Michael Birkner


It takes time to revise history books but, as anyone but a modern-day Rip Van Winkle will appreciate, statues can be toppled in a matter of minutes.

Is this a good thing? It is all the rage right now. But when emotions cool, will people regret that they have erased history, rather than taking advantage of this moment to engage the American story in all its rich complexity?

I’ve been reflecting on this subject since the issue of police brutality came to the fore in recent weeks, dominating our media and everyday conversations. Our nation’s history seems to be at a hinge moment, wherein the heroes of yesteryear appear less heroic, and out of sync with the spirit of the times. Pulling down statues of Confederates and other prominent but flawed figures is one way of saying that the national story needs reshaping.

As representations of white supremacy and a “Lost Cause” mentality, it was time for some Confederate statues to go elsewhere, although I wonder how much we can learn from a vanished statue.

Even representations of traditional “good guys” like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt have been defaced, pulled down or have sparked a clamor for removal.

In Washington, D.C., the long-controversial Emancipation Memorial — which depicts a crouching slave with a standing Lincoln — is on the verge of being removed. George Washington’s statue has been toppled in Portland, Oregon, because, according to one participant, he was a “genocidal colonialist.” (For good measure, Washington’s head was set on fire.) An objectionable statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is being moved to a spot still to be determined.

In Lancaster, James Buchanan’s statue in the park bearing his name is sure to face its own day of reckoning. Calls for removing Franklin Pierce’s name from the state law school and his statue from Main Street in Concord, New Hampshire, have already been made.

As prominent “doughface” presidents in the 1850s — Northern politicians with Southern principles, in common parlance — Buchanan and Pierce lacked a key moral quotient in their thinking. They lacked empathy for slaves, but exhibited ample sympathy for slave owners when it came to making public policy. The legion of those who defend Pierce and Buchanan as “constitutionalists” has steadily shrunk over the years. In any case, both have long been relegated to the basement in presidential rankings, with no uptick for either in prospect.

The practical question in Lancaster, and so many other localities where controversial statues now stand, is this: What do you gain, and what do you lose, by removing a statue from the perch where it has long stood?

The most powerful argument on behalf of removal: This person does not represent the best American values. The lesser but still strongly felt argument: This person does not represent my values. The best outcome in the short run: Satisfying one’s sense of virtue for having “slain” a defective hero who deserved what he got.

The most powerful argument for keeping the statues of flawed and controversial political figures, including a dozen or more American presidents, where they currently stand: They were citizens of their time, not ours, and they should not be defined by just one aspect of their lives.

George Washington was a slave owner but also the indispensable man during the American Revolutionary War and on through two terms as president as the republic launched in turbulent times.

Ditto Thomas Jefferson. He was a slave owner who authored the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute on religious toleration. He also founded a great university, as well as expanded an “Empire of Liberty” through the Louisiana Purchase during his years in the White House. He was flawed indeed, but also great.

So what to do about statues of individuals who seem discordant with our values?

The Confederate statues, aside from those in national historic sites like the Gettysburg battlefield, are truly a lost cause today. Funded by white supremacists and interest groups, they deserve to be visited and perhaps even interpreted from a modern perspective, but not in the same public square where they were originally placed. Move them.

As for the others: Let’s take a breath and reinterpret them based on compelling scholarship, providing explanatory markers in some cases, adding new statues in dialogue with them in other cases.

As the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer observed in a speech in Gettysburg in November 2017, “Let’s consider that even the most painful parts of our history should not perish from the earth, but long endure to be exposed and confronted.”

In Lancaster, Thaddeus Stevens is an obvious counterpoint to Buchanan as statue material for Buchanan Park.

But there is also Lydia Hamilton Smith, a formidable figure in the Lancaster community, about whom we are going to learn more through the aegis of the county historical society, LancasterHistory. Or Castner Hanway, who in 1851 helped thwart the attempt by a Maryland slave owner and his sons who came to Christiana seeking to return fugitive slaves to bondage. These names do not exhaust the possibilities.

The late great African American historian James O. Horton used to say that Americans needed to confront the “tough stuff” of our past. Only by doing so can we effectively navigate the present and future.

Michael J. Birkner is professor of history at Gettysburg College.