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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

King George III and Robert E. Lee

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel. Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y C. ( nyhistory.org)

Once upon a time there was a statue to King George III in Manhattan, then there wasn’t. The statue was dedicated on April 26, 1770 at Bowling Green, the southern tip of the Manhattan island. It had been commissioned by the General Assembly of the New York colony. It was resolved:

That an Equestrian Statue of his present Majesty, be erected in the City of New York, to perpetuate to the latest Posterity, the deep Sense this Colony has of the eminent and singular Blessings received from him during his most auspicious Reign.

That spirit of good tidings did not last long. There soon when a time when after the reading of the Declaration of Independence in New York on July 9, 1776, a crowd led by the Sons of Liberty descended upon Bowling Green, toppled the statue of King George III, and then used the remains to fashion bullets to be employed in a more direct manner against the troops of the crown.

As art historian Arthur Marks wrote (in “The Statue of King George III in New York and the Iconology of Regicide”):

New Yorkers, however, were able to vent their feelings of rage on what was perhaps the most grandiose artistic salute yet erected to their reigning monarch, Joseph Wilton’s representation of King George on horseback.

Ironically, there is no image of what the statue or its English counterpart looked like when they stood with the latter collapsing of its own poor design and construction. As a result this iconic image of the American Revolution like Washington crossing the Delaware owes its presence to later artists.

Marks observes:

Some in the crowd, an educated minority no doubt, might have been encouraged in their destructive actions by a recollection of the ancient process of Damnatio Memoirae, the means by which all traces of a man condemed (sic) of treason, including such lofty figures as emperors, could be obliterated from the public view and expunged from the historical record.

The practice is even older than Rome. Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Akhnaton of Egypt both experienced unsuccessful attempts to erase them from history.

These erasures reflect the historical reality that times change and the statues people honor and revere do too. Sometimes that time of transition can be a brutal one. The first time I went to Latvia there was a giant statue of Lenin outside the hotel in Riga; a year later when I returned it was gone. As far as I know, the Latvians did not make Lenin statues into bullets, but clearly the demise of the statue represented the demise of the Soviet Union and its imperial control over Latvia (and the Baltic states).

Now the issue has been raised in conjunction with the Robert E. Lee statues in Charlottesville. What’s next? Where will it stop? Will the statues and monuments of slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson suffer the same fate?

Historians take a measured view and even oppose the effort. David Blight, Yale University historian on slavery said:

If we do this in some willy-nilly way, we will regret it. I am very wary of a rush judgment about what we hate and what we love and what we despise and what we are offended by.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University historian who literally wrote the book about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, the 75% white woman classified as black, similarly resisted the call that the statues of Washington and Jackson would be next. Her argument is that Washington and Jefferson were real people who did many things, like create the United States. By contrast, Lee and Stonewall Jackson are only remembered because of the Confederacy and taking arms against the country Washington and Jefferson helped create.

State Historian and University of Colorado Boulder history professor Patty Limerick expressed concern that removing controversial historical monuments and renaming buildings could have the effect of erasing shameful aspects of U.S. history that should be understood and debated.

The opportunity is vast for us to think about our past, our present, and the connection between those — and how we ourselves are living.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that the dismantled statues be grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.

I am loath to erase history. For me it’s less about whether they come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.

James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, challenged us to recognize the difference between history and memory. Altering monuments doesn’t change history, it changes how we remember history. His point is that the monuments are actually about the Jim Crow and segregated eras when they were erected and not about the Civil War they supposedly honor. Erasing the monuments doesn’t erase the Civil War, Jim Crow, or segregation, it obscures the history that We the People should be remembering.

The calls for national discussions echoes what I previously suggested be done through the auspices of the NPS, owner of Lee’s house in Arlington. Perhaps that conversation could be extended through various humanities groups at the national and state level. Obviously our politician are incapable of leading such a discussion and probably should not be allowed to participate even by tweet.

On the other hand, one of the iconic moments of the American Revolution is the aforementioned toppling of the statue of King George III in New York so the forcible removal of detested statues is part of our celebrated heritage.

One questions whether the calm voice of reason proffered by these historians will prevail. Once the call for purification has been unleashed, it will intensify and ratchet up until nothing is left.

Course of the Empire: Destruction by Thomas Cole (thevelvetrocket.com)

For example, in Louisiana, the Democrats had removed both Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their annual dinner.

