Much of the past year has been consumed by a raging debate over monuments — especially Confederate monuments. In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, cities and states throughout the South and beyond have been re-evaluating the meaning of historical statues. Much of this debate has been healthy and thought-provoking. Important questions have emerged: Is it possible to commemorate certain aspects of a statesman’s life (or of a movement) without celebrating its entirety? When statues are removed, are we rewriting history? Is the erection of new monuments a better antidote than removal of old ones now deemed unacceptable?
This debate has quickly spilled over into areas more tangentially related to race and the Confederacy. There are those who claim Washington & Lee University cannot honor Lee’s post-war work in education and reconciliation without also somehow condoning his role as a Confederate. For generations, Charles B. Aycock was revered as North Carolina’s “education governor” for his role in public education; but now, because of his segregationist views, Aycock is viewed by many as unworthy of any recognition.
Hofstra University is embroiled in a campus debate about whether to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson. A student leader is quoted as saying, “Students going to class or lunch should not be forced to pass a statue of a man who owned hundreds of slaves.”
Yale University has removed the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its undergraduate colleges. Hailed as “one of America’s five greatest senators” by John F. Kennedy, Calhoun is no longer deemed worthy of recognition by his alma mater.
At Williams College, the “Haystack Monument,” which commemorates the founding of the 19th-century Christian missionary movement, has been draped with a shroud awaiting final word from the college as to whether it will be removed. Some students had objected to the monument because they saw it as an endorsement of “Christian intellectual imperialism.”
The monument debate has been dominated more by passion than reason. Passions can be well-founded, but in the end, reason should win the debate. Monuments are one way in which we preserve our history. They are important teaching tools — certainly open to differing interpretations. Monuments erected in 21st-century America will no doubt celebrate very different people, events and movements than those erected in previous centuries. American history is multifaceted with many subtleties, and it is important that we remember this history — contradictions, warts and all.
A striking example of the contrasting subtleties of our history and the importance of monuments was provided by a friend recently. He passed along the text of a speech by North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, given at the dedication of the Army and Navy Confederate Memorial at Gettysburg in 1965. In spite of the fact that Ervin resisted most of the civil rights legislation during his terms in the Senate, he is remembered fondly today by many Americans as a true constitutional scholar and a hero of the Watergate scandal story. So, there is some ironic subtlety in the history of Ervin’s own career.
In dedicating this Confederate memorial, Ervin teaches us something of how we should approach and appreciate history:
“When one ponders the story of the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy who fought at Gettysburg and in countless other engagements on land and sea, he cannot avoid putting this question to history: What inspired these men to fight so bravely, always against great odds and oftentimes unto death? The assertion that they fought to perpetuate slavery does not suffice to answer the question. Most of them did not own or expect to own a single slave. Indeed, few of them had any material stake whatever in the victory of the Confederacy.
“The question has been answered by … Dr. Randolph McKim, a beloved Episcopal minister of Washington: ‘Not for fame or reward, not for place or for rank, not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity, but in simple obedience to duty as they understood it, these men suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all, and died.’”
We do not have to endorse the policies of the Confederacy to appreciate the examples of heroism, self-denial and duty exhibited by many Confederates. As Ervin noted in his speech, all Americans — Northerners, Southerners, black, white — can appreciate Gen. Lee’s words: “Duty then is the most sublime word in our language.” These memorials can and should remain a means of teaching succeeding generations these enduring virtues.
Garland S. Tucker III, is the retired chairman/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, author of “Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Changed America – Jefferson to Reagan,” and a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation.