Statues, Heroes, and the Role of Institutions in History

Recently, efforts to topple statues have broadened beyond Confederate leaders in the US to other historical figures at home and abroad. I confess that I am not well-versed in the scholarship of public monuments, but I wanted to gather my thoughts on the meaning of public statues while they are still the subject of current events.

Tearing down Confederate monuments is the culmination of a longstanding debate. The Confederate States of America was explicitly created to maintain slavery and white supremacy, though defenders insisted that Confederate icons were symbols of Southern pride. During the Civil Rights Era, defenders of Jim Crow erected Confederate Statues in defiance of Civil Rights. Both mass movements and governmental institutions have understandably taken down many of these statues. In the past three years, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 113 Confederate monuments have been removed.

Recently, monuments to George Washington, General Ulysses Grant, 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier have also been targeted. While I do not know the intentions behind the protestors or whether they were even intentional, I have wondered why we need statues of individual historical figures. I will outline some reasons why they may obscure proper historical understanding, but then follow up with reasons they still hold value.

For starters, history is more than a story of the choices of decisive figures; individuals are often products of their time and institutional forces, as scholars in American Political Development tend to stress. Many economic, political, and social trends are the result of an interaction of separate historical trajectories that unintentionally create the results we read about in the news and in history books. Business people do not lower prices because of kindness towards customers, but because supply and demand incentivize it. One might argue that statues promote a simplistic understanding of history because they promote the idea that history is a series of events directed by individuals. Of course, institutional explanations of history also suggest we might be less judgmental of people in the past. If people are products of their historical context, a person heroic by modern standards would have committed similar sins thrust into a different historical context.

Impersonal institutions are difficult to understand, so popular understandings of history often posit a small number of individuals orchestrating history’s direction. This is why charities and movements often focus on identifiable victims rather than statistics. It is also part of the appeal of dubious conspiracy theories. People would rather attribute problems to the evil intentions of individual agents than impersonal forces. As Liliana Mason has pointed out, people who do not know what to blame problems on feel anxious; people who can blame problems on a target feel angry. It feels better to be angry than anxious.

Second, any person immortalized in stone is likely to commit some actions or possess some beliefs that will be deemed immoral by future generations. No one perfectly meets the moral standards of their own time, let alone a future one cannot fully anticipate. Ulysses Grant had progressive racial attitudes towards African Americans compared with most politicians of his time: ending the Civil War, waging a vigorous effort to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and lending moral support to the fifteenth amendment. But he held abhorrent views on Native Americans and Jewish people (Biographer Ron Chernow offers evidence that his views were less abhorrent than typical Americans of his day). Contemporary observers can point out that even if people depicted in statues were less bad than their contemporaries, there is no reason to idolize them today.

There are ways for public monuments to overcome both objections. They can commemorate events and movements rather than the most famous people that were a part of them, as Vietnam Veterans Memorial does. Grant’s victories in the Civil War helped make the world a better place, but we might instead have a monument to the Union victory rather than Grant.

While monuments to events may avoid simplistic understandings of history, I still think public monuments to historic individuals have a place. Popular imagination tends to overstate the decisiveness of individuals and understate the decisiveness of institutions, but individual decisions still play a role. Grant may be one such individual; there is a plausible case that the Union would not have won the war without him. If we want to teach people that individual contributions to society are valued and that everyone has the potential to make a difference, there is reason to celebrate people who made a difference for the better. In fact, part of the reason that Confederate statues are so upsetting is the implication that such individuals changed things for the better. Doesn’t our reaction implies at least some agency for the figures we are removing? For any individual, some of their good deeds and flaws were a product of their historical context. It is worth celebrating what good they did to surpass their contemporaries. Even if the world is deterministic, people need to ascribe meaning and agency to their individual choices, and public recognition can shape individual actions for the better.

Of course, we can read a much more nuanced history in books than we can see in monuments. But monuments offer a venue associating individuals and events with particular places. Tourists could read about the Alamo at home, but when in San Antonio, they want to read about it at the Alamo museum. Tourists might learn about a person they would never otherwise read about. Maybe learning about history through public monuments is the equivalent of learning about politics through the Daily Show; though simplistic, both can lead to more understanding among people who would not otherwise encounter the subject. This is not to say we should keep monuments to bad individuals just to promote historical awareness; keeping them in a public space cannot help but promote the idea that their distinctive contributions were good. There is a difference between having a statue to someone in spite of one’s flaws and having one because of one’s flaws.

In closing, I am not making any claims about what it takes to make an individual worthy of a monument, or what constitutes the good. Instead, I am arguing for the value of monuments to individuals who contributed to the good, whatever that is conceived to be. Building statues create the risk that governments will build statues to the wrong people. The U.S. has too many statues and buildings to politicians and generals, when politics and the military are just two ways of contributing to society. Maybe we need more statues to commemorate scientists who cured diseases or inventors who created labor saving devices. But whatever the results of our debate on who is deserving, future generations can take inspiration from monuments to people of the past who made things a little better.







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