The people upset about taking down statues very often are composed of the very same people who dislike “negative” American history. They demand that we “don’t erase history” by eliminating statues of gross war criminals on one hand while on the other hand demand that textbooks don’t villainize the founding fathers.
Instead, one needs to demand an honest accounting of history in textbooks, classes, museums, documentaries and other forms of history education while also making sure that our public monuments — meant to glorify — reflect the values we want our society to reflect.
The key is not to forget why we would do these things — which is what newspapers and textbooks are for and what museums can do with their toppled statues. You know how we know this? Nearly every public historian I can find is in favor of pulling down Confederate statues.
The journalist who threw a shoe at George W. Bush is named Muntadhar al-Zaidi, and his twitter account is @muntaser_zaidi. This is the statue in commemoration of the “shoeing” incident, which has its own Wikipedia page. Incidentally, you should read his page, it’s remarkable.
I strongly recommend finding a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book that reviews the 12 most popular American history textbooks for high schoolers. It does an incredible job breaking down how they omit, lie or misrepresent great swaths of American history in order to tell an unblemished tale about the promise of America or something and Lies Across America, a survey of American history landmarks that dot the United States — which often do the same thing that American history textbooks do.
Both are by James W. Loewen, a sociologist and historian, formerly of the University of Vermont. He has a remarkable number of revealing anecdotes throughout his books — both describing what he’s learned about what students are taught and of actual history, taught in an engaging way that’s easy to process and read. Like I’ve said before, Lies My Teacher Told Me is one of my favorite books ever and it’s these two books that I quote throughout the podcast.
Generally speaking, we should be asking of public monuments: who puts them up, who gets included and what they represent.
- The South Won the Post-War Peace
- Telling History Honesty
- Monuments Matter
- John Brown
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Nathan Bedford Forrest
- Robert E. Lee
- Christopher Columbus
The South Won the Post-War Peace
Ben brought up the phrase “The Union won the Civil War but the Confederacy won the post-War peace,” variations of which are common throughout historical literature covering the period. It’s the thesis of this New Yorker article, where they say:
The South was the country’s aberrant region—wayward, backward, benighted—but it was at last going to join properly in the national project: that was the liberal rhetoric that accompanied the civil-rights movement. It was also the rhetoric that accompanied Reconstruction, which was premised on full citizenship for the former slaves. Within a decade, the South had raised the price of enforcement so high that the country threw in the towel and allowed the region to maintain a separate system of racial segregation and subjugation. For almost a century, the country wound up granting the conquered South very generous terms.
The civil-rights revolution, too, can be thought of as a bargain, not simply a victory: the nation has become Southernized just as much as the South has become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics. During the past half century, the country has had more Presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union. Racial prejudice and conflict have been understood as American, not Southern, problems.
It’s also essentially the title of this book, which details the post-Lincoln Reconstruction (and pullback), and details much more about Ulysses S Grant.
We talked about when the monuments were put up and what the message of that is. Here’s a chart from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
The dedication of Confederate monuments and the use of Confederate names and other iconography began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. But two distinct periods saw significant spikes.
The first began around 1900 as Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society after several decades of integration that followed Reconstruction. It lasted well into the 1920s, a period that also saw a strong revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Many of these monuments were sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The second period began in the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s, the period encompassing the modern civil rights movement.
As John Oliver puts it, “there was a big spike from 1900 to 1920, as white Southerners were reasserting their dominance through things like Jim Crow Laws with another spike in the ’50s and ’60s as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam, so those statues weren’t so much commemorating recently fallen dead as sending a pretty hostile message to African-Americans. And sending messages is kind of what statues are often for.”
This is clear in the statues put up throughout the country but one of the most striking ones that demonstrates this is the one brought up on the podcast. As Loewen details in Lies Across America:
In 1916 the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a memorial fountain in what is now called Hill Park near the heart of Helena, Montana:
A loving tribute to our Confederate Soldiers
Of course, Montana never had any Confederate soldiers. For that matter, Montana hardly had any Union soldiers. Most of Montana was still Indian country during the Civil War and for some time thereafter, as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer found out to his sorrow at the Little Big Horn in 1876. The state was not admitted to the union until 1889, a quarter century after the war ended. Montana was not even a territory during most of the Civil War, getting organized in 1864.
The UDC may look silly dedicating a memorial to Confederate dead who never existed, but these ladies knew exactly what they were doing. UDC members used these monuments to demonstrate their own status—indeed, their dominion over the American landscape—and promote the respectability of the Confederate cause. Fifty years earlier most Northerners and many Southerners saw the Confederacy as a failed attempt to break up the United States and perpetuate slavery—which it was. By 1916, this monument declares implicitly that the Confederacy was somehow patriotic and that whites agreed, even this far north, to honor it nostalgically. Thus this monument also reflects the time when it was erected—the nadir of race relations in the United States, from 1890 to 1920, when segregation gripped the nation and lynchings reached their peak. (83 and 84 tell how segregation swept the North as well.) Most Confederate monuments went up during these years. In the nadir, as Charles Royster put it in The Destructive War, [white] “Southerners found it easy, or at least expedient, to forget a great deal of what they had known about the Confederacy, to reshape its history, and to remember things that had not occurred.” And there is a direct connection between the neo-Confederate mythology erected on the landscape and the segregation and lynchings done to African Americans. As Voltaire put it, “If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.”
As the SLPC goes on to say in their report on Confederate monuments:
There is no doubt among reputable historians that the Confederacy was established upon the premise of white supremacy and that the South fought the Civil War to preserve its slave labor. Its founding documents and its leaders were clear. “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” declared Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens in his 1861 “Cornerstone speech.”
It’s also beyond question that the Confederate flag was used extensively by the Ku Klux Klan as it waged a campaign of terror against African Americans during the civil rights movement and that segregationists in positions of power raised it in defense of Jim Crow. George Wallace, Alabama’s governor, unfurled the flag above the state Capitol in 1963 shortly after vowing “segregation forever.” In many other cases, schools, parks and streets were named for Confederate icons during the era of white resistance to equality.
Despite the well-documented history of the Civil War, legions of Southerners still cling to the myth of the Lost Cause as a noble endeavor fought to defend the region’s honor and its ability to govern itself in the face of Northern aggression. This deeply rooted but false narrative is the result of many decades of revisionism in the lore and even textbooks of the South that sought to create a more acceptable version of the region’s past. Confederate monuments and other symbols are very much a part of that effort.
The Myth of the Lost Cause is powerful and furthered by monuments to a false history, one that runs contrary to the primary documents we have from the time and that advances the goals of racists who want to keep supremacy front and center.
From Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans in a speech on May 19 2017 on the removal of the four monuments to the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” in the wake of Dylann Roof’s murder of black Americans:
New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one. But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.
And it immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.
These statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, they fought against it.
By the way, what happens when you look up “Lost Cause?” The term has its own entry in Wikipedia, which describes it in fairly harsh terms.
The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply the Lost Cause, is an American pseudo-historical, negationist ideology that holds that the cause of the Confederacy during the American Civil War was a just and heroic one. The ideology endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the war as a struggle primarily to save the Southern way of life, or to defend “states’ rights” such as the right to secede from the Union, in the face of overwhelming “Northern aggression.” At the same time, the Lost Cause minimizes or denies outright the central role of slavery in the buildup to and outbreak of the war.
One particularly intense period of Lost Cause activity was around the time of World War I, as the last Confederate veterans began to die and a push was made to preserve their memories. A second period occurred during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in reaction to growing public support for racial equality. Through activities such as building prominent Confederate monuments and writing school history textbooks, the Lost Cause movement sought to ensure future generations of Southern whites would know of the South’s “true” reasons for fighting the war, and therefore would continue to support white supremacist policies, such as Jim Crow. In this manner, white supremacy is a characteristic of the Lost Cause narrative.
The “Cult of the Lost Cause” isn’t just a term of art that Landrieu made up for the speech — it’s a historical term. The application for one of these statues for National Register of Historic Places defines it:
The Cult of the Lost Cause had its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War. In attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. A major theme of the Cult of the Lost Cause was the clash of two civilizations, one inferior to the other. The North, “invigorated by constant struggle with nature, had become materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.” The South had a “more generous climate” which had led to a finer society based upon “veracity and honor in man, chastity and fidelity in women.” Like tragic heroes, Southerners had waged a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization. There was an element of chivalry in the way the South had fought, achieving noteworthy victories against staggering odds. This was the “Lost Cause” as the late nineteenth century saw it, and a whole generation of Southerners set about glorifying and celebrating it.
This ends up denying the very real fact that the South seceded because of slavery. The leaders of the first state to secede, South Carolina, signed a Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina From the Federal Union, and the first thing they listed was the fact that Northern states wouldn’t enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (an issue, one would think, that states rights advocates would be praising the North for).
Their declaration denounced “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery.” Texas, Mississippi and a few other states lifted the language of South Carolina’s secession document directly in their declarations, citing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the election of Lincoln as hostile to slavery.
Here’s the first two paragraphs of Mississippi’s Declaration:
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Whereas, All hope of the preservation of the Federal Union, upon terms consistent with the safety and honor of the slave-holding States, has finally dissipated by the recent indications of the strength of the anti-slavery sentiment of the free States.
Therefore, Be it resolved by the People of the State of Florida in Convention assembled, That, as it is the undoubted right of the several States of the Federal Union, known as the United States of America, to withdraw from the said Union at such time and for such cause or causes as in the opinion of the people of each State, acting in their sovereign capacity, may be just and proper, in the opinion of this Convention, the existing causes are such to compel the State of Florida to proceed to exercise that right.
Whereas, the only bond of union between the several States is the Constitution of the United States; and Whereas, that Constitution has been violated, both by the Government of the United States, and by a majority of the Northern States, in their separate legislative action, denying to the people of the Southern States their Constitutional rights;
And Whereas, a sectional party, known as the Black Republican Party, has, in the recent election, elected Abraham Lincoln to the office of President, and Hannibal Hamlin to the office of Vice-President of these United States, upon the avowed principle that the Constitution of the United States does not recognise property in slaves, and that the Government should prevent its extension into the common Territories of the United States, and that the power of the Government should be so exercised that slavery in time, should be exterminated
The people of Georgia have dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates, and the world, the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States, with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government, have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union, for many years past, in the condition of virtual civil war.
The people of Georgia, after an equally full and fair and deliberate hearing of the case, have declared with equal firmness, that they shall not rule over them. A brief history of the rise, progress and policy of anti-slavery, and of the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed, will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia. The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party, while it attracts to itself by its creed, the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government; anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the State. The question of slavery was the great difficulty in the way of the formation of the Constitution. While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race were fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slaveholding States of the original thirteen; the opposition to slavery was then, as now, general in those States, and the Constitution was made with direct reference to that fact.
Resolution 1: Be it resolved and declared by the people of the State of Virginia in Convention assembled, That the States which composed the United States of America, when the Federal Constitution was formed were independent sovereignties, and in adopting that instrument the people of each State agreed to associate with the people of the other States, upon a footing of exact equality. It is the duty therefore, of the common Government to respect the rights of the States and the equality of the people thereof, and, within the just limits of the Constitution, to protect, with equal care, the great interests that spring from the institutions of each.
