Our politics are very fraught and very fractured at this point, but we also see certain trends taking place in our politics that are pretty alarming and should be alarming to anybody who cares about democracy, that principally being voter suppression efforts taking place.

My real specialist is in the Gilded Age, and the Gilded Age, this is also coincident of the period of Reconstruction, one of the main themes was depriving millions of people of the right to vote. We are circling back in many ways to many of the worst trends of the Gilded Age, of the Reconstruction period, where we’re seeing efforts to consciously take the vote away from certain segments of our population.

Learn More: The Reconstruction Revolution

We already have a politics that’s quite fractured and skewed. I’m concerned about how, if we’re going to hash these differences out in the political sphere as a normal, functioning democracy would, that’s going to be very difficult to do if large, large segments of the population are underrepresented or not represented at all.

The Great Courses: Yeah. Allen, your take on that?

Allen Guelzo: I am concerned about what I would call cultural disfranchisement as much as Ed is worried about literal political disfranchisement, because in American culture, we’re also experiencing a tremendous division this way, in which various groups are jockeying for the elimination of certain voices, certain points of view. I think that, along with voter problems, that culture problems, speech problems are also matters of concern.

I think what both Ed and I are saying is that there are ominous signs in the life of our democracy. The whole question about monuments, about memorials, about remembrance, these things are not mere historical footnotes. They are not separate subjects which can be put in a box and separated from the larger questions we’re asking about our public life. The truth of the matter is that what we know about ourselves from the past informs what we are in the present, and a people who are cut off from their past are a people who have been culturally disfranchised fully as much as those who had the vote taken away.

What we know about ourselves from the past informs what we are in the present. Click To Tweet

And the discussions about monuments are not simply irrelevant side discussions. They really are, and I think Ed has the same sense of this, discussions about who we are today as a people and what we will be as a people in time to come.

The Great Courses: Absolutely. These discussions are made all the richer by the scholarship of you and Ed. Thank you so much for being willing, for both of you being willing, to discuss this topic with us today.

Ed O’Donnell: It’s been a great conversation.

Allen Guelzo: It has, indeed. Very, very illuminating.

Professor Edward O’Donnell, Ph.D.
Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.
By Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons