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.
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.
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.