Goodbye, Mr. Jefferson

By Scott Sidler August 21, 2017

goodbye jeffersonWhat are we to do with all these old statues and memorials to dead white men? The country is all aflutter with anger, fear, self-righteousness, and a slew of other emotions that have quickly risen to the surface. There are questions about our nation’s past and even more about our future that are not so much being discussed but rather screamed at each other in a fervent pitch.

It’s rare that on a historic preservation blog I have the opportunity to wade into current events, but this week I feel it’s the only thing I should be talking about. When the populace begins demanding the destruction irreplaceable pieces of history my ears perk up. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t believe all of these statues or memorials have a place in our public square. Many of them are offensive, inappropriate and deserve to be removed, but casting a broad net like has been done recently is endangering some precious historical pieces of art and architecture.

As calmer tempers prevail in the coming months, and they always do, municipalities should continue to review their inventory of Confederate and other historic sites as has been steadily happening year after year. And there will be questions that need to be answered, but to say simply, “ALL statues associated with the Confederacy or slave owners MUST be torn down.” is an offense to the intelligence that God has given each of us.

Such broad generalizations dumb down the conversation and can result in costly irreversible losses to our history. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation said in a statement they released this week, “We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it.”

What Should We Do

This is not a question that can be answered simply. Each case needs to be individually investigated. Many of these statues were commissioned and placed in the public square wth the express purpose of intimidating black Americans during the civil rights fight of the 50s and 60s. Those have no place in our country any longer and serve no purpose other than to remind us of a dark time in our country’s history.

But the history of this country is not as cut and dry as that. We have stains on the soul of our country from past sins just like individuals do for their own sins. But if there is forgiveness of our personal sins by a gracious God then the same would stand true for our nation.

We have come a long way in America. It is no longer legal to own slaves, it’s no longer legal to discriminate against anyone based on their age, gender, color, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. Women now have the right to vote and work outside the home. Each day we are marching toward “a more perfect union.”

We will not get there tomorrow, or the next day. It is a journey of slowly perfecting our nation. In the past workers would sift the wheat to remove the chaff, steel workers would burn the steel hotter and hotter to burn off more and more imperfections, technology inventors are constantly improving our computers (could you imagine using a Commodore 64 today?)

It is a slow march toward perfection, but it doesn’t happen overnight and being angry at our founders for not creating a perfect country by 2017 standards in not realistic or helpful.

Where Does it Stop

Recently the most disturbing things I have heard are the calls for the tearing down of the Jefferson memorial in Washington DC. The thinking goes like this: Jefferson was a slave holder, therefore racist and any tribute to him is inappropriate and offensive.

Ok, let’s say that we remove that memorial. How about George Washington? He owned slaves. Should we remove his memorial as well and change the name of our capital city? Should we also redesign our monetary system? After all, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson, Grant, and Franklin all would be branded racist by today’s standards. They all owned slaves with the exception of Lincoln, but he spoke publicly about his aversion to equality between blacks and whites. So even the great emancipator was not perfect!

The fact is this: We should judge people by the times in which they lived. To expect a citizen of the 1700s to live by the standards of the 2000s is impossible, just as we would be perilously lost in the customs and traditions of previous centuries they would be woefully out of place in today’s society.

Our History

Removing the traces of our history that disagree with us is like pulling the thread on a sweater. It may seem like a good idea at first but often it does more damage than good. A town without old buildings is like a man without a memory. And without a memory of the past we are bound to repeat the same mistakes.

You may say that you wouldn’t make those mistakes, but it’s not you I’m worried about. It’s your neighbor or your neighbor’s children that never heard the stories of our failures that will repeat them. Repeating the mistakes that run through our past cannot be an option. We cannot go back to those days! But whitewashing our history is not the solution.

If we removed every statue built to a flawed human being, or tore down every church that housed a corrupt clergyman, or destroyed every work of art by philandering artist we would be left with nothing. Let us not focus on the flaws of our founders but focus instead on their successes. Wouldn’t you rather be remembered for your accomplishments than have your life’s work dismissed because of your shortcomings?

