DANIEL VAUGHAN: Memorializing versus celebrating history

In Robert Edsel’s incredible book, Monuments Menhe says, “If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we…must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future.”

The book loosely tells the true story of men going into Europe and Germany during the second world war to save precious and historical artifacts and art pieces. They aim to preserve not just the history of the nations conquered by the Nazis, but also works from Germany’s past.

It’s something I’ve thought about while watching protesters tear down and deface various statues and monuments.

It makes sense to reassess what monuments, sculptures, art, or artifacts we celebrate as a nation. Celebration implies we don’t just remember, but we set these people and their ideas up for emulation. Not all people and things stand the test of time as emanating ideals we want in every man, woman, and child.

But by the same token, we also shouldn’t want any of these things destroyed. Destruction causes forgetfulness. The beginning of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring gets at this point. Galadriel says of the One Ring:

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge. Until, when chance came, it ensnared another bearer.

There are things that though we know they are wrong, we never want to forget. The Confederacy, slavery, and the U.S. Civil War, all need memorializing to appreciate those events. And not just a pro-Union point of view — we need to understand what they were saying before the Civil War because that matters as much as anything else. 

During college, I was sitting in an English theory class. The professor was originally from Germany and had emigrated to the United States some time ago. He moved to the American South because he specifically wanted to study pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy narratives.

He believed it was essential to preserve them so we would recognize them if we saw them again in modern times. He told us of his shock that too many people did not save them for posterity.

Part of not repeating history is studying it. And you can’t do that without the original sources. Monuments, statues, and other things tell us what those cultures prized. They tell us the stories and ideas of the people who believed things like slavery, or in the Confederacy. 

But we need to recognize when that memorialization becomes something more — a celebration, or a place of honor. The American South is unique in the fact that it’s the only part segment of the United States that has had to rebuild from a lost war.

The Reconstruction period was met with anger and resentment. Some areas of the American South still hold resentment from that time. These monuments reflect pride from that period as a method of resisting the rest of the United States. 

But the South will never rise again. That’s a myth. America is a Union of states now, which cannot disband. And the cause for which the Confederacy fought — slavery — is antithetical to the entire American Founding. A founding for which the American South also claims a share. 

It is impossible to claim both the letter and spirit of the American Founding and also the ideals of the Confederate Army. As Harry Jaffa put it in his study of Abraham Lincoln: 

Sovereignty…as understood in the Declaration of Independence was originally, and by nature, the equal and unalienable possession of individual human beings. The original equality of all human beings was an equality of sovereignty; no man had more right to rule another than the other had to rule him.

That is a statement of American exceptionalism. These ideas cannot get bound together with the ideals espoused by the Civil War-era South. 

A portion of the South often refers to itself as the Bible Belt — the segment of the country which still adheres to the fundamentals of Christianity. There’s a Biblical point they should recognize here. In the Old Testament, God often had the children of Israel tear down high places and idols to ensure they worshipped no one but Him. 

We don’t have these kinds of widespread altars of burning animal flesh. But we do have monuments, statues, art, and more. We don’t have a reason to destroy these things, but we shouldn’t celebrate or worship the bad either. The celebration of the Confederacy places a moral ideal in them, which doesn’t exist. 

Remembering or memorializing the Confederacy is the right tact to take because we never want to forget the lessons from that era. Some things should not get forgotten. That’s one of them. But it shouldn’t be celebrated, because it doesn’t match up to the higher ideals of America to which we hold ourselves. 

This is, of course, a more nuanced discussion than what is happening in the streets. Philadelphia protesters defaced a statue of the great abolitionist Matthias Baldwin. In the U.K., they defaced a statue of Winston Churchill. All of this suggests that our problem isn’t just celebrating the bad history, but forgetting all of it.

“Woke” history may be as ahistorical as the Confederacy it claims to protest.