Thursday, August 17, 2017

Monuments erasing history

Texas, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has 66 monuments honoring the Confederacy.  At least four of those are on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, or in the building itself.

There is a monument to the Confederate soldiers, featuring five figures with Jefferson Davis in the center.  It was put up in 1903 by "surviving comrades."  There is a "Terry's Texas Rangers" monument, put up in 1907 by "surviving comrades."  It celebrates, not the iconic "one man, one riot" Texas Rangers, but the 8th Texas Cavalry which fought throughout the Civil War.  There is also a third, a monument to Hood's Brigade, erected in 1910 by "surviving comrades and friends."    It is:

A bronze figure of a Confederate soldier tops a gray granite shaft with hand-carved quotes by Confederate leaders. The monument stands as a memorial to the members of John B. Hood's Texas Brigade who fought in the Army of Northern Virginia between 1861-1865. Hood's Brigade participated in many of the Civil War's most famous battles including Sharpsburg (Antietam) and Gettysburg.
There are 21 monuments on the grounds of the Capitol.  Ten do not honor soldiers or specific wars.  Two memorialize World War II (one for the war, one for Pearl Harbor).  World War II is the only other war with more than one memorial to it.  There are three Civil War Monuments, all erected between 1903 and 1910.

There is also this curious plaque inside the Capitol Rotunda.  You have to search to find it; it is not prominently displayed.  It was put up in 1959, and rather undercuts any idea that these memorials are educational, or even "beautiful" (you can follow the links to the Civil War memorials specified above, and draw your own conclusion on their aesthetic value.  Personally, I find them ugly and uninspiring.)  The plaque, if you find it, looks like this:

Not surprisingly I couldn't find a picture of this on the State Preservation Board website; this comes courtesy of The Texas Observer.

If you can't read it, I've transcribed it:

Because we desire to perpetuate, in love and honor, the heroic deeds of those who enlisted in the Confederate Army, and upheld its flag through four years of war, we, the children of the South, have united in an organization called “Children of the Confederacy,” in which our strength, enthusiasm, and love of justice can exert its influence.

We, therefore, pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals:  to honor our veterans; to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery), and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.

Erected by Texas Division/Children of the Confederacy/August 7, 1959
If anything, it is the prior monuments, which led to the 20th century invention of the "Noble Cause" that was "Gone with the Wind" (written, it should be noted, in 1936, by which time such monuments had been up long enough to erase the true history and replace it with romantic fantasy).  The monuments themselves indicate to later generations there must have been something worth memorializing in the war of secession, and it couldn't have been anything so base as human slavery.  I have to confess I was taught this version of history in Texas schools:  that the War Between the States was about "states rights," not about slavery.  Which is a lie, of course.  The Battle of the Alamo was not about freedom from tyranny; it was about slavery, too.  Mexico outlawed it, and the Texican colonists wanted slaves so they could get in on that sweet southern plantation economy.  It's the same reason they left the union a few years after joining it.  Any other version of Texas history is simply a lie; as this plaque is.

Texas Declaration of causes for secession, February 2, 1861

"We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”*

Part of the argument against taking these monuments down is that they are educational; and that to remove them would erase history.  But it erases history to claim a monument with four Confederate soldiers on it and the President of the Confederacy are symbols of something honorable.  Jefferson Davis stood for the proposition that people should be owned by other people, and treated in a manner we wouldn't allow a dog owner to treat a dog, today.  "Terry's Texas Rangers" were not freedom fighters; they were traitors to the government they agreed to abide under; they were soldiers against the constituted order.  Hood's Brigade was not composed of honorable men who fought for liberty; they were rebels who turned against the government they had, a few years earlier, agreed to join, and did so precisely to keep Mexico at bay.  And this plaque, erected in 1959, is simply a series of lies meant to erase history and replace it with a more palatable white racist, white supremacist, version.  That there should be any controversy about removing it now, is what is shocking.  Kurt Vonnegut once argued that, instead of putting up the Ten Commandments in courthouses (and on state grounds; that's one of the 21 monuments on Texas Capitol grounds), we put up the Beatitudes.  In response to this plaque and the monuments outside, I'd at least like to see the Texas Declaration on secession posted in bronze, for all to see.  Might be educational, ya know.

Eric Johnson, a member of the Texas House, whose office is near this plaque in the Capitol, wants it removed.  Governor Abbott, in the mealy-mouthed nature we've come to expect from him, wants to sound like Trump lite:

"Racist and hate-filled violence – in any form — is never acceptable, and as Governor I have acted to quell it," Abbott said in the statement. "My goal as governor is to eliminate the racist and hate-filled environment we are seeing in our country today."

"But we must remember that our history isn't perfect," Abbott added. "If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won't erase our nation's past, and it doesn't advance our nation's future. As Governor, I will advance that future through peace, not violence, and I will do all I can to keep our citizens safe."

The pediment of the Texas Capitol displays the "six flags" which flew over Texas (more properly, the six sovereigns of the state's history).  Reading from left to right, they are:  Spain; France (Austin still has the home of the French Legation to the Republic of Texas); Mexico; the Republic of Texas (the Lone Star); the Confederacy (the white man on the white horse.  Lee, I presume); and the American Eagle.  Which, technically, should bracket the Confederacy, since Texas joined the union then left 12 years later.  But that would destroy the symmetry and confuse the story.  Anyway, arguably, that display is educational.  It is certainly historical.

There is nothing historical about that plaque in the rotunda.  It's simply a series of lies.  It buries the past to leave it up,  as it does to leave up any of the other monuments to the Confederacy on the Capitol grounds.  That there are three of them says more about what we still honor than simply what they stand for.  This plaque explicitly, and those statutes and monuments implicitly, bury history beneath granite and bronze.  They are lies, and it is the truth that will make us free.

