On historical figures and statues, where do we draw the line?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Christopher Columbus’ statue is leaving the state capitol. John Sutter’s statue, on whose land the Gold Rush began, has disappeared from Sacramento hospital grounds. Fort Bragg might lose its name. All this is being done in the name of not glorifying undesirable aspects of American history. The appropriate question to ask is where do we draw the line? 

Statutes are coming down and name changes are contemplated at a furious rate. Exactly who decides these changes and how are the decisions made? 

Should we review the history of all the people who were honored with a street name in early San Francisco to see if they meet present day standards and are in need of change? Some statues in jeopardy due to today’s passions have a history that is not totally up or down according to today’s thinking but that seems to matter little to those who want to reassess history.

George Washington was instrumental in establishing the United States and the constitutional framework we still live under, but he also owned slaves. Shall we wipe him off the dollar bill and change the name of that northwestern state? 

Where do we draw the line?

Passions and thinking change over time. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, has many statutes dedicated to him that are the subject of intense debate over their removal. In 1975, Lee was granted full citizenship by an act of Congress, which was deprived him after the Civil War. The Senate vote was unanimous, the House vote was 407 to 10. 

That would not happen today. 

Four of the 10 no votes came from California congressmen: Ron Dellums, Gus Hawkins, Pete Stark and George Miller. The Yes votes included noted African American Congresswomen Barbara Jordan from Texas and Shirley Chisolm from New York. Should we ostracize them for their votes and rescind Lee’s citizenship? 

Where do we draw the line? 

In London, a statue of Winston Churchill has been boxed up for its protection because it was defaced due to Churchill’s pro-Empire positions and his feelings about subjugating India. Mind you, this is the man who helped save democracy so that people could protest. In our country, there are calls to close down the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson was a slave owner like Washington. He also wrote the immortal words “all men are created equal,” which the protesters use as a foundational touchstone and basis for seeking justice and achieving their goals. 

Where do we draw the line? 

For me, the most affecting display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is the display dealing with Thomas Jefferson. A statue of Jefferson surrounded by his words is backed up with a wall of bricks, each etched with the name of a slave Jefferson owned. The display is powerful. It does not hide the truth, neither does it erase the memory. 

Times change and attitudes change. History is re-interpreted, but it doesn’t change, and it should not be forgotten. 

Many decisions to remove statutes are made by orders of politicians. At least in Fort Bragg, the city council is considering giving the voters a chance to decide the fate of the city’s name, christened prior to the Civil War after a man who would become a Confederate general. 

It seems in a democracy a vote is a good way to take a temperature of the times and to make decisions on who stays and who goes.

Originally published at CalMatters https://calmatters.org/commentary/on-historical-figures-where-do-we-draw-the-line/

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