Resolution 2: African slavery is a vital part of the social system of the States wherein it exists, and as that form of servitude existed when the Union was formed, and the jurisdiction of the several States over it within their respective limits, was recognized by the Constitution, any interference to its prejudice by the federal authority, or by the authorities of other States, or by the people thereof, is in derogation from plain right, contrary to the Constitution, offensive and dangerous.
And on and on and on.
When secessionist leaders from states that had already seceded attempted to convince other state to secede, they started with slavery. As Loewen writes in the Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader:
As well, South Carolina and other Deep South states sent ambassadors to other states that allowed slavery, to persuade them to secede. These envoys use similar language, stressing slavery first, last, and foremost. Georgia’s Henry Benning, for instance, speaking to Virginia’s secession convention, begins by asking: “What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession?” He then continues, “That reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction; a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.”
. . .
The “Cornerstone Speech” by the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, delivered to a huge audience in Savannah, Georgia, as the Confederacy was forming, speaks to this issue. After telling several ways that he deems the new constitution for the Confederate States of America superior to the U.S. Constitution, Stephens reaches the central point of his speech. He notes that Jefferson and other founders believed that all men were created equal, “that the enslavement of the African was . . . wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically.” He continues: “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and moral condition.”
And what did Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, provide the U.S. Senate when he delivered the Resolution of States in 1860? The very second paragraph details that slavery is the primary concern:
Resolved, That negro slavery, as it exists in fifteen States of this Union, composes an important portion of their domestic institutions, inherited from their ancestors, and existing at the adoption of the Constitution, by which it is recognized as constituting an important element in the apportionment of powers among the States; and that no change of opinion or feeling on the part of the non-slaveholding States of the Union in relation to this institution can justify them or their citizens in open or covert attacks thereon, with a view to its overthrow; and that all such attacks are in manifest violation of the mutual and solemn pledge to protect and defend each other, given by the States, respectively, on entering into the constitutional compact which formed the Union, and are a manifest breach of faith and violation of the most solemn obligations.
Ben brought up a toppled statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador who first established the colony of New Mexico and therefore was installed as its governor in 1598. He ordered the Acoma Massacre in the winter of that year. As the LA Times puts it:
Oñate (1550-1626) was a Spanish conquistador who established the colony of New Mexico for Spain and became its first governor in 1598. He is remembered for the Acoma War of October 1598, when his men demanded supplies from the Acoma Pueblo. The pueblo, needing provisions to survive the coming winter, refused, and in the ensuing conflict 11 Spaniards, including Oñate’s nephew, were killed.
Furious, Oñate ordered the pueblo destroyed in what became known as the Acoma Massacre; 800 to 1,000 Pueblos died in the siege. The survivors, approximately 500, were put on trial, and Oñate rendered the sentence: All men and women older than 12 would be enslaved for 20 years, and Spanish soldiers were instructed to chop off one foot of every man over 25 years old.
In all, 24 men lost one of their feet, condemned to totter on a stump for the remainder of their lives. Oñate was recalled to Mexico City in 1606 to account for his conduct, where he was convicted of cruelty to both natives and colonists and banished from New Mexico for life.
Even the imperial government that installed him was horrified by his crimes. Why honor him with a statue? Oñate absolutely needs to be talked about and put in historical context; his contributions to the history of Southwest are enormous. They are also terrible, and do not deserve the honor of a statue. The image header for this post comes from the protest that took this statue down, and it says better in two sentences than I do in several thousand: This is not recognizing history. This is choosing the part of history to monument.
Again, our statues are not means of recognizance but heroification. We do not need to establish a set of cultural values that enforces harm and genocide.
Ben mentioned European neo-Nazis using the Confederate flag, an increasing trend, and we both mentioned the connection between the Confederacy and Nazi Germany, as well as the deployment Nazis used of American legislative history regarding their genocidal and discriminatory policies towards black Americans. This should be well known, but it often isn’t. Here’s what Brent Staples at the New York Times has to say:
The protest also celebrated the intimate connection between Nazi-era rule in Germany and Jim Crow-era rule in the United States. That connection, long overlooked by historians, was obvious to the network of black-owned newspapers that reached the peak of its influence during World War II.
The barons of the Negro press ridiculed the attempt to frame the war as a fight for liberty at a time when the military was segregating by race soldiers, nurses and even plasma in the wartime blood bank, and running Jim Crow military bases in ways that were fully consistent with the German view of Negroes and others as not fully human.
There is in fact significant historical record of the connection between Hitler and Nazi lawmaking and the model of American racism, as discussed in James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. In it, he states:
On June 5, 1934, about a year and a half after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich, the leading lawyers of Nazi Germany gathered at a meeting to plan what would become the Nuremberg Laws, the notorious anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi race regime. The meeting was chaired by Franz Gürtner, the Reich Minister of Justice, and attended by officials who in the coming years would play central roles in the persecution of Germany’s Jews. Among those present was Bernhard Lösener, one of the principal draftsmen of the Nuremberg Laws; and the terrifying Roland Freisler, later President of the Nazi People’s Court and a man whose name has endured as a byword for twentieth-century judicial savagery.
The meeting was an important one, and a stenographer was present to record a verbatim transcript, to be preserved by the ever-diligent Nazi bureaucracy as a record of a crucial moment in the creation of the new race regime. That transcript reveals the startling fact that is my point of departure in this study: the meeting involved detailed and lengthy discussions of the law of the United States. In the opening minutes, Justice Minister Gürtner presented a memo on American race law, which had been carefully prepared by the officials of the ministry for purposes of the gathering; and the participants returned repeatedly to the American models of racist legislation in the course of their discussions. It is particularly startling to discover that the most radical Nazis present were the most ardent champions of the lessons that American approaches held for Germany. Nor, as we shall see, is this transcript the only record of Nazi engagement with American race law. In the late 1920s and early 1930s many Nazis, including not least Hitler himself, took a serious interest in the racist legislation of the United States. Indeed in Mein Kampf, Hitler praised America as nothing less than “the one state” that had made progress toward the creation of a healthy racist order of the kind the Nuremberg Laws were intended to establish.
. . .
Nor, importantly, was it only, or even primarily, the Jim Crow South that attracted Nazi lawyers. In the early 1930s the Nazis drew on a range of American examples, both federal and state. Their America was not just the South; it was a racist America writ much larger. Moreover, the ironic truth is that when Nazis rejected the American example, it was sometimes because they thought that American practices were overly harsh: for Nazis of the early 1930s, even radical ones, American race law sometimes looked too racist.
Be it emphasized immediately that there was certainly never anything remotely like unmixed admiration for America among the Nazis, who aggressively rejected the liberal and democratic commitments of American government. The Nazis were never interested in simply replicating the United States in Central Europe. Nevertheless Nazi lawyers regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law; and while they saw much to deplore, they also saw much to emulate. It is even possible, indeed likely, that the Nuremberg Laws themselves reflect direct American influence.
Telling History Honestly
Telling history honestly also has another remarkable side benefit — it engages people in history. When history is a morality play where the hero has no flaws, it’s not all that indistinct from a story where the hero has no story arc. It’s boring and unrelatable and unrealistic and people pick up on that, even if they don’t know why they’re picking up on that.
Not only that, they can become an active participant in history. As Loewen writes in Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book where he reviews the 12 most popular American history textbooks for high schoolers and does an incredible job breaking down how they omit, lie or misrepresent great swaths of American history in order to tell an unblemished tale about the promise of America or something.
If textbooks allowed for controversy, they could show students which claims rest on strong evidence, which on softer ground. As they challenged students to make their own decisions as to what probably happened, they would also be introducing students to the various methods and forms of evidence— oral history, written records, cultural similarities, linguistic changes, human blood types, pottery, archaeological dating, plant migrations—that researchers use to derive knowledge about the distant past. Unfortunately, textbooks seem locked into a rhetoric of certainty.
Textbooks almost never use the present to illuminate the past. They might ask students to consider gender roles in contemporary society as a means of prompting students to think about what women did and did not achieve in the suffrage movement or in the more recent women’s movement. They might ask students to prepare household budgets for the families of a janitor and a stockbroker as a means of prompting thinking about labor unions and social classes in the past and present. They might, but they don’t. The present is not a source of information for writers of history textbooks.
But the way history is relayed turns off people of color and in particular indigenous, black and latinx communities. There is very little discussion about the agency of indigenous people in the Americas and pre-Columbian American history rarely discusses more than extremely broad sociological findings. How incredible would it be to learn that the Iroquois settled on “Enlightenment” values well before anyone on the continent had heard of John Locke? That they ran their societies according to “modern” liberal principles, and that the Constitution was in part modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy? As Loewen says
In the 1740s the Iroquois wearied of dealing with several often bickering English colonies and suggested that the colonies form a union similar to the league. In 1754 Benjamin Franklin, who had spent much time among the Iroquois observing their deliberations, pleaded with colonial leaders to consider the Albany Plan of Union: he said — “It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”47
The colonies rejected the plan. But it was a forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery. In 1775 Congress formulated a speech to the Iroquois, signed by John Hancock, that quoted Iroquois advice from 1744. “The Six Nations are a wise people,” Congress wrote, “let us harken to their council and teach our children to follow it.”4S
And even when we do, we learn about novelty while omitting norms — we’re more likely to learn about the American southwest than we are about the Choctaw despite their much larger population and broader social footprint. I mean talk about a perfect encapsulation of what it means to be an indigenous tribe in the United States — covering territory spanning four states, the Choctaw first encountered Spanish settlers before negotiating tensions between French and English settlers as well, often acting as interpreters between the groups as much as interpreters for European to Native relations.
The Choctaw never went to war with the United States and most supported their bid for independence from England and it took 20 years after the formal founding of the United States to repay their kindness by taking their land. 30 years after that, they were even more forcibly removed by the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the first tribe to be impacted by this legislation. Many of them negotiated a treaty that would grant them American citizenship and also became the first non-European ethnic group to be granted citizenship in the United States.
The ones that found ways to stay in places like Mississippi found their mistreatment was still so brutal however, that many of them supported the Confederacy in the Civil War under promises that they would be granted their own state in the CSA. The Choctaw that were moved to Oklahoma saw their land rights stripped away again in 1907 when the United States continued its expansion westward and found their land rights inconvenient to honor.
Europe’s conquest of the Americas is often presented as inevitable, as I’ve mentioned before, but it’s worth mentioning the Choctaw’s ability to outmaneuver Hernando de Soto, one of the best-armed militias of the time, turned back a gold-hunting expedition that — had it been successful — would have vastly changed the fate of the United States.
Interestingly, the Choctaw weren’t Choctaw until the 17th century, when pressures to coalesce arrived in the form of European powers. Before that they were Woodland, Mississippian, Hopewell, Natchez or a number of other more local tribes.
As a result, the Choctaw became power players in the European conflict over the Americas, often brokering deals to stay afloat and shifting the balance of power in the southeastern United States despite being a confederated group of essentially three sub-units of political power that all had their own authority to negotiate treaties.
