A Philosopher's Blog

Confederate Monuments

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2017

The question “when was the last battle of the Civil War fought?” is a trick question; the last battle has yet to be fought. One minor skirmish took place recently in New Orleans as the city began its removal of Confederate monuments. Fortunately, this skirmish has yet to result in any injuries or deaths, although the removal of the first monument looked like a covert military operation. Using equipment with hidden company names, the removal crews wore masks and body armor while operating under both the cover of darkness and police sniper protection. These precautions were deemed necessary because of threats made against workers. In addition to being controversial, such removals are philosophically interesting.

One general argument in favor of keeping such Confederate monuments in place is the historical argument: the monuments express and are part of history and their removal is analogous to tearing pages from the history books. This argument does have considerable appeal, at least in cases in which the monuments mark an historical event and stick to the facts. However, monuments tend to be erected to bestow honors and this goes beyond mere noting of historical facts.

One example of such a monument is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument. It was erected in New Orleans in 1891 to honor the 1874 battle between the Crescent City White League and the racially integrated New Orleans Metropolitan police and state militia. The monument was modified by the city in 1932 with a plaque expressing support for white supremacy. The monument was modified again in 1993 when a new plaque was placed over the 1932 plaque, commemorating all those who died in the battle.

From a moral perspective, the problem with this sort of monument is that it does not merely present a neutral historical marker, but endorses white supremacy and praises racism. As such, to keep the memorial in place is to state that the city currently at least tolerates white supremacy and racism. If these values are still endorsed by the city, then the monument should remain as an honest expression of these immoral values. That way people will know what to expect in the city.

However, if the values are no longer endorsed by the city, then it would seem that the monument should be removed.  This would express the current views of the people of the city. It could be objected that such removal would be on par with purging historical records. Obviously, the records of the event should not be purged. It is, after all, a duty of history to record what has been and this can be done without praising (or condemning) what has occurred. In contrast, to erect and preserve an honoring monument is to take a stance on the matter—to praise or condemn it.

It could be argued that the 1993 change to the monument “redeems” it from its white supremacist and racist origins and, as such, it should be left in place. This does have some appeal, part of which is that the monument expresses the history of the (allegedly) changed values. To use an analogy, a building that once served an evil purpose can be refurbished and redeemed to serve a good purpose. This, it could be argued, sends a more powerful statement than simply razing the building.

However, the fact remains that the monument was originally created to honor white supremacy and the recent modification seems to be an effort to conceal this fact. As such, the right thing to do would seem to be to remove the monument. Since the monument does have historical significance, it would be reasonable to preserve it as such—historical artifacts can be kept without endorsing any values associated with the artifact. For example, keeping artifacts that belonged to Stalin as historically significant items is not to endorse Stalinism. Keeping a monument in a place of honor, however, does imply endorsement.

The matter can become more complicated in cases involving statues of individuals. In New Orleans, there are statues of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard. It cannot be denied that these were exceptional men who shaped the history of the United States. It also cannot be denied they possessed personal virtues. Lee, in particular, was by all accounts a man of considerable virtue. P.G.T. Beauregard went on to advocate for civil rights and voting rights for blacks (though some might say this was due to mere political expediency).

Given their historical importance and the roles they played, it can be argued that they were worthy of statues and that these statues should remain to honor them. The easy and obvious counter is that they engaged in treason against the United States and backed the wicked practice of slavery. As such, whatever personal virtues they might have possessed, they should not be honored for their role in the Confederacy. Statues that honor people who were Confederates but who did laudable things after the Civil War should, of course, be evaluated based on the merits of those individuals. But to honor the Confederacy and its support of slavery would be a moral error.

It could also be argued that even though the true cause of the Confederacy (the right of states to allow people to own other people as slaves) is wicked, people like Lee and Beauregard earned their statues and their honor. As such, it would be unjust to remove the statues because of the political sensibilities of today. After all, as it should be pointed out, there are statues that honor the slave owners Washington and Jefferson for their honorable deeds within the context of the dishonor of slavery. If the principle of removing monuments that honored those who supported a rebellion aimed at creating an independent slave-owning nation was strictly followed, then there would need to be a rather extensive purge of American monuments. If honoring supporters of slavery and slave owners is acceptable, then perhaps the removal of the statues of the heroes of the Confederacy could be justified on the grounds of their rebellion against the United States. This would allow for a principled distinction to be made: statues of slavery supporters and slave owners can be acceptable, as long as they were not rebels against the United States. Alternative, the principle could be that statues of victorious rebel slavery supporters are acceptable, but those of losing rebel slavery supporters are not. Winning, it could be said, makes all the difference.

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