U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To a Future Unknown

In these last days of this long summer, one hundred fifty-two years after the end of the Civil War, fifty-two years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we are seeing a growing movement to reject the symbols of the Lost Cause myth and the signposts of white supremacists’ oppressive Jim Crow regime.

You kind of want to say, “Why in the hell has this taken so long?”  But we’re historians.  We know why this has taken so long.  What we don’t know is if it will really take this time, if this tilt away from Confederate veneration will in fact become a historical tipping point.  Will these monuments be moved at last?  Robert E. Lee is going in Charlottesville, and Lee and Stonewall Jackson are already gone from Baltimore, along with the monstrously unjust Justice Roger Taney.  Good riddance.

These and other monumental sculptures have often been major landscape focal points:  the center of a courthouse square, the heart of a city park, the hub of intersecting spokes of sidewalk, the commanding standard on the highest spot of ground.  Traffic has flowed around them, rings of flowers have encircled them, arcades of trees have guided the viewer’s eye and the walker’s feet toward them.  For decades – not that many decades, in a lot of cases – these bronze and granite focal points have dominated parts of the public square.

And now, in many places, they’re going, or they’re gone.

I have been thinking about what will happen in the space they once occupied.  I’m sure you have been thinking about it too.

Could history fill the gap that memory once held?  Should it?

“On this spot used to stand a massive sculpture honoring two generals who committed treason against the United States of America.”

“Half way between this sidewalk and the courthouse stood a monument to a man who said that Black men and women in America had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Perhaps history and memory could join hands:  put up a new statue in that spot, honor new heroes and new heroines of American history, and make sure to add historical markers to explain what once stood there, and when it stood, and why – and why it’s gone.

In the meantime, as I think about these empty plinths, these barren pedestals that for some time might adorn our public squares, I am reminded of the Apostle Paul wandering around Athens every day and looking askance at the statuary everywhere depicting gods and heroes – in the temples, along the thoroughfares, in the marketplace.  It was a city positively cluttered by devotion – imposing memorials and votives and monuments with dedicatory inscriptions.  I guess Washington D.C. is a little bit like that, in a nice way.  You can be walking down a sidewalk and turn a corner and there is a monument to some general or founder or military unit or battle or president or peacemaker or soldiers fallen in war.  It is the public square of the nation, a city that has made space for memory and history together – for museums as well as monuments, to teach, to tug at the heart, to evoke wonder, admiration, awe and sometimes wrenching grief.

What if each public square now suddenly missing a Lost Cause memorial were not recalibrated around a single new figure to replace the old one?  What if instead we filled the public squares with figures who should stand in the full sun of our regard and gratitude?  The list of names we might come up with, names of people who have fought for justice and for goodness and for decency and dignity and love and the solemn yet joyful shared work of self-government and citizenship.  In honoring those to whom honor has long been due and oft denied, we could so crowd our parks and thoroughfares as to put ancient Athens to shame.

But that’s probably not the best aesthetic choice.  The citizens of each municipality where the view is altered will have to work out together what they wish to see in their own future.

And while they deliberate, while we think about the history behind this moment and the history to come, there are those empty plinths and pedestals, those barren patches of ground.

As Paul wandered through the city of Athens, taking in its sights, looking at all that dedicatory statuary, he came across a pedestal that bore no sculpture.  It stood conspicuously empty, by intent.  Around its rim was carved the inscription, “To a god Unknown.”

Right now, in many of our public squares, there is a new emptiness.  But emptiness does not always signal loss.  Sometimes it is a way of making room, a stage of readiness for what may come, a faith in what is not yet seen – or perhaps a sign of gratitude for help that came to us from ancestors whose names we cannot know.

Perhaps those empty plinths should stay a while just as they are.  They mark a site of wounds, they mark a site where healing might begin.  They hold open some space.  Maybe that space will be filled again; maybe it won’t.

Maybe what we need is not a new object of veneration to replace the old, a new focal point in the landscape.  Maybe what we need instead is just to clear the ground.  Maybe we need nothing to stand in the middle of the public square so that we can stand there together, side by side, face to face, and see only one another.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I cannot know with certainty but I suspect that the Confederate memorial statuary has long been invisible to the thousands of drivers and pedestrians passing them in the course of busy schedules and preoccupied with the worries that take up so much of everyday life. Once they may have had meaning like the Union memorials in the North. I have read that for several decades Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive in New York City was the most visited tourist site in the entire country. It still sits there but its visitors are mostly pigeons. It’s doubtful that any of the tens of thousands who pass by Grant’s Tomb give it even a half thought. Saint-Gaudens’s memorial on Boston Commons honoring Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Voluntary Infantry still attracts visitors, due perhaps to the honor given to the first African Americans to fight as regularly enlisted soldiers in the Civil War, as well as to a location that shares some of Washington DC’s status as a national public square. Saint-Gaudens’s artistic talent, more subtle and secure than most artists who designed Civil War monuments, must also have something to do with its continuing force. The monument speaks not only to the issue of slavery but to the sacrifices required for extendible citizenship rights, a message as alive today as it was in 1897 when the memorial was unveiled. I like the proposal that plinths and sites made empty by the removal of statuary honoring the Confederate cause be replaced by work that resurrects everyday heroes whose often humble efforts renewed of ideals that are in danger of being turned into empty rhetorical shells. While we need a countercanon of leaders, both national and regional, I hope someday we can stop such overwhelming emphasis on political and military leaders, misconstrued as “statesmen.” Philosophers, scientists, creative people in all media, religious figures, educators, all those who occupy the attention of S-USIH members, ought to central to how the peoples of this country debate their national story. Figures from labor, business, agriculture, no less.

  2. Richard, thanks so much for this comment.

    It’s probably true that many people have moved past these monuments routinely without so much as looking up, but I think when something that’s “always there” isn’t there any more, people will notice the absence perhaps more than they noticed the sculpture in the first place.

    I would love to see a new pantheon of public memory — or a new cloud of witnesses — collectively take the place of what was there. The American past is not short of admirable, brave people, women and men, activists liberators artists inventors laborers immigrants Natives, some whose names we know and some whose names have been stolen or suppressed or lost to time. What an opportunity for a public re-imagining of American memory, to be able to people the landscape anew in a way that manages to tell a different story. To have a national conversation and local conversations about the meaning(s) that memorials convey, to discuss together what and whom we ought to commemorate and put in a place of honor — these are moments of promise and peril too.

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