We were reading a great interview with Harvard Law School history professor Annette Gordon-Reed on the recent attacks made on statues of slaveholders, conquistadors, and Confederate soldiers. You can read it all here; we’ve pulled out a few highlights.
GAZETTE: What do you say to those who argue that the removal of such statues in prominent public settings dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy?
GORDON-REED: I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.
–This is extremely well-put and we can add nothing of value to it. The BLM protests happening all over our country are based on the truth of the last sentence.
GAZETTE: Many believe that taking the statues down is an attempt to cover up or erase history. Do you agree?
GORDON-REED: No. I don’t. History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.
–Here Gordon-Reed addresses the argument that always irritates us as historians. As if the main vehicle of learning about U.S. history were Confederate statues! Those statues are not preserved and defended in the name of the objective study of our national history. They are preserved and defended as evidence of the Lost Cause and meant to enforce a sense of alienation from the U.S. predicated on primary identification with “the South”.
GAZETTE: What about the slippery slope argument? Many of America’s founders — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — owned slaves. Does removing statues of Columbus or Confederate officials pave the way for action against monuments honoring those who helped create the United States?
GORDON-REED: I suppose, if people want to, everything can pave the way to some other point. I’ve said it before: There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. …No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation.
–Again, perfectly stated, and in need of no confirmation from us. But we celebrate this truth-telling, and recommend it to all Americans.