I save old buildings for two reasons. First, because I think they are beautiful works of craftsmanship done by master builders. Second, because they are one of the only physical links to a different time and a different people. I know those times were different and if those old builders were here today they wouldn’t choose hand driving nails and hand hewing beams. You better believe they would be using tables saws and nails guns. They did what they could with the information they had.

We have come a long way as a society, and our foundations were built on stronger things than racism and flawed individuals. Slavery, while prevalent in our founder’s time, is not at the core of who we were as a people and we fought a bloody and awful war that turned brother against brother to abolish that hateful institution.

It’s not statues or memorials that are the problem, rather a brokenness of the human heart that needs redemption. So my plea is simple, don’t let our country’s precious works of art and architecture be swept away in this current emotional torrent unless they justly deserve to be. Irreversible actions done in the heat of the moment are often regretted when the dust settles. Let’s not be that country. Let’s not be those people.

24 thoughts on “Goodbye, Mr. Jefferson”

  1. The comments being posted on this blog do not track with the discussions going on in my area. A common thread that I hear is that traitors should not be glorified with monuments placed in locations that imply endorsement by the current government. And that those statues belong in a museum or a Confederate memorial park or a cemetary– not destroyed, but removed from locations where the context is not appropriate. The sentiment seems to be “remembrance is good, but holding them up as examples for young people to follow is not.”

    I can understand the points being made on both sides of the current debate. I generally think this is a local issue and I’m glad to see states and communities having this discussion. Hopefully the statues will be preserved and re-displayed in a way that we can appreciate the artistry of the sculpture and the history of the times in which the subjects lived.

    I do have an opinion about the causes of the Civil War, and all of the documents I have read from that time emphatically place slavery at the center. I recommend reading the declarations of secession of each state. The “states’ rights” at issue were associated with the right to own slaves.

    Finally, I wouldn’t say that a statement by Al Sharpton should be taken as an endorsement by NBC any more than statements by Tomi Lahren should be viewed as an endorsement by Fox News and Roger Murdoch. Remember that today’s news media is in the entertainment business — they want commentators to come on and say outrageous things to get us to react — don’t fall for it! These commentators generally have no position of authority or expertise to warrant such concern. In this instance, until someone with the power to actually make this happen tweets something similar or introduces a bill in Congress, I’m not worried about the fate of Jefferson’s memorial.

  2. My observations,
    I think those who are quick to accuse and point out the worst in people, current or past, run the risk of short-sightedness. We would like to think we are superior to others, that we would never do the terrible things that others do,
    that is hubris, civilization is a thin veneer,
    those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
    “That would never happen here” does not have a good track record.
    Better to find ways to remember, in context, with minimal offense, and learn,

    but one doesn’t consolidate power easily doing that, stirring up a mob is easier and faster.

    1. Mike, you are right. Can’t view the attitudes and people of hundreds of years ago by todays PC standards. I have always looked at pictures of hangings (of both blacks and whites) where people gathered for the show with their kids and picnic lunches or heard about a lynch mob going after someone and I thought: “How could this kind of thing happen?” I know the answer to that question now. The truth is the public is very easily led. Just remember these forces have been working on America for at least 60 years and have infiltrated every institution in America. Read the book “Rules for Radicals” if you haven’t already. The people that are taking down the monuments are part of a larger destruction of America. A lot of accurate history has been hid and that is a very big problem. A lot of what we learned in school and elsewhere is a lie. Tell a lie enough times and it becomes the truth.

      1. I am familiar with the book, and who the author cites (in apparent admiration) as “the first radical”.
        I know Scott wanted to bring the topic up as a plea for rational discussion, which I think is good, and I think I will leave things at that.

        1. I don’t cite “Rules for Radicals” in admiration. It is a worthwhile read to help citizens of the US have more understanding of what is happening to us now. This is the way these anarchists roll and it is worthwhile to read the book that acted as a primer for the radicals ever since. You will recognize the methods. I don’t admire Saul Alinsky at all but he taught them how to do it and that is what we are seeing now (and before now).