“For almost two hundred years,” notes David Horowitz, “almost continuous warfare raged on the American continent, its conflict more threatening than any the nation was to face again.” Indian warfare absorbed 80 percent of the entire federal budget during George Washington’s administration and dogged his successors for a century as a major issue and expense
And of course, we don’t want to tell an incomplete history, either. The Choctaw evolved as the United States evolved, and were one of the tribes to establish black codes after the Civil War, keeping slaves themselves — slaves who were forced to march with them on the Trail of Tears — and another reason that the Choctaw supported the Confederacy. The interactions of capital, race and colonialism led to the creation of slave states inside slave states, as the Smithsonian points out:
Perversely, Native American ownership of black slaves came about as a way for Native Americans to illustrate their societal sophistication to white settlers. “They were working hard to comply with government dictates that told native people that in order to be protected and secure in their land base, they had to prove their level of ‘civilization,’” Miles explained.
How would slave ownership prove civilization? The answer, Miles contends, is that in capitalism-crazed America, slaves became tokens of economic success. The more slaves you owned, the more serious a businessperson you were, and the more serious a businessperson you were, the fitter you were to join the ranks of “civilized society.” It’s worth remembering, as Paul Chaat Smith says, that while most Native Americans did not own slaves, neither did most Mississippi whites. Slave ownership was a serious status symbol.
These kinds of dynamics tells us that history is rarely as simple as heroes and villains. The Choctaw were brutal victims of American federal policy, and during the Trail of Tears, a result of the Indian Removal Act, 11,000 Native Americans died — many of them Choctaw. Many also perpetuated the oppressions that their white neighbors in the South did.
Properly told, this could be a great example of how the triracial isolates in the American South were not monolithically good or evil — that they present an extraordinary example of how conflict wasn’t inevitable as colonial expansion began in the United States but that as external pressures increase and evolve that societies can take turns for the worse if we’re not careful.
What does a poor history of race relations do? Loewen again:
Well, it is all too easy to blame the victim and. conclude that people of color are themselves responsible for being on the bottom. Without causal historical analysis, these racial disparities are impossible to explain.
When textbooks make racism invisible in American history, they obstruct our already poor ability to see it in the present. The notion of progress suffuses textbook treatments of black-white relations, implying that race relations have somehow steadily improved on their own. This cheery optimism only compounds the problem, because whites can infer that racism is over. “The U.S. has done more than any other nation in history to provide equal rights for all,” The American Tradition assures us. Of course, its authors have not seriously considered the levels of human rights in the Netherlands, Lesotho, or Canada today, or in Choctaw society in 1800, because they don’t mean their declaration as a serious statement of comparative history–it is just ethnocentric cheerleading.
. . .
Caste minority children-Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics do worse in all subjects, compared to white or Asian American children, but the gap is largest in social studies. That is because the way American history is taught particularly alienates students of color and children from impoverished families. Feel-good history for affluent white males inevitably amounts to feel-bad history for everyone else. A student of mine, who was practice-teaching in Swanton, Vermont, a town with a considerable Indian population, noticed an Abenaki fifth-grader obviously timing out when he brought up the subject of Thanksgiving. Talking with the child brought forth the following reaction: ”My father told me the real truth about that day and not to listen to any white man scum like you!”
. . .
Even if they don’t learn much history from their textbooks, students are affected by the book’s slant. Martha Toppin found unanimous agreement with this proposition among ninety high school students: “If Africa had had a history worth learning about, we would have had it last year in Western Civilization.” The message that Eurocentric history sends to nonEuropean Americans is; your ancestors have not done much of importance. It is easy for European Americans and non-European Americans to take a step further and conclude that non-European Americans are not important today.
And consider this — textbooks typically don’t include evidence of Afro-Phoenicians landing in the Americas before Columbus!
As a subject for research, the possibility of African discovery of America has never been a tempting one for American historians. In a sense, we choose our own history, or more accurately, we select those vistas of history for our examinations which promise us the greatest satisfaction, and we have had little appetite to explore the possibility that our founding father was a black man.
. . .
When describing the attack on segregation that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Triumph of the American Nation makes no mention that African Americans were the plaintiffs and attorneys in Brown v. Board of Education or that prior cases also brought by the NAACP prepared the way. Today many black students think that desegregation was something the federal government imposed on the black community. They have no idea it was something the black community forced on the federal government. Meanwhile, young white Americans can reasonably infer that the federal government has been nice enough to blacks. Crediting the federal government for actions instigated by African Americans and their white allies surely disempowers African American students today, surely helps them feel that they “have never done anything,” as Malcolm X put it.
In some ways it lends materiality to strains of afropessimism, as Orlando Patterson puts it — “We’re going through a period of extreme despair about the situation of African-Americans. The most extreme form of this despair is a movement called Afro-pessimism, which holds that black Americans are still viewed as they were viewed in the slavery days as different, inferior, and as outsiders.”
The impact this has on the self-esteem of black students in the United States is extraordinary. The fact that we don’t teach things about the many, many slave revolts in the United States, or about the Haitian revolution that made Haiti the first country in the world to ban slavery leads many to think that their ancestors were docile or complicit with a few exceptions — it’s why someone like Kanye can say “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”
It’s repulsive. But if you don’t provide the larger American public the rich history of slave resistance, you’re left with a vacuum that people can fill in with garbage like that.
As Henry Louis Gates puts it, “One of the most pernicious allegations made against the African-American people was that our slave ancestors were either exceptionally “docile” or “content and loyal,” thus explaining their purported failure to rebel extensively.”
Historian Herbert Aptheker defined a slave revolt as an action involving 10 or more slaves, with “freedom as the apparent aim [and] contemporary references labeling the event as an uprising, plot, insurrection, or the equivalent of these.” In all, Aptheker says, he “has found records of approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery.” Other scholars have found as many as 313.
History has wiped away the fact that American slaveowners — and nearly all those who benefited from this arrangement — were incredibly insecure about their ability to maintain slavery — far from comfortable in the idea that their slaves were somehow docile or OK with it. Again from Loewen:
Whether a president owned slave seems to have determined his policy toward the second independent nation in the hemisphere. George Washington did, so his administration loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to the French planters in Haiti to help them suppress their slaves. John Adams did not, and his administration gave considerable support to the Haitians. Jefferson’s presidency marked a general retreat from the idealism of the Revolution. Like other slaveowners, Jefferson preferred a Napoleonic colony to a black republic in the Caribbean. In 1801 he reversed U.S. policy toward Haiti and secretly gave France the go-ahead to reconquer the island. In so doing, the United States not only betrayed its heritage, but also acted against its own self-interest. For if France had indeed been able to retake Haiti, Napoleon would have maintained his dream of an American empire.
But planters in the United States were scared by the Haitian Revolution. They thought it might inspire slave revolts here (which it did). When Haiti won despite our flip-flop, the United States would not even extend it diplomatic recognition, lest its ambassador inflame our slaves “by exhibiting in his own person an example of successful revolt,” in the words of a Georgia senator.
The Second Seminole War was the longest and costliest war the United States ever fought against Indians and it was fought because of slavery. Andrew Jackson attacked a Seminole fort in Florida in 1816 precisely because it harbored hundreds of runaway slaves, thus initiating the First Seminole War. The Seminoles’ refusal to surrender their African American members led to the First and Second Seminole Wars (1816-18, 1835-42). Whites attacked not because they wanted the Everglades, which had no economic value to the United States in the nineteenth century, but to eliminate a refuge for runaway slaves. The most sustained and successful effort of slaves to win their freedom by force of arms took place in Florida between 1835 and 1842 when hundreds of black fugitives fought in the Second Seminole War alongside the Indians who had given them a haven. The Seminoles were resisting removal to Oklahoma, but for the blacks who took part, the war was a struggle for their own freedom
And from Gates:
If the Haitian Revolution between 1791 and 1804 — spearheaded by Touissant Louverture and fought and won by black slaves under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines — struck fear in the hearts of slave owners everywhere, it struck a loud and electrifying chord with African slaves in America.
Even without bloody revolution, slaves exerted their power in any way possible. As Professor James H. Sweet puts it:
Forms varied, but the common denominator in all acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some measure of freedom against an institution that defined people fundamentally as property. Perhaps the most common forms of resistance were those that took place in the work environment. After all, slavery was ultimately about coerced labor, and the enslaved struggled daily to define the terms of their work. Over the years, customary rights emerged in most fields of production. These customs dictated work routines, distribution of rations, general rules of comportment, and so on. If slave masters increased workloads, provided meager rations, or punished too severely, slaves registered their displeasure by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotaging production. These everyday forms of resistance vexed slave masters, but there was little they could do to stop them without risking more widespread breaks in production. In this way, the enslaved often negotiated the basic terms of their daily routines.
One can hardly evaluate the foreign policy or the evolution of economic policy and gun rights legislation without a concurrent history of the fundamental fear that slaveowners had about uprisings. The first gun law in the history of the colonies was implemented in 1640 in Virginia, “Prohibiting negroes, slave and free, from carrying weapons including clubs. “That all such free Mulattoes, Negroes and Indians…shall appear without arms.” Which was repeated through the colonies in the following 70 years.
Many of the “black codes” written into law in the South concerned the ability of slaves to own guns, and were the first gun laws that weakened the 2nd amendment, something we talked about in our gun rights/school shootings episode. In 1825, Florida passed a law that — in theory — violated the fourth amendment, allowing roving patrols to inspect any slave home or free black home for firearms and repossess it.
As states in the south kept passing laws designed to inhibit black and slave ownership of guns, it’s very clear that they were terrified by the idea of a slave revolt. After the passage of the 14th amendment, which made all black codes illegal, we saw the very first Jim Crow laws put into place regarding guns. In 1870, Tennessee passed a bill that banned the sale of all handguns except the expensive “Army and Navy model handgun” which whites already owned or could afford to buy, and blacks could not.
The history of gun legislation in this country is the history of oppression. As Dave Chapelle put it, the only time the NRA lobbied to ban assault weapons was when the Black Panther party occupied the capital building with those guns in tow.
Again, from Burch-Brown:
However, it is mistaken to think that objects like statues of colonial leaders are now mere artefacts, in many cases. Instead, they may be active part of cultural narratives about national identities. Many of the cultural objects that are currently contested are not ‘inert’, but directly connected to ongoing social injustice. Cleo Lake says, of a reluctance to replace un-interpreted, problematic objects with objects that tells the history more directly and critically:
‘Maybe they want to forget their history. Maybe they can. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we’re walking with it every day. Maybe we’re still going through the trauma. It’s real for us…’
Speaking of the barriers to black women’s progress, she says, ‘How does it help being reminded every time you come to your premier cultural institution about that negative aspect?’ Likewise, British MP Dawn Butler states in a debate about recontextualizing Admiral Nelson’s column in London,
It is easy to ignore history if you’re not affected by it. So does that mean that I want to see statues being torn down? No. But does it mean that I want to see the context of what that person represented highlighted, in the starkest possible terms? Yes.
That such symbols may influence political as well as personal outcomes is supported by findings such as evidence that priming people in the US South with images of Confederate flags lead to decreased willingness to vote for Barack Obama. Having images of white power and black disempowerment through enslavement is not inert; instead it actively shapes people’s ideas about the current social world.
If we don’t tell history properly, we don’t know the influences that exist on modern-day politics and everyday life. It’s why we can tell lies about meritocracy and structural racism and how we can come into the police systems we have today, all while telling racist myths about why society is controlled and managed by white people for white people.
We talked a lot about the background of racism that people navigate through, something we’ve covered in previous episodes, including our George Floyd episode, gun violence episode and systemic violence episode.
It might be worth having a discussion on why this is important anyway. To some extent, it is self-evidently worth it — cities spend public money and people spend a lot of time and energy defending the existence of these statues. If getting these monuments right isn’t worth it, than neither is defending these statues.
These monuments can matter; “Betsy Ross came to prominence around 1876, when some of her descendants, seeking to create a tourist attraction in Philadelphia, largely invented the myth of the first flag.” — there is no evidence she was actually involved in the creation of any first flag of the United States
Since memory is an intensely visual medium, the images monuments show us often linger in memory long after we have forgotten the words they tell us.
Everything you see in a monument has been put there for a reason. Its size, the materials from which it was made, and its position relative to the viewer and to nearby buildings and surrounding elements result from a complex decision-making process that usually involves an artist, the committee that hired the artist, leaders of a sponsoring organization, public officials, and whoever is paying for it all.
The grandeur of monuments intrinsically includes an element of consecration, which not only sanctifies the past but also sanctions future actions. Their very existence implies that the person or event portrayed is worth emulating or the cause symbolized is worth advancing. They embody a moral imperative: go thou and do likewise.
Think about how emotional the debates about the flag are — just like the impact that symbol has for so many people, the symbolic impact of our public monuments shouldn’t be forgotten. People take trips to visit local and national monuments and learn a significant amount of history from them, despite the fact that it may not seem appropriate to do so.
Desperate to cause change in their city and nation, student demonstrators in Beijing in 1989 recognized the power of monuments to move people. Students erected a styrofoam and plaster statue, “Goddess of Liberty,” opposite Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square to symbolize their aspirations and legitimize their acts. The Chinese government likewise recognized the symbolic power of the God of Liberty. “This statue is illegal,” blared government loudspeakers. “It is not approved by the government. Even in the United States, statues need permission before they can be put up.”
We can also use them, if appropriately framed, to detail history that may not be captured in textbooks. As Loewen explains:
I faulted textbooks for downplaying Indian wars, especially those in the East. Perhaps the most violent Indian war was King Philip’s War which ravaged New England in 1675-76. While many United States history textbooks leave it out entirely, II percent of the 234 markers that Massachusetts put up in 1930 for its 300th anniversary dealt with King Philip’s War. Another 10 percent treated other Indian wars. By contrast, only 26 percent mentioned the Revolutionary War. That’s because King Philip’s War cost more American lives in combat in Massachusetts than the Revolution did throughout the entire United States.1 King Philip’s War touched virtually every Massachusetts town. The Revolutionary War did not. Conflict with Native Americans similarly gets much attention in West Virginia (20.1 percent of 750 historical markers), Georgia, Ohio, North Dakota, and many other states. Indeed, the American landscape is filled with reminders of Indian wars that have almost vanished from our written history. Some of these markers exemplify what historian Francis Jennings calls “the cant of conquest” (see 7, 35, and 68), but no one reading them can fail to understand that Native Americans lived all across America and contested the seizure of their land and homes.
The landscape is also superior to American history textbooks in its portrayal of conflicts between workers and owners. I had expected to find that America’s rather bloody history of strikes and strikebreaking would be invisible on the American landscape. But I had overlooked the power of labor unions. 9 tells how labor unions have marked the sites of many bloody confrontations with management and police forces across the United States. It also tells of the markers and monuments documenting some of the disasters that have killed scores of workers in factories and mines across America.
And as philosopher George Tsai puts it:
Although subtler in its workings, and so easier for us to overlook, the state’s capacity to mobilize its symbolic resources is arguably just as important a mode of state power as its ability to offer economic incentives and to use coercive force. After all, states do not rely exclusively on carrots and sticks to build and maintain their power, but also rely on messages and symbols to do so. As Robert Paul Wolff observes:
We become conditioned to respond to the visible signs of officiality, such as printed forms and badges. Sometimes we may have in mind the justification of a legalistic claim to authority, as when we comply with a command because its author is an elected official. More often, the mere sight of a uniform is enough for us to feel that the man inside it has a right to be obeyed.
State-sponsored symbols are common features of our everyday surroundings, yet it is also easy to miss their presence all around us. By state-sponsored symbols, I mean to refer to such things as flags, monuments, memorials, museums national languages, national anthems and emblems, holidays and ceremonies. Less obviously, but no less significantly, the names of streets, public parks, and government agencies and departments can also have symbolic importance. The political importance of street names is evident in the fact that in the 1990s, the Chinese ruling part passed national legislation restricting street and place names to those that support “national unity and the establishment of socialist modernization,” while prohibiting those that “damage sovereignty or national dignity”
Nor is the practice of naming or renaming things for political purposes restricted only to nonliberal states. In the late 1940s, the US War Department was renamed the Department of Defense. Notice that the term “defense” presupposes an existing threat — one can, after all, only defend against something. Renaming the War Department the Department of Defense had the subtle but significant effect of getting citizens to tacitly accept the presupposition that the nation is under threat without explicitly considering or reflecting on the idea. This effect can be morally problematic:
When something is introduced as a presupposition it may be harder to challenge than something which is asserted outright. A speaker who introduces a proposition as a presupposition thereby suggests that it can be taken for granted: that it is widely known, a matter of shared belief among the participants in the conversation, which does not need to be asserted outright.
You can have statues and monuments and memorials that feature villains of our past. You just cannot frame them in ways that are positive or worthy of celebration. Would we be comfortable putting up a statue of John Wilkes Booth or Benedict Arnold in their hometowns, especially in a noble pose and beatific framing? Would we still be OK with it if all we had were plaques detailing their extensive histories as actors or statesman?
Condoleezza Rice, when asked about statues:
“Nobody is alive today who remembers the Civil War, but by looking at [a Confederate monument] you can trigger what it meant and what it was like. You don’t need to honor the purposes of people [who] were on the other side of history, but you better be able to remind people.”
One thing that strikes me about this argument — why not a Union soldier or Union leader? Does that not accomplish the same goal? If you feel it is geographically unimportant, that we must honor the history of those who have roots in the community, then many of the Confederate statues that exist should be removed regardless, because they celebrate statues of people that never lived there, even symbolically — there are, after all, Confederate statues in places that weren’t states or states that were Union.
Not only that, it is possible to find local leaders and local historical figures who were much more positive in their impact on your community and the world at large — after all, many many white Southerners fought for the Union and many more black Southerners did. Besides, the Confederacy only existed for five years. If the reason for so many Confederate statues is that the time doesn’t matter but the impact does, then there is still no reason not to have Union statues. One reason we don’t have Union statues across the South — even though an enormous portion of the population found their lives to be a lot better because of their existence — is because of the objection of Southern whites who would see it as unnecessarily antagonistic. We keep centering white people in these discussions, too — why not ask black people in the South whether they would have a Confederate soldier or a Union soldier memorializing the war?
As Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage points out:
An observer scanning the commemorative landscape of North Carolina will see little evidence of the tens of thousands of white North Carolinians who fought for the Union, the even larger number of white North Carolinians who actively opposed the Confederacy, or the tens of thousands of African Americans who escaped slavery and joined the Union Army. Confederate commemorators suppressed these unwelcome blemishes to their preferred version of history while simultaneously making the Confederate cause virtually sacred.
Does Germany stand to forget its history because they don’t have a statue of Hitler?
That last point might seem like an exaggeration, but there’s a debate about the literal founder of the KKK and the multiples statues of him around the country — more in his home state of Tennessee than any other figure gets in their home states. This is what we’re doing and what we’re debating. As Loewen says, “Americans agree with this proposition when applied to other countries. We commend Germany for preserving concentration camps as monuments of remembrance.”
‘When armies are defeated on their own soil – particularly when those armies fight to promote racist or genocidal policies – they usually don’t get to keep their symbols and material culture’. By contrast, following the World War II, Nazi symbols were removed from public spaces. Zeitz suggests that ‘in continuing to honour Confederate leaders and deny their crimes, we signal that the United States has not yet fully come to terms with its collective responsibility for the dual sins of slavery and Jim Crow’. He argues that removing Nazi symbols did not, on its own result in re-education and often met resistance, but that it was a necessary step. ‘If just removing statues and icons doesn’t force a change in outlook, venerating and fetishizing them, and refusing to be honest about their meaning, almost ensures that the country won’t fully confront its past’.
Burch-Brown is not necessarily of the same opinion as Loewen on monument destruction, rather preferring monument destruction to occur hand-in-hand with historical restitution:
Another argument is that removing these objects erases history and sanitizes the past. It is true that if we remove the objects with no further action, then this could have the effect of obscuring the past. However, as the Yale Guidelines on renaming emphasize, any choice to either retain or remove a name on moral grounds comes with duties of non-erasure – i.e. a duty to ensure that the action does not have the effect of airbrushing history. Removing relics without comment is not the only option, nor the best one. For instance, a school that chooses to change its name might commission artists to create a permanent exhibition about the relevant history of the name and the historic name change, so as to educate future generations about the changes that have been made. Similarly, it is possible to change a place name, but include a smaller plaque or sign stating the historical name.
Many historians would love to start with simply getting rid of the statues and moving on to other restitutive actions afterward, as the Kruse tweet at the top of this post indicates. Another one:
And this tweet was retweeted by an incredible number of historians:
Statues and memorials don’t just tell us about the period of time they memorialize, but the period of time in which they were built as well as the period of time that they continue to exist in. In fact, it’s very likely they tell us much more about the time they were built than the time they seek to remember because of many of their inaccuracies. This is something well worth discussing in the context of most of the statues people are fighting about. Loewen, a historian, is also of the opinion that we should not maintain these statues:
Some people argue that when we criticize historic monuments and markers, we are being anachronistic—judging people of the past by the standards of our time. Typically however, when the proponents of change dig deeply they find that those celebrated people and events from past eras, whose acts contravene standards of justice and conduct in our time, turn out to have been controversial figures in their own time as well.
When Americans choose to leave a place or street named for a controversial person, we continue to honor their actions in our time. We imply to future generations that by today’s standards, we judge this person to be worthy of remembrance and emulation. When Americans let biased monuments stand with no plaques to balance or contextualize their stories, and when we fail to revise inaccurate or incomplete historical markers, we imply that we continue to endorse these accounts—even though we now know a fuller story.