The state Democratic Party said its chairwoman, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, announced in the fall the event would be rebranded “to reflect the progress of the party and the changing times.” The party said it settled on the new name after internal surveys and conversations with Democrats in Louisiana. “We believe this will allow us to not only focus on keynote speakers but also award recipients,” the party said in a statement. The party’s announcement that it would drop the Jefferson and Jackson names from the dinner came after several states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri and Connecticut made similar moves.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Jefferson among other things is responsible for the Louisiana Purchase whereby Louisiana became part of the United States. Jackson among other things was the victor at the Battle of New Orleans where Louisiana remained part of the United States. Now these two people and their names are verboten to Louisiana Democrats. Just as the Republican Party has successfully abandoned any connection to Lincoln (Yes, he was a Republican!), now the Democratic Party is in the process of abandoning its two stalwarts of the 19th century as it moves into its post-Obama 21st century identity-based mode.

Oh wait, here is another example. The Orpheum Theater in Memphis has just cancelled the showing of Gone with the Wind, the largest grossing film in American history (adjusted for inflation) and a film of significant historical importance to understanding American history for the reason that it is insensitive.

What will be cancelled next?
What will be renamed next?
What will be toppled next?
What will be erased next?

When King George III was toppled it was because We the People had declared our independence from England. Now we are declaring independence from our own past.

To be continued. There is too much to write about to fit it into a single post. Maybe I will examine New York next.

13 thoughts on “King George III and Robert E. Lee

  1. I find it disturbing how “sound byte” and “slogan” are so effectively used to compel thought these days. To equate the removal of these confederate statues with an “erasure” of history is a very smart tactic. If you keep repeating it like a mantra it finds it’s way into the media outlets like a virus and eventually it BECOMES the only way to describe an event or movement. Infowars indeed.

    I would rather re-frame the effort as an “abolishment of racist icons”. By removing the monuments we are simply taking hold of the narrative and not allowing the racist elements in the US to have their martyrs glorified. Once all the dust has settled we will be better off for it.

    As I took my children to the Museum of Natural History in NYC years ago, I had to stop and explain the statue of Theodore Roosevelt to them. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about google it – I don’t have the time or inclination to contextualize it) They as Native American children had a really hard time understanding why such a statue existed – but they completely understood it’s meaning without any explanation from my wife and I. How many children see that statue of racial superiority and oppression and are left with the notion that they are indeed lesser people? or even just that NYC regards them as lesser? It sickens me to think of it.
    Tear the statues down.

    1. I am not quite sure what you are saying about the removal of statues. It almost seems as if you are calling for the removal of all of them (including Lady Liberty) which would be consistent with some cultures where statues don’t exist or have been resisted (the Second Commandment). Theodore Roosevelt of course was many things including the origin of the teddy bear. Sometimes we are like the blind people who each feel a different part of the elephant and never see the whole. What’s worse is we may be at a point where if the different people try to talk to each other about their different impressions, the discussion will die a quick death.

      Thanks for writing.

  2. Hard to tell if Michael is driven by a fear of, or by a hate for, America. Of course, if this is followed to its [il]logical conclusion we will cover, remove, or rename the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson Memorials, much less change the name of the District of Columbia, which is wrongly referred to on two counts; oh, and there’s Washington State, along with all those towns, streets and parks of that same designation. I’ll miss the names of Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten and Coney Islands, not to mention Stuyvesant High School – maybe the best secondary school in the nation. I may even miss Columbia University’s name too. Let’s start deciding on who will replace all those old dead white men on our currency; I’m positive that Michael’s already got his list of notables for replacement. I live on Smith Road, named after a slave-holder from the 18th century. If they don’t change the name of this road soon then I’ll just have to move. As you intimated Peter, where will it end, and Michael, who will decide for us? Perhaps if all those Southern Democrats weren’t in such a rush to build those statues in the first place the issue may have never been raised!

    1. We are dealing with a discussion America needs to have but it seems unlikely that a “come let us reason together” dialog is possible. Sterilizing imperfection (as Star Trek fans know) easily can end up threatening to eliminate everything.

      But those Southern Democrats weren’t in a rush to raise them. It happened decades after the war mainly during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era when they weren’t so much to honor the Confederates as to use them to fight battles in the present.

  3. Even though I am not a history buff, your writing is so engaging that I find I really enjoy these posts! I don’t comment because my reaction is usually more about feelings than about facts . . .I don’t think that works well in history!