          1. I think I did not make myself clear. I wasn’t referring to you Michelle, when I wrote “the author”.
            I was referring to Saul Alinsky when he wrote:
            “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”
            and that it appears that he spoke admiringly of Lucifer.
            No, the book and the author of the book are not admirable at all, imo, though important as you site.

  3. I appreciate the desire to make a comment in a way that asks for patient thoughtfulness instead of jumping to action even before there are any conclusions.
    Do people want to work for understanding and the resolution of difficulties, or use opportunities for stirring up constituencies and power grabs?
    I see a lot more of the latter than the former, even in some of the comments here that accused Scott of misleading without first checking the given references.

    Words to consider:
    let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
    Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

    I see much more disorder these days than good fruit of righteousness,
    and accusation has been around a long time, since the Garden and before the Fall.

  4. The Civil War was fought for more than to preserve slavery or abolish it. There were multiple causes of the Civil War, and although slavery was a factor so was state’s rights, tariffs, etc. The politics of the times were complicated the same way they are now. There is a lot of evidence that both Yankee generals Sherman and Grant did not think they were fighting to free slaves, in fact they both owned slaves themselves. Sherman had 1 slave which he freed in 1859 and Grant and his wife had 5, which they did not free until 1862. Lincoln stated if he could free all the slaves and preserve the union he would and if he freed none of the slaves and could preserve the union he would do that. (paraphrasing). Lincoln’s plan was to send the freed slaves to Liberia. General Lee had no slaves of his own. He freed all the slaves from his father-in-law’s estate as per the terms of his will. There is multiple evidence that Yankee soldiers did not think they were fighting the Civil War to free slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was a political maneuver. Lincoln freed the only slaves he could not free: the slaves in the state’s in rebellion. The border states and even parishes in Louisiana that were not in rebellion were not affected by the Emancipation. They were all racist by today’s standards. Another interesting note is there were at least 2 groups of black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. One was in North Carolina and one was in New Orleans. William Ellison was a black slave owner in SC. He had >300 slaves and was known to not only be cruel to them but also a slave breeder. He was looked down on because of it. There were many black slave owners. Some bought their relatives and others bought them for labor. There were also many free blacks at the time the war broke out. There were more free black doctors and lawyers in New Orleans at the time the war broke out than anywhere in the country. Jim Crow laws were patterned from the Black Codes of Illinois. Facts are interesting things. It is too bad that facts aren’t taught in schools and disseminated into American society. The good, the bad and the ugly, we would all be better off for it, certainly better off than bands of thugs going around destroying our national treasures as they are now.

  5. Those of us interested in historic preservation are all interested and disturbed by this trend. I commend you for this post!

    I wouldn’t call an interview between Charlie Rose and Al Sharpton click bait.
    //www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/08/17/al_sharpton_defund_the_jefferson_memorial_asking_me_to_subsidize_the_insult_of_my_family.html
    (And why the vitriole toward Jefferson when Strom Thurmond–far less removed generationally from Sharpton–has a statue on the steps of the South Carolina State House in plain sight? There is something deeper here.)

    It is ludicrious to expect historical figures to be perfect. There are great deeds to emulate and shortcomings to learn from. But this destructive current certainly has my ears perked.

  6. None of the statues and memorials should be taken down. They are irreplaceable works of art. Most people not bitten by the PC bug that are knowledgeable about the Civil War and what led up to it would understand why the statues of General Lee, Stonewall Jackson, etc. were put up. General Lee was one of the finest Americans that ever lived. He was a Christian, #1 at West Point and his military methods are still taught today. Lincoln asked him to command the Union forces but he would not go against Virginia. What Lee exemplified that is almost totally lacking in so-called leaders today is dignity and honor. He did not do the expedient and self serving thing. Arlington was he and his wife’s home and they lost it almost immediately after the war started. We are doomed to repeat history anyway because people are too stupid and easily led not to. These statues are priceless works of art that can never be replaced regardless of when they were put up but most of them were put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy more than 100 years ago. What you are witnessing is anarchists attempts to take over the country. It is right out of Saul Olinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals and exactly what the Nazi’s, Maoists and other fascists did. 62% ( and 11% undecided) of the is country believes the monuments should be left alone and that includes all the most extreme liberals, but yet they are taking them down and pandering to evil forces. What we may be witnessing the beginning of the end for this country because I don’t think that 62% is going to forget this travesty very easy.