Generally, people seem to be of the agreement that we need to pursue antiracist goals as a society. But what does that mean? For a lot of people — and corporations — the sentiment stops at that sentence, without analysis of what it means. But I think the first thing to acknowledge is that we exist in a culture that has a background of racism. I won’t go into it in too much detail because we’ve talked about systemic racism in a number of episodes including our most recent, but in order to be antiracist, we need to at least acknowledge that things are very racist. If that’s the case — if dominant culture produces racist outcomes, then we need to acknowledge that we need to change culture from racist to nonracist — by engaging in resistive efforts; known as antiracism. And what are the products of culture? Our art and what we choose to honor and memorialize.
As Sally Haslanger puts it, “overcoming injustice requires changing ideologies, and that this in turn requires changing the social practices through which ideologies are learned.” And further argues that the function of ideology in culture is as a “sets of social meanings which a) function to stabilize problematic social hierarchies, and which b) do so through masking or illusions which make unjust social arrangements appear as if they are just. By making problematic social hierarchies appear just, ideologies lead people to willingly accept these social arrangements, believing that in doing so they are acting in ways that are moral and fair.”
What are the results of this?
People who put up markers and monuments and preserve historic houses are usually pillars of the white community. Americans still live and work in a landscape of white supremacy. Especially in the South, but all across America, even on black college campuses, markers, monuments, and names on the landscape glorify those who fought to keep African Americans in chains as well as those who after Reconstruction worked to make them second-class citizens again. What person gets the most historical markers in any state? Not Lincoln in Illinois it turns out, or Washington in Virginia, but Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry leader and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, in Tennessee. And the white Southerners misguided enough not to be racist are ignored entirely or converted into “good white Southerners” when remembered. Thus Helen Keller’s birthplace flies a Confederate flag, while she was an early supporter of the NAACP.
How does this impact history? Loewen:
When proponents of change do their homework, so they can show that a person or event was controversial in the past and has been idealized in the teeth of damning evidence ever since, opponents of landscape revision cannot claim that correcting markers or removing monuments does violence to our history. Instead they usually argue that the proposed revision does violence to “our heritage.” “The heritage syndrome,” as historian Michael Kammen calls it, is “an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest.” Thus history and heritage are not the same; indeed, the two are often at odds.
The conflict between history and “heritage” goes still deeper. Too often, events that reek of dishonor and shame get abracadabra’ed into a noble heritage. In the early 1990s, Governor Jim Folsom ordered Alabama to stop flying the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol. Immediately, neo-Confederates condemned him for what they called a “heritage violation.” Folsom had no problem with the Confederate flag flying from the First White House of the Confederacy across the street, where its presence was historically appropriate. But the state capitol had flown the flag only since the day in April, 1963, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy visited the building to meet with Governor George Wallace about desegregating the University of Alabama. Then Wallace had used it as a symbol of resistance and white supremacy.
The point to neo-Confederates is not to put the Confederacy into its proper historical context, but to maintain its symbols as sites for homage in the present. Thus neo-Confederates charge “heritage violation” every time people in a community want to remove a monument to white supremacy (45) or stop naming a high school after KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest (54). History gains by such a change, because now that the community no longer must defend its decision to honor such a person or cause, it can afford to tell more about them. Also, the public can develop a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of history from the change on the landscape, especially if a plaque leaves a record of the prior monument or name. The heritage lost is the tradition of decades of distorting an event or honoring a repulsive person. Losing this legacy is precisely the point.
Poet and Educator – Michael Quess Moore:
there is a function of keeping these figures in the landscape, and this is to keep black people in their place. Living in cities with innumerable landmarks named after people who kept enslaved labourers has the effect of leading people to internalize racially hierarchical social images. It sends a signal to people of European descent, communicating that they will not lose status as a result of the wrongs enacted against blacks. It also inferiorizes people of African or indigenous descent, by signalling that the deep injustices suffered by their ancestors are not important enough to the community to cause it to repudiate their actions publicly. Pointing to a 16-foot statue of Robert E. Lee, on a 68-foot column in the centre of New Orleans, Moore asks his students ‘What do you think our city is trying to tell us when they make people like that monuments and put ‘em way up in the sky?’ His students reply ‘That, they are over us, like our parents’ and ‘That they have power’. Physical monuments and prominent place-names communicate important messages about the social world.
Aside from the moral evil of honoring the intentions of racists — ie honoring their wishes by leaving their intentions intact — the constant interrogation of the appropriateness of monuments is a critical part of motivating people to notice how culture and systems are built in ways to reinforce hierarchies — in this case, racism.
Moreover, un-interpreted statues and place-names do not necessarily help people learn the true history of their communities. Instead, they are likely to lead people to assume that the figures involved are broadly positive and appropriate sources of pride. For instance, Christine Townsend analyses the way in which Colston has been valorized in Bristol despite his involvement in slavery.
This man was “our hero”, “our heritage”, “our philanthropist” who gave so much to “our” city. A uniting figure, we were told, who used his money and influence to “help the poor” – a legacy that remains with us today. Then, as now, we saw this man embellished by local institutions, our historical churches, our Cathedral and within state educational practice.
She writes that the prominence of Colston in statues, stained-glass and civic rituals lead to miseducation, not historical awareness.
From Professor of ethics at Seton Hall Travis Timmerman:
What is particularly surprising (and depressing), however, is that the majority of Confederate monuments appear to have been created long after the Civil War for distinct explicitly racist reasons. The majority of Confederate monuments were erected in one of two periods: the portion of the Jim Crow era between the early 1900s and 1920s and the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.xi During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Jim Crow voting laws were passed to disenfranchise African-American voters. A number of advocates in Southern towns erected Confederate statues because the Confederate mythologies seemingly helped justify the Jim Crow laws.xii Historian Jane Dailey argued that erecting public Confederate monuments near government buildings (e.g. in front of court houses) was a “power play” aimed at intimidating African-Americans.
The statue debate is also about who gets left out as much as who gets put in. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that women are vastly underrepresented in historical monuments — even after accounting for the fact that historians typically write them out of history anyway. And when it comes to sexual orientation, they don’t just omit gay and lesbian identities, which may be appropriate in particular circumstances, but lie altogether.
How many majority-white schools or majority-white neighborhoods have sites named after black leaders? Not many. And yet it seems like the opposite is plainly true. Langston Hughes is a quintessentially American author and it seems appropriate that we have American high schools named after him. He enriched the lives of those who read his work, and that’s not just limited to the black community.
Why can’t we have white community centers named for James Baldwin? While many black thought leaders throughout our history have worked under the social condition of oppression — and therefore find their work intersected with race in an explicit way that might make it seem inappropriate for a majority white school — one has to consider that “neutral” philosophy produced by white authors occurs in a background of their whiteness, a normalcy that allows them to stake an “objective” claim that nevertheless alienates itself from the black experience. One should consider, for example, the meritocratic assumptions made by most market philosophers/economists — whose understanding of discrimination is theorized away in their models and/or misunderstood as individual acts instead of through systems.
It’s not just that — we should have schools named after Cesar Chavez and Hiawatha and Jigonsaseh as much as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. They contributed just as much — if not more — to democratic life in the United States as those white statesmen did. And we all benefit from it, not just latinx or indigenous people.
John Brown was a remarkable historical figure and not just because he had an understanding of basic humanity. He was a history-changing force in the United States whose charisma and commitment — including the willingness to kill and die for the rights of his fellow humans — jerked the Overton Window among white Northerners. Before John Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry and subsequent publicity, abolitionism wasn’t an acceptable strain of thought — even a month before Brown became nationally famous. In the months following became a hot talking point and furthered the ideological divide that eventually led to the abolition of slavery. The South would not secede without thinking that there was a material threat to their heinous institution — and Brown made that threat real in his death just as much in his life.
Consider his actions. Kansas was primed to be the next state inducted into the Union, and an earlier compromise made in the Senate determined that any new state inducted into the Union would vote on whether or not it would be a free state or a slave state, leading to a rush into new land to populate it with ideological allies. John Brown’s sons were among the anti-slavery settlers, and Brown learned that violence seemed inevitable, so he packed up and left in order to protect his sons as well as fight slavery, picking up a number of followers — and guns — along the way.
This was not something he was unused to. When he lived in Springfield, Massachusetts he formed the League of Gileadites in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that allowed professional slave catchers to capture black people in free states and return them to plantations in the South. The League was a militia comprised of Brown and his close associates, largely members of Springfield’s local black community but later grew to include 44 additional members of former slaves that Brown helped free through the Underground Railroad. This militia’s intent was to defend, with their lives, freed black men and women from slave catchers.
William Wells Brown the famous black orator who traveled throughout the north recounting his own harrowing experience escaping from slavery commented how Springfield was remarkable for its open defiance of the Fugitive Slave laws.
He noted that on his visit to Springfield, that it was a common sight to see and meet local African Americans at the train station armed and ready to resist any slave catcher who attempted to conduct their “business” in their community.
In fact, it was John Brown who convinced Frederick Douglass that peaceful abolition was impossible and that violence was an inevitability in the fight for freedom. Wrote Douglass:
“From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.”
Brown took this mission, experience and a number of members with him to Kansas.
Kansas was settled mostly by anti-slavery settlers, but there was a substantial faction of pro-slavery settlers, as well as those who lived in slave-state Missouri that would cross the border to illegally vote in elections.
Violence from pro-slavery settlers led to local arrests of anti-slavery settlers despite overwhelming evidence that murder was committed by the pro-slavery faction. This led to an insurrection from anti-slavery forces against the Sheriff and an overwhelming response from pro-slavery forces. The governor could not quell the increasing violence because the militia was composed entirely of pro-slavery forces, and they chose to sit aside, in Missouri, as pro-slavery rioters wreaked havoc.
Pro-slavery Democrats from Missouri crossed the border and invaded Kansas, destroyed anti-slavery newspapers, looted stores, killed two people and used a cannon they stole from the militia. In response, John Brown led his followers — including his sons — to retaliate, calling pacifist anti-slavery settlers “cowards, or worse” in the face of threats from pro-slavery forces to do even worse as time went on.
That led to what is commonly called the Pottawatomie massacre, where he killed five professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery activists. Textbooks later argued that Brown killed people indiscriminately, which is why it’s still called a massacre, but they were very specific in their targets, going house by house and typically leaving every resident alone — notably killing professional slave hunters when and only when they found those monsters.
Then consider what his contemporaries said about him as he faced hanging by the state:
“It seems as if no man had ever died in America before, for in order to die you must first have lived,” Henry David Thoreau observed in a eulogy in Boston. “These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.” Thoreau went on to compare Brown with Jesus of Nazareth
Here’s what Loewen has to say about Brown:
After an initial shock wave of revulsion against Brown, in the North as well as in the South, Americans were fascinated to hear what he had to say. In his 1859 trial John Brown captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slaveowner before or since. He knew it: “My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right.” In his speech to the court on November 2, just before the judge sentenced him to die, Brown argued, “Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, it would have been all right.”
He referred to the Bible, which he saw in the courtroom, “which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction.” Brown went on to claim the high moral ground: “I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong but right.” Although he objected that his impending death penalty was unjust, he accepted it and pointed to graver injustices: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”
In Larchmont, New York, George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary, “One’s faith in anything is terribly shaken by anybody who is ready to go to the gallows condemning and denouncing it.”