  4. Peter, love your commentary invoking the entire nation to THINK before we act and destroy, especially if one is part of an anarchistic mob scene splashed all over the media. With Constitution Week coming up September 17, and giving my programs in the schools, I have always emphasized how the Framers who disagreed about nearly everything, used their brains to speak, discuss, and debate–using WORDS to persuade others to their own point of view. That is the American way of finding solutions to our societal problems–together.

    Now, they see on the screen such terrible behaviors of vandalism and hate, based soley
    on group-think/mob-emotions of the moment, giving NO thought to the destruction of sculptures that do not belong to these vandals in the first place. And who are THEY to decide what others before them valued in that distant time and place?

    Let us hope that each community opens a time of discussions/debates to decide what is the best way to handle these public visual memorials, all parts of our past which We the People once again may not agree on. At least a collective process of delving into the lives of our one-time and perhaps forever heroes or NOT– will bring out the behaviors of our better angels for our children to observe. All of the adults still left in the room need to
    lambaste violent sculptural tyranny by gangs of mindless rogues, and set examples of civility to one another while we search for wider and deeper meanings in the total lifetimes of our historical figures in question. Deleting our common history is NOT the answer. Neither is allowing these self-serving spoiled vandals to get away with monumental murder–without paying the consequences of their actions.

  5. An unfortunate omission from this article is the timeline and history of these statues. Though you reference their provenance in the comment above, it seems odd to me that the body of the article passes by the circumstances in which the statues were erected. Erasure, indeed.
    In the wake of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were far from the celebratory figures of “Southern Pride,” that they have come to represent (for some). Everyone knows that the history is written by the winners; so in the wake of the Civil war, the South had little opportunity or available political will to claim a victorious narrative. The statues came quite a while after the war, in some cases, decades later. As you say above, these icons of white southern pride came into vogue during the Jim Crow era, where segregation was being codified, and many of the post-war political gains of the new black citizens were being rolled back. This history, of the statues themselves, is just as important as the history of the figures they represent, if it is really “truth” we are seeking.
    It is a alarmist (and, in my opinion, irresponsible) escalation to suggest that Washington or Jefferson might be next, two of the most revered early presidents whose achievements in the founding of this country, and whose representation in today’s society reaches far. Though they were certainly not uncomplicated figures, comparing slaveowners like Washington and Jefferson to Confederate generals in open rebellion against the government, seems a false equivalence. Public opinion on Washington and Jefferson remains high, and though Jackson is on the outs, as a historical darling, his place in history has long been controversial.
    (Though we may question why figures from the past occupy such a important symbolic role in our society. It seems at least theoretically possible that U.S. democracy can move forward without representing its founding leaders as demigods. But that is an another discussion altogether)
    Far from allowing more context and a truly historical discussion, leaving specifically Confederate monuments on display in majors cities displaces the reality of the Civil War and post-antebellum history.
    There is an opportunity to control the narrative here, and perhaps begin to reckon with the political forces that put these monuments up, and the reality of slavery and domestic terrorism that are a part of the legacy of the antebellum south. But this purpose would be best served in a controlled environment, not by allowing these icons to dominate shared public space, where they were put up to celebrate, not to teach.
    In this regard, there is much we can learn from modern Germany, whose memorialization of the horrors of its past facilitates a reckoning, without allowing for the message to twist into celebration. While controversial, these public works can serve to open a frank discussion of history, in all of its complications and ugly truths.
    Ultimately though, what is “truth” when it comes to history? There are is the evidence and the artifacts and the firsthand accounts, but really, with so many years and so many lives to look back on, it is whichever story you choose to believe. This choice can be based on ego or desire or practiced study, but ultimately some stories are discarded while some become canonical accounts. The continued history Confederate monuments depend on the embrace of one story, one that has faced more and more scrutiny and protest. This is the “come and reason” moment you seek, but it is possible that you are not on the side you expect.

    1. Thanks for writing. You mention a number of key items.

      1. This history, of the statues themselves, is just as important as the history of the figures they represent, if it is really “truth” we are seeking. – Exactly but how is that history to be communicated in a public display that is visual only for a few moments as one drives by?

      2. While there is not likely to be a frontal assault on Washington or Jefferson such as at Mount Rushmore there are likely to be pockets of resistance where their names are pejoratives. In effect, each classroom can be a battleground and teachers at the grassroots level will have the opportunity to educate students in the correct truth.

      3. Controlling the environment is important and I hope to write a post on “Porn and Confederate Statues.”

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