  7. A good thought piece and I’m glad you wrote it. We need to stop being such a hyper-emotionally reactive people and let reason, respectful debate, and wisdom rule our speech. Nor should we be so quick to purge history – it’s a fine line before it becomes historical revisionism.

  8. Scott
    I follow your blog and I wanted to point out that one of your comments regarding protection under the current federal law is incorrect. “We have come a long way in America. It is no longer legal to own slaves, it’s no longer legal to discriminate against anyone based on their age, gender, color, creed, religion, or sexual orientation.” Currently, there are no federal laws protecting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
    These laws that you mentioned regarding protections, were added as amendments to our constitution. Those amendments were brought about by the civil rights movement. Ordinary citizens of the United States in 1968 nearly 200 years after our founding. Change comes slowly for people wanting to be included and recognized in our union. Listen to their stories, history is a function of stories and from whose perspective is it written!

  9. All of this comes from a graph done by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that is very close to being a terrorist one. Even their own graph states that the vast majority of these statues were erected before 1910.
    One also has to wonder why the Democrat Party is attempting to remove/hide/destroy the history that they were the main proponents of the “Jim Crow” laws, the segregation laws, suppression of voting rights laws and a host of other intimidation tactics. I remember George Wallace, a Democrat, and the use of dogs to intimidate the school children on TV. Lyndon Johnson with his common use of the “N” word and not in a good way. Senator Byrd of West Virginia was KKK, longest serving senator.
    This is the history we are supposed to eliminate?

  10. All of the statues are important. No matter how repugnant a person the statue represents, the statues are a reminder of our history, the good, the bad and the ugly.

    1. Most of the statues are not repugnant if you have studied the history of what led up to the Civil War. These men were products of their times. you can not judge them by the civil rights standards of 2017. There are many things that go on in 2017 that are truly horrible and accepted for some reason. The treatment of animals raised for food and in labs for instance.

  11. I haven’t seen any credible news sources stating people are calling for taking down the Jefferson monument. I’m pretty disappointed with this article.

  12. Where was it cited that “people” wanted to take down the Jefferson Monument? I certainly hope that you are not following the President’s rant as your source.

    Every monument that has been taken down was done by a community decision or a state decision as the case was in my stafe of SC. I have not heard of a single credible argument to remove statues of founding fathers whether they were slave owners or not. As the National Trust position recognizes, there is a place for considering the more complicated story when describing our founding fathers, but the statues being removed are primarily confederate generals put up to prolong the fight.

    I will acknowledge that there are a few statues of people such as Dr Simms -who is deemed the “father of gynecology” – whose stories are so bad, ie his reseach was on slaves without their consent or anesthesia that many are wondering why their actions were deemed okay by anyone in the first place.

    Your piece correctly makes the case that all statues are not equal, but its assumption that “people are coming for the Jefferson Monument” is click bait and franky race baiting as well.

      1. Al Sharpton is Al Sharpton and I generally just ignore him. With that said, there is no groundswell movement by everyday Americans to remove all, many, or even some symbols of the Confederacy. I wish I hadn’t clicked on this particular blog.

    1. Most of the statues were put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy to honor Civil War dead around 1900. Speaking of SC, we can all thank Nikki Haley for lighting the fuse on the dynamite set to go off by the knee jerk reaction of taking down the Confederate Flag which was put in the place as an act of compromise in 2000. The compromise provided for a monument the blacks wanted to be created and placed on the capitol grounds of SC. Nikki Haley is a show boater who must have been promised something by the RNC if she did this. The whole thing would have blown over if she would have resisted the urge. 62% and 11% undecided are against taking down the statues.

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