His letters to supporters and remarks to journalists, widely circulated, formed a continuing indictment of slavery. We see his charisma in this letter from “a conservative Christian” — so the author signed it — written to Brown in jail: “While I cannot approve of all your acts, I stand in awe of your position since your capture, and dare not oppose you lest I be found fighting against God; for you speak as one having authority, and seem to be strengthened from on high.”
When Virginia executed John Brown on December 2, making him the first American since the founding of the nation to be hanged as a traitor, church bells mourned in cities throughout the North. Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman were among the poets who responded to the event. “The gaze of Europe is fixed at this moment on America,” wrote Victor Hugo from France. Hanging Brown, Hugo predicted, “will open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder. The punishment of John Brown may consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it will certainly shatter the American Democracy. You preserve your shame but you kill your glory.”
Brown’s charisma in the North, meanwhile, was not spent but only increased due to what many came to view as his martyrdom. As the war came, as thousands of Americans found themselves making the same commitment to face death that John Brown had made, the force of his example took on new relevance. That’s why soldiers marched into battle singing “John Brown’s Body.”
Two years later, church congregations sang Julia Ward Howe’s new words to the song: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” and the identification of John Brown and Jesus Christ took another turn. The next year saw the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment parading through Boston to the tune, en route to its heroic destiny with death in South Carolina, while William Lloyd Garrison surveyed the cheering bystanders from a balcony, his hand resting on a bust of John Brown. In February 1865 another Massachusetts colored regiment marched to the tune through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina.
Here’s what Frederick Douglass had to say about a man he considered to be indispensable in the movement to abolish slavery:
His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine – it was as the burning sun to my taper light – mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him. The crown of martyrdom is high, far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, and yet happily no special greatness or superior moral excellence is necessary to discern and in some measure appreciate a truly great soul.
It must be admitted that Brown assumed tremendous responsibility in making war upon the peaceful people of Harper’s Ferry, but it must be remembered also that in his eye a slave-holding: community could not be peaceable, but was, in the nature of the case, in one incessant state of war. To him such a community was not more sacred than a band of robbers: it was the right of any one to assault it by day or night. He saw no hope that slavery would ever be abolished by moral or political means: “he knew,” he said, “the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders, and that they never would consent to give up their slaves, till they felt a big stick about their heads.”
Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times. No! No man fails, or can fail who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.
If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia – not Fort Sumpter, but Harper’s Ferry and the arsenal – not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.
When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.
His impact was immense, his insight just and his example to be everything we strive for in a true founding father. That we honor the founder of the KKK more than we do one of the greatest men to live in this country is an enormous shame.
Ulysses S. Grant
There has been a weird discussion on Grant precipitated by the toppling of his statue in San Francisco. While I don’t begrudge anyone who felt genuine rage at Grant’s continued warfare on indigenous populations in the United States, it feels like the online discussion has been more about casting nets and post-hoc justifying the destruction of his statue — which has resulted in a mess in the mentions of people like Adam Serwer at the Atlantic, whose work I generally respect. He handled this pretty poorly, however.
Grant also incidentally provides a pretty interesting case of historical neglect through the use of monuments. He demonstrates that how we treat monuments tells us about how history has treated those figures.
So, who was Ulysses S. Grant?
Elected in 1868, Grant took office on the heels of Lincoln’s assassination and replacing Andrew Johnson, one of the worst presidents in American history by using his popularity as the ur-example of successful Union generals. In his first term, he reversed the racist policies of President Johnson and forced the South to recognize citizenship for black citizens.
He stabilized the post-war national economy, created the Department of Justice, and destroyed the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which has since reappeared twice more in American history. He appointed African-Americans and Jewish-Americans to prominent federal offices. He used military pressure to force southern states to recognize fairly elected blacks in their state legislatures and encouraged black political power to bloom in the South, with landslide elections in 1872 for black legislators throughout what was formerly slave country — sometimes with force. As Loewen notes:
During Reconstruction, a biracial Republican coalition had won election to most state and city offices. The White League, white New Orleans Democrats determined to replace those officials with their own men, had planned their takeover at the elite Boston Club. Their platform made their objective clear: “Having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to the men of our race… to unite with us… in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man’s government in the city and the State.”
On the morning of September 14, 1874, thousands of white Democrats gathered at the statue of Henry Clay … After incendiary speeches about 8,400 whites attacked 3,000 black members of the state militia, 500 mostly white members of the metropolitan police, and 100 other local police officers.
Eleven metropolitans and their allies were killed and 60 wounded. Twenty-one White Leaguers were killed including two bystanders, and nineteen were wounded. White League officials then took charge of all state offices in New Orleans and appealed to Pres. Grant for recognition.
Grant refused to recognize the new group, and a few days later federal troops restored the Republican governor to office. League members had no choice but to vacate the government posts they had seized.
I’m not saying he’s anything close to a great president or even that he’s worthy of memorializing; if people want to take down his statues because of what he’s done, that makes sense to me. He wanted to annex the Dominican Republic, failed to regulate industries and directly established a monetary system that led to runaway inflation — leading to the Panic of 1873 and he overrelied on wealthy barons for political advice.
But Grant’s historical legacy is considered one of corruption. And there was a fair amount of that, with tax evasion from his political associates and an overrepresentation of friends and family in high levels of government — but the genesis of the accusation came from Senator Charles Sumner, who saw his appointments of black and indigenous Americans to federal offices as violations of the public trust.
Those accusations ended up having a lot of teeth, resulting in a string of scandals likely not rivaled in its numeracy until… about now. As the History Channel succinctly puts it:
Grant’s attorney general, secretary of war, secretary of the navy and secretary of the interior were all accused of taking bribes. His private secretary was implicated in a conspiracy to cheat the government out of tax revenue from the production of whiskey. The robber barons Jim Fisk and Jay Gould tricked Grant into aiding their scheme to manipulate the gold market, leading to a national financial panic known as Black Friday. Grant’s own brother Orvil, one of many relatives he put on the government payroll, was exposed in a kickback scheme that made the military overpay for provisions.
But those scandals had come to define a presidency much more complicated than this summary and tainted by racists hoping to diminish anyone who fought for black rights, ignoring the fact that he was probably just easily tricked and fully supported every prosecution. From the nadir in 1890 to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, monuments to Grant had lain in neglect — including his tomb in Manhattan. It wasn’t until 1997 that his tomb was restored to its original state, with more emphasis placed on his belief in fully equal rights — which marked him as a Radical Republican, instead of the reform Republicans who disliked how far he went in the elevation of “weaker” races. And, let’s be clear, he also believed blacks to be one of the “weaker” races — but figured liberation and equity was the best path to resolve this disparity — he didn’t see it as deterministic.
That’s not the only such memorial, as Joel Achenbach at the New York Times demonstrates:
The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is the Lost Monument of Washington. It might as well be invisible. No one knows it’s there. Its location is actually spectacular, right at the foot of Capitol Hill, at the opening to the Mall. The memorial features one of the largest equestrian statues in the world, set on a platform 250 feet wide, with ancillary sculptures that are heaving with action and drama.
This neglect is intentional, a reflection of a flattening of his historical impact to one of incompetence instead of a mixed record and largely being on the right side of history when it came to black liberation. There has been a discussion online about whether he was a “bad person” and he almost certainly was, and not just in the sense that every president has been a “bad person” who has abused his power. Grant launched a war against the Plains Indians in his second term in a desperate bid to create wealth to resolve the mistakes he and his administration made leading to the panic of 1873, then the worst depression in the nation’s history.
While many historians point out that this war was illegal, and also subject to coverups and lies from the administration the real crime is not the illegality of the attempted genocide but the act itself. Why did he lie? Because one of his pledges was to “keep the West free of war,” a policy that he followed through on in his first term.
He was actually so successful in lying about the war that most of the recorded history has forgotten about it, making his actions in the first term of his presidency the matter of record on his policy with regard to native Americans.
And if he was judged entirely by his first term, he’d likely be regarded as one of history’s best presidents — again, a low bar. Grant believed, and acted on the belief, that every human in the United States should be afforded the rights of full citizenship in the United States — fighting back against discrimination against Catholics, Jews, American Indians and blacks in the United States. He established funding mechanisms for those American Indians in the United States to receive subsidies to build back after what had been taken from them — though I want to be clear — he was doing some of the taking.
Here’s what the Smithsonian says about his first moves in office:
Grant was sworn into office as president in 1869, and set forth his vision in his first inaugural address. Calling American Indians the “original occupants of the land,” he promised to pursue any course of action that would lead to their “ultimate citizenship.” It was not an idle promise. In the spring of 1865, he had been appointed the nation’s first General of the Army, a post that involved overseeing all the armies of the United States—including in the West, where conflicts with native tribes had raged throughout the Civil War. In this position, Grant had relied on his good friend and military secretary, Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, for advice. Now, as the newly inaugurated president of the United States, he was ready to implement his plans for the Indians, with Parker at his side as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
It’s worth pointing out that Parker was the first American Indian appointed to that office, and would be the last for some time. Grant was open in his belief that the United States had committed a genocide against American Indians, and impoverished them, acknowledging the role that poverty, diseases like smallpox and alcoholism had in maintaining that oppression.
That doesn’t mean even in his first term that Grant was even very good about his treatment of the indigenous people of the United States. He started with the assumption that everyone in the United States wanted citizenship, failing to recognize the large number of Indian tribes that preferred to be independent nations. He also localized his policy to people on reservations, and those tribes who were not on reservations resisted his attempts to assimilate them. He openly believed in cultural assimilation too — believing that natives would want to be “civilized” into European society, though he preferred they do so at their own pace and of their own volition.
There has been some disagreement about the “at their own pace” part, with many regarding Grant as responsible for the dreaded assimilationist boarding schools — but they emerged after his administration though as a result of his belief in assimilation. Here’s what he said in December of 1869:
“No matter what ought to be the relations between such settlements and the aborigines, the fact is they do not harmonize well, and one or the other has to give way in the end. A system which looks to the extinction of a race is too horrible for a nation to adopt without entailing upon itself the wrath of all Christendom and engendering in the citizen a disregard for human life and the rights of others, dangerous to society. I see no substitute for such a system,”
So far, so good — but he got directionality wrong. He continued:
“except in placing all the Indians on large reservations, as rapidly as it can be done, and giving them absolute protection there.”
If he had finished that part of the speech with an announcement to an end of Westward expansion and make all such settlements illegal, that would have been a much better resolution to his declaration that “one or the other has to give way.”
His fundamental belief in the humanity of Indian Americans did not extend to a respect for their cultures, though he also argued for cultural preservation. I’m not sure those arguments amount to much.
Of course, Grant’s primary opposition came in the form of imperialist and wealthy whites who despised his practice of appointing Native Americans to positions in the Department of Indian Affairs, which had primarily been used as patronage rewards for wealthy supporters. They also hated his policy of ordering the military to defend reservations and deliver food and supplies to them, and those opponents nearly ousted Parker for made up embezzlement charges regarding one such delivery.
Massacres occurred under his presidency, including the Camp Grant massacre in Arizona and the Peigan Massacre in Montana. While both were rogue actions by military commanders, later fired by Grant because of their actions, it should be noted that the Camp Grant massacre in particular was a result of a policy that required that Apache tribespeople be put on reservations to “receive food and agriculture education.”
This all fell apart, like I said, in his second term — some of it, again, due to rogue commanders. When, for example, Modoc tribespeople murdered an American general during negotiations, the military asked Grant for permission to exterminate the tribe — Grant denied that order, but nevertheless ordered that the specific tribespeople involved in the assassination be punished. The military in California ignored the order and attempted to restart the Modoc War.
In addition to the wars against the Plains Indians, Grant also adopted a policy of intentional neglect with regard to the extermination of the bison population and refused to pass laws that prevented their destruction in the great plains — under the assumption that destroying the food supply would make Native Americans easier to negotiate with and force them into a “superior” lifestyle of agriculture, rather than hunting.
His second term saw some of the worst expansion and genocide of postwar America and set the stage for the worst of the cultural extermination of indigenous people in the United States. So, take down his statue.
But the arguments surrounding him also include arguments about how he treated black Americans, something that doesn’t seem to accord with history. Serwer fucked this discussion up, of course — when it was pointed out to him that Grant was a slaveowner, Serwer said “he owned one slave,” as if that made it any better.
Instead, a discussion about William Jones — the person in question — would give us a better understanding of this interaction. Jones’ enslavement by Grant’s father-in-law would, by inheritance, become Jones’ enslavement by Grant — who promptly freed Jones. The situation regarding Jones is probably not where the best critique of Grant from the perspective of race relations is, but his willingness to marry into a family that enslaved a number of people while he also benefited from their labor.
Sure, Grant was “uncomfortable” with slavery, but not as uncomfortable as his father — who was a much more strident abolitionist than he was — and though Grant refused to engage in the worst exigencies of ownership, working alongside slaves in the fields while refusing to order them around and refusing to “discipline” any slaves he worked alongside with, this can contribute to liberal mythmaking.
OK, he didn’t order them, he “asked” them to perform labor. And he didn’t “ask” them to do anything he himself would not do. But the fundamental power structure here is the problem, not how he operated within that power structure. In fact, he was more regressive than the biggest influence on his life, his stridently abolitionist father — who told him that he refused to help a young, struggling Grant while he still benefited from slave labor. When asking for a loan from his father, Ulysses received this reply, “Ulysses, when you are ready to come North I will give you a start, but so long as you make your home among a tribe of slave-owners I will do nothing.”
He never owned any of the slaves he worked alongside, but he benefited from the fact that his wife and her family did — and whether or not Grant genuinely believed he was “asking” them to perform labor with no intention of forcing them to perform any labor that they did not want, it’s insane to believe that their position was anything but humiliation. Were he a more strident abolitionist at this point in his life, he would not have promised to marry this woman or he would have surreptitiously worked to free those people. He did not.
The critique of Grant was not that he owned a person. He apparently made sure that he did not own anybody and freed William Jones as soon as he was able at great cost to himself. It was that he was complicit in the system for so long — even traveling with his wife and several people in her father’s ownership after they moved. He was not legally allowed to free them, but they served him in his home. And after that, he hired them out and took all their wages.
People also took issue with Serwer’s argument that Grant smashed the KKK, because after all, it still exists now and did great damage throughout American history. But Serwer is right about this — the KKK stopped existing for a long period of time, with a completely new group with no ties to the old group taking on the name in 1915, under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. That’s why the KKK’s history is divided into three periods and why one can say that the Allies smashed the Nazis in Germany in World War II yet still acknowledge the existence of neo-Nazis — the KKK that grew into being in 1915 and are a product of what historians call the neo-Confederacy.
Grant declared the KKK a terrorist organization and stamped them out with the full might of the military. Historian Eric Foner says of the original Klan:
By 1872, the federal government’s evident willingness to bring its legal and coercive authority to bear had broken the Klan’s back and produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South. So ended the Reconstruction career of the Ku Klux Klan.
Both the attacks on Grant and defense of Grant seem to be missing the mark here. It very much seems like Grant grew to despise slavery more and more as his life went on — I don’t say this to give him a gold star for recognizing humanity — but rather to give context to the fact that black Republicans at the time overwhelmingly celebrated him.
Frederick Douglass eulogized Grant as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” Further adding “To him, more than to any other man, the Negro owes his enfranchisement. When red-handed violence ran rampant through the South, and freedmen were being hunted down like wild beasts in the night, the moral courage and fidelity of Gen. Grant transcended that of his party. Abraham Lincoln made [the Negro] a free man, and Gen. Ulysses S, Grant made him a citizen.”
When black Republicans took control of Southern legislatures, they renamed a number of institutions after Grant because of how critical he was in the fight for liberation — including Grant parish in Louisiana.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Forrest is a somewhat unique figure when it comes to monuments. As Loewen puts it, “What person gets the most historical markers in any state? Not Lincoln in Illinois it turns out, or Washington in Virginia, but Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry leader and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, in Tennessee.” Loewen goes on:
White Southerners still honor Forrest. In the early 1970s, after judges required public schools in the South to desegregate fully, segregated “academies” sprang up across Dixie and several were named for him. And in July 1998, the “League of the South” dedicated a big new statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest at a “Confederate Flag Park” on private property south of Nashville.
Nathan Bedford Forrest stands as the paramount hero on the Tennessee landscape. He gets a bust in the state capitol, a statue in Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis, obelisks at his birthplace in Chapel Hill and at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park near Camden, and thirty-two different state historical markers, far more than any other person in any other state in America. Tennessee supplied three United States presidents—Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson—but Forrest gets more markers than all three put together.
There’s nothing redeeming Forrest or his statues. From Loewen:
Across the South, historical markers would have us believe that the Confederacy won every skirmish and most battles—mystifying the outcome. Liston Pope, who grew up in the South, said it best: “I never could understand how our Confederate troops could have won every battle in the War so decisively and then have lost the war itself!”
Forrest’s military career simply cannot explain the extraordinary homage the Tennessee landscape pays him. His operations in Tennessee were on a modest scale, far less important than those of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, say, or Ulysses S. Grant. Yet Bragg and Grant get far less recognition. The key to the veneration accorded Forrest is to be found in what he did in Tennessee after the Civil War.
After the war Forrest became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Jack Hurst begins his recent biography of Forrest, “A dozen years after the Civil War, the South overturned its outcome,” referring to the Klan and the larger class of violent actions that it epitomized. Thus these markers and monuments pay tribute to Forrest as a victor, as markers and monuments usually do.
In so doing the landscape honors one of the most vicious racists in U.S. history. Forrest had been a slave trader before the Civil War and sold people brought in illegally from Africa half a century after Congress supposedly ended that trade in 1808. During the war, he presided over massacres of surrendered black troops at Fort Pillow and Brice’s Cross Roads. After the war he hired black convict labor, the closest thing to slave labor, for his cotton plantation near Memphis.
Ben argued on the podcast that “if Forrest could do what Hitler did, he would have.” This is not an exaggeration. When Loewen calls Forrest one of the most vicious racists in U.S. history, he’s only striving for accuracy — not exaggeration. Here’s what Loewen references with regards to the Fort Pillow massacre, a historical site in Tennessee that refuses to tell people why it’s historic:
Overlooking the Mississippi River some forty miles north of Memphis is Fort Pillow, the scene of a Union fiasco on April 12, 1864. But something more portentous than mere defeat happened here. From April 1864 to the end of the war a year later, black U.S. regiments charged into battle with the cry of vengeance “Remember Fort Pillow!” Something grim happened to Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, especially to African Americans, something that inflamed people all across the North. But what? Unless today’s visitors already know, they won’t find out from this site.
People who were there have left a record of testimony. Five days after the battle a Union soldier wrote in a letter home: “As soon as the rebels got to the top of the bank there commenced the most horrible slaughter that could possibly be conceived. Our boys when they saw they were overpowered threw down their arms and held up, some their handkerchiefs and some their hands in token of surrender, but no sooner were they seen than they were shot down, and if one shot failed to kill them, the bayonet or revolver did not.” A Confederate newspaper correspondent explained the difference in death ratios by race: “The whites received quarter, but the Negroes were shown no mercy.” And a Confederate sergeant wrote to his sisters seven days after the battle:
The slaughter was awful—words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen—blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded, but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.
“Surviving Federals claimed the killing went on sporadically into the next day,” according to Jack Hurst, another Forrest biographer. Soldiers testified before the Congressional inquiry that Confederates buried some wounded soldiers alive and crucified others by nailing them onto tent frames and then setting the tents afire. A day or so after the battle Forrest’s men, who had Major Bradford, the Union commander at Fort Pillow, in custody, killed him too.
At first Confederates exulted in the slaughter. In his initial report Forrest claimed that his men killed 71 percent of the Union forces. Other Confederates there suggested 80 percent. “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards,” Forrest boasted to his superiors; he “hoped” Fort Pillow would “demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
The Confederacy never charged anyone with any wrongdoing as a result of any of these events. On the contrary, six weeks after the Fort Pillow massacre the Confederate Congress passed a joint resolution commending Forrest and his men “for their late brilliant and successful campaign in Mississippi, West Tennessee, and Kentucky,” a campaign which, they said, “has conferred upon its authors enduring fame.” Thus in his own mind and in the assessment of his government, Forrest and his men did no wrong, but right. Three weeks later at the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads in north Mississippi on June 10, Forrest’s men again shot down African Americans who had already surrendered.
And in a different chapter:
Forrest biographer Brian Wills notes that black opponents always inflamed Forrest. After his successful raid at Murfreesboro for instance, a Confederate officer brought before Forrest “a mulatto man, who was the servant to one of the officers in the Union forces.” Forrest cursed him and asked what he was doing there. The man replied that he was a free man, not a slave, and came out as the servant to an officer, whom he named. Forrest drew his pistol and blew the man’s brains out. The Confederate officer, who knew the man came from Pennsylvania and had never been enslaved, “denounced the act as one of cold-blooded murder and declared that he would never again serve under Forrest,” according to Wills.
Robert E. Lee
When you look at the statue of Robert E Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia — you don’t look at a symbol of a broken man fighting for a fallen cause. The statue towers over its environment — it’s 6 stories tall! It’s both figuratively and quite literally considered the center of Richmond, with most maps placing Lee Circle as the centerpoint of the city.
And many people interpret the statue as one of honor, not solemn remembrance. From a Washington Post story on the statue:
Later that day, a white woman approached the statue wearing a straw hat and a hoop skirt reminiscent of the Civil War era. Escorted by a man in modern clothes, she drifted past homemade memorials to African Americans killed by police and knelt on the colorful graffiti of the statue’s base. She kissed her fingers, then touched the monument reverently. Onlookers stared.
“I am a Confederate woman during the 1860s, and I support Lee,” the woman said when asked about her dress. “We wanted to see this monument before they take it down. I’m very sad to see the marking on it. It’s such a beautiful piece of history. There was nothing racist about Robert E. Lee.”
In a low Carolina drawl, Lauren began listing what she described as Lee’s positive qualities: He was humble. He hated tyranny. He taught his slaves to read.
This is in line with the statue’s intent and design. Loewen:
Size conveys importance. Monuments also communicate eminence by how they portray a person. Thus the statue of George Washington in the National Museum of American History has the body of a Greek god, even though he didn’t. Similarly, Jefferson Davis sits on a horse at Stone Mountain, Georgia, alongside his generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, even though as president of the Confederacy he spent most of his time behind a desk. We look up to men on horseback, physically and figuratively. Ever since the invention of the automobile, sculptors have scrambled to figure out ways to get passersby to look up to the people they are characterizing.
These statues are part of a system that completely erase the actual history of the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee, a racist who supported slavery. As the Atlantic puts it:
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.
But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one.
There are unwitting victims of this campaign—those who lack the knowledge to separate history from sentiment. Then there are those whose reverence for Lee relies on replacing the actual Lee with a mythical figure who never truly existed.
White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions.
Lee was a slave owner—his own views on slavery were explicated in an 1856 letter that is often misquoted to give the impression that Lee was some kind of abolitionist. In the letter, he describes slavery as “a moral & political evil,” but goes on to explain that:
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.
The argument here is that slavery is bad for white people, good for black people, and most important, better than abolitionism; emancipation must wait for divine intervention. That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.
Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”
Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington, Virginia, plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.
When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”
During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free black Americans and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” to the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”
Lee was not a good person. But our collective reverence for him certainly convinces people that he must have been.
Every state that seceded mentioned slavery as the cause in their declarations of secession. Lee’s beloved Virginia was no different, accusing the federal government of “perverting” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Lee’s decision to fight for the South can only be described as a choice to fight for the continued existence of human bondage in America
People concerned about “losing our history” should be on the front lines of taking down statues of Columbus. Nothing represents historical distortion more than our lionization of an honestly not-that-relevant figure in American history — yet has been blown up so out of proportion that we separate history into pre-Colombian and post-Colombian to mark his arrival in 1492.
We can break down his history by using a different James W. Loewen book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. In that book, he reviews the 12 most popular American history textbooks for high schoolers and does an incredible job breaking down how they omit, lie or misrepresent great swaths of American history in order to tell an unblemished tale about the promise of America or something. Here’s what he cobbled together from those textbooks as the typical Colombian journey:
Born in Genoa, Italy, of humble parents, Christopher Columbus grew up to become an experienced seafarer. He sailed the Atlantic as far as Iceland and West Africa. His adventures convinced him that the world must be round. Therefore the fabled riches of the East—spices, silk, and gold—could be had by sailing west, superseding the overland route through the Middle East, which the Turks had closed off to commerce.
To get funding for his enterprise, Columbus beseeched monarch after monarch in western Europe, After at first being dismissed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus finally got his chance when Queen Isabella decided to underwrite a modest expedition.
Columbus outfitted three pitifully small ships, the Nina, the Pinto, and the Santa Maria, and set forth from Spain. The journey was difficult. The ships sailed west into the unknown Atlantic for more than two months. The crew almost mutinied and threatened to throw Columbus overboard. Finally they reached the West Indies on October 12, 1492.
Although Columbus made three more voyages to America, he never really knew he had discovered a New World. He died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring, American history would have been very different, for in a sense Columbus made it all possible.
Almost every statement of fact here is a lie.
We have no idea where he was born. He was literate, but not in Italian, making his Genovese origin potentially suspect (though that isn’t ruled out, either) and there’s some evidence he may have been from Portugal. There are no foundational historical claims as to his family’s wealth either — he could have been poor, comfortable or rich — though the last is least likely given the record-keeping of the very-wealthy in Europe at the time. We don’t know where he was intending on going, even — though most people seem convinced it was India without much evidence.
We don’t have much evidence either that his initial voyage was fraught with danger and very good evidence that the journey was actually surprisingly easy, as his journals indicate. We also know that the journey across the Atlantic took one month, not two. We do know that the ships weren’t “pitifully small,” but rather standard for the time and at least most people recognize these days that most people in Europe didn’t believe the earth was flat, especially not sailors, who could observe evidence like seeing ships disappear on the horizon bottom-first. In fact, the flat-earth theory was put forth in 1828 by Washington Irving in his biography of Columbus! There’s no historical record of this notional pioneering by Columbus before that. The sailors never threatened to mutiny, and griped a little bit about the things you would gripe about if you lived with the same people for a month.
Not only that, his “discoveries”, which were more a fact-finding mission than anything. He was not an underappreciated intrepid explorer, but made wealthy immediately, and the evidence for that is… his return journeys to the Americas, which textbooks will typically cover despite the fact that they often lament his poverty. It’s very odd. Anyway, he ran a slave operation mining gold and got famously wealthy and earned a hereditary title — Admiral of the Ocean Sea, now-carried by his eighteenth-generation descendant.
Textbooks might get the idea that he died poor because he was arrested for embezzlement, but his heirs successfully sued the claims back. And also that arrest just stripped him of his titles, not wealth (again, the titles were restored). His direct male-line descendant is the Duke of Veragua and holds an actual title in the Spanish Navy as a vice admiral.
The textbooks’ first mistake is to underplay previous explorers. People from other continents had reached the Americas many times before 1492. Even if Columbus had never sailed, other Europeans would have soon reached the Americas. Indeed, Europeans may already have been fishing off Newfoundland in the 1480s. It was epoch-making because of the way in which Europe responded. Columbus’s importance is therefore primarily attributable to changing conditions in Europe, not to his having reached a “new” continent.
So Loewen goes on to recount the state of Europe at the time and how American high school history textbooks cover it — which essentially boils down to American historians oversimplifying and often lying about the state of Europe in the 1500s, often blaming the “need” for overseas travel on evil Muslim Turks, who “cut off the spice trade” — even though they did no such thing and benefited from trade routes — and go right to the importance of Columbus, who would have been replaced by another explorer if he had not done what he did. Again, the book is well worth a read and he efficiently dissects the changes in Europe that likely led to the response Europe had to Columbus’ voyage.
The sources are perfectly clear about Columbus’s motivation: in 1495, for instance, Michele de Cuneo wrote about accompanying Columbus on his 1494 expedition into the interior of Haiti “After we had rested for several days in our settlement, it seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on so great a voyage full of so many dangers,”12 Columbus was no greedier than the Spanish, or later the English and French. But textbooks downplay the pursuit of wealth as a motive for coming to the Americas when they describe Columbus and later explorers and colonists.
A lot of the inability to craft real analysis on why Europe was poised for global domination leaves it as fait accompli — as an inevitability to something inherent about the world (you can fill in the blanks for what that might be). As Loewen puts it:
High school students don’t usually think about the rise of Europe to world domination. It is rarely presented as a question. It seems natural, a given, not something that needs to be explained. Deep down, our culture encourages us to imagine that we are richer and more powerful because we’re smarter. Of course, there are no studies showing Americans to be more intelligent than, say, Iraqis. Still, since textbooks don’t identify or encourage us to think about the real causes, “we’re smarter” festers as a possibility. Also left festering is the notion that “it’s natural” for one group to dominate another,15 While history brims with examples of national domination, it also is full of counterexamples. The contact between Norse and Indians around 1000 A.D., for example, though mostly unfriendly, was not marked by domination. The triracial Native American societies that developed after 1492—from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, through Florida to Ecuador—also offer evidence that domination is not natural but cultural.
And of course Guns, Germs and Steel covers this in an exhausting and approachable way.
So what was unique about Columbus? Two things — the first implementation of the transatlantic slave trade and the taking of land and wealth directly from the people living on the land. Before that, explorers would often merely survey the land, establish a colony or work with the indigenous people already there.
One way to visualize how terrifying it must have been for Arawaks is to take a page from HG Wells, who intended for War of the Worlds to be told from the perspective of a colonized force as a technologically superior imperial force landed ashore. And while War of the Worlds ended positively with a pandemic infecting the invaders, we know it occurred the other way around in the Americas.
Columbus’ journals from his first journey tell us immediately that the first thing he looked for was gold and when he returned, he asked for any material item of value from them, treating any minor offenses to his sensibilities — or slowness in fulfilling his orders — with extreme harshness, cutting off noses or hands and allowing those Arawaks returning home to offer a living example of his brutality.
They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
Columbus concluded his report to Queen Isabella by asking for “a little help from their Majesties,” and in return, he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.”
This provoked resistance, and he used that resistance and as an excuse to wage all-out war, again something he indicated in his journals was a not undesirable end. And we know this wasn’t just him “being a product of his time” in part because the Arawaks weren’t intending the same and because we have the journals of his detractors from the time, including Bartolome de Las Casas — who was not unique in his revulsion. I’ve heard people say that he was alone in his understanding of the atrocities, but he really wasn’t. For one, there were the indigenous people living on the island that made their case fairly clear. Among his contemporaries in the Caribbean were Dominican Friar Antonio de Montesinos and Spanish missionary Pedro de Córdoba — who was crucial in changing Las Casas’ mind on the issue — as well as, to some extent, several Hieronymite monks.
From de Montesinos:
“Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.”
In fact, the entire group of Dominican monks that arrived on the island came to the same conclusion.
Let me quote Las Casas here. This stuff gets uncomfortable
Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians….
The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”
Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides … they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…. in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile … was depopulated. …
When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….”
acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before.
Las Casas reported atrocities like bellies being torn open and dogs being set loose on the native population to eat them alive — and when meat was low, to kill babies for dog food. Columbus encouraged his men to rape children of 9 or 10 years old. They would cut off the legs of children who ran away, with even one report saying that children were roasted on spits.
Columbus needed to pay back his investors in 1495 and didn’t find the fields of gold he expected as he sailed through the islands. He refused to believe there was almost no gold, forcing the Taino inhabitants of the Dominican Republic to bring him a ‘hawk’s bell’ full of gold dust every three months. The natives were made to wear a copper disc around their necks to prove they’d paid their tribute. Those caught without a disc had their arms hacked off, or were murdered outright. Those whose arms were cut off were often left to bleed to death.
As soon as the 1493 expedition got to the Caribbean … Columbus was rewarding his lieutenants with native women to rape. On Haiti, sex slaves were one more prerequisite that … (they) enjoyed.” It included adult rape and child rape. As Columbus himself wrote in 1500, “… girls … from 9-10 … are … in demand.” In one day, de las Casas saw Columbus’ soldiers “dismember, behead or rape 3,000 natives
My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. …
His wholesale destruction of the communities and subsequent enslavement and genocide, is what makes his trip to the Americas unique when compared to earlier explorers. We didn’t see this from previous European, Asian or African explorers to the Americas, and Columbus’ actions led to a centuries-long reign of terror over the continents.
One issue with this is not necessarily inherent to monuments but can be a contradiction for people who typically make these arguments is that many people who want to preserve these monuments typically believe in objective morality, often handed down by a greater power. If that’s the case, there is no reason not to reserve judgment for figures who could only be considered moral in “the context of their times”.
When we put up statues, we celebrate what’s unique about that person. The only two things that are unique about Columbus are either a lie or a genocide.