It says so right on the next big state building directly north of the capitol, where they removed their statue of Jefferson Davis:

*A correction; I misread my source and published a statement from the Mississippi Declaration of causes for secession.  I've replaced it with the language used for Texas.


  1. I have some conflicted feeling about this whole monument imbroglio.

    As a kid at Robert E. Lee High School I really hated all the Confederate stuff and would have been happy to have had the whole mess pulled down.

    And as an old man who considers the current president a threat to the republic I'm not unhappy at yet another controversy that might inch us toward an early end of the administration.

    But I think fundamentally I am not an iconoclast. I don't like mobs pulling down statues. And I'm not sure, really, what the criteria should be for removing old monuments (I take for granted that lawful removal will result in some sort of preservation somewhere).

    I am sure that there are more monuments to the bad than to the good, starting with Ozymandius. But part of the problem is that symbols are not univocal. They mean different things to different people. Their meaning can change over time. A swastika means something different to an Eastern Buddhist than to a typical modern Westerner. So when we assert that a monument "really means" this rather than that, I wonder if the "real meaning" itself has any objective reality. Our discussion of these matters seems to kind of blithely assume that it does, and ascribe my own understanding to everyone.

    It's like asking whether the "real cause" of the Civil War was "slavery" or "states' rights." The cause of any war is obviously complex, and just as obviously, slavery was the hot-button issue that raised the tricky question of where sovereignty ultimately lay under the Constitution. But to argue as if there were a single cause is a little naïve (most of us with a high school education could probably come up with ten other less important causes).

    Nor am I comfortable with those who draw a sharp line between Confederate "traitors" and Colonial "founding fathers." Why shouldn't we think of Washington as a traitor to the crown he earlier served?

    What am I trying to say? That Trump is right? I hope not. More to the effect that there is a great deal of nuance in historical interpretation, and that I am a little uncomfortable with the political utility of these characterizations obscuring the nuance of historical judgment, which is a genuinely valuable thing.

    In Santa Fe there is a civil war monument on the plaza. It is a monument to Union soldiers rather than Confederate soldiers, but the inscription is highly unPC, and some years ago there was a movement to remove it.

    Instead of removing it, they did what I think was close to brilliant. They put a second inscription with the first:

    "Monument texts reflect the character of the times in which they are written and the temper of those who wrote them. This monument was dedicated in 1868 near the close of a period of intense strife which pitted northerner against southerner, Indian against white, Indian against Indian. Thus we see on this monument, as in other records, the use of such terms as 'savage' and 'rebel.' Attitudes change and prejudices hopefully dissolve."

    So....Germany remains Germany without Nazi monuments. France would undoubtedly not be France if all the monuments to the tyrant Napoleon were toppled. Is the American South still the American South if the stern visages of the failed Confederacy are excised from the public square? Or is their poisoned legacy still too toxic to tolerate? Those are genuine questions from me. But compromise does not seem to be he order of the day.

  2. "Nostalgia is the longing for the breakfasts of our childhood," some Chinese philosopher supposedly said. Something like that.

    I think one problem with these monuments (set aside mob violence against them) is that we grew up with them, and consider them "normative." Of course, we also grew up white, and both remember what Confederate symbols meant in 1971. That "confederate flag," for example, was not the flag of the confederacy at all, but a battle flag of a military unit. 100 years later it stands for something else entirely, and many things unpalatable to both of us.

    But we grew up thinking those monuments had stood since the 19th century. Why did they start going up 50 years after the war had ended, and who were the "survivors" putting them up? 50 years was the better part of a life time, on average, in 1903. And it's telling that the efforts immediately after the war, to incorporate the southern states back with the northern, were abandoned by these monuments to men who were, after all, traitors and rebels against the government you and I grew up in.

    And "Children of the Confederacy" in 1959? Isn't that rather like Nazis nostalgic for Hitler in Germany in 2019? What could such "children" remember about 1865? And what they remember is simply antithetical to the historical record. Was slavery the sole reason for that war? Is that even a serious question, because does the answer matter? Several of the states which seceded specifically cited slavery as a reason. It's a little disingenuous to even infer it didn't matter THAT much, now.

    But, as I say, we grew up with them, so they set a norm for history we accepted. A far better memorial is the one Grant put up around his farm near St. Louis. It's still there, I visited it several times when I lived there. He took 2500+ rifle barrels from the war and used them for a fence. He meant it as a memorial.

    It's a very proper one. A reminder of war, of what some call the first industrialized war, because so many guns were made so quickly, and so many instruments of war unknown before that time (medicine didn't catch up until nearly a century later).

    And I don't know about France and Germany. The former wasn't ruled by Napoleon because of treason, the latter wasn't formed into country until Bismarck in the 19th century, and the Nazis were the government, not the usurpers of government. How many monuments do the English have to Cromwell and the Roundheads?

    I think the closest they come is Guy Fawkes Day.

    I think it behooves us, children of the south who grew up with statues we thought were always there, where historically accurate and memorialized great things, to look from a different perspective, to think about how it appears to people without our background. And to think about how we form history, and reform history, and deform history.

    Because just because we're comfortable with it, doesn't mean it should be left alone until we're gone.

    Then again, I don't think they should all be torn down by mobs. As to what to do with them, I understand a lot of them were mass produced in the North and sold to Southerners in the early 20th century. Not exactly works of art, not exactly unique treasures. The Smithsonian is "America's attic." Maybe we could stick 'em all there.

    I just don't think my memories of them should be the measuring stick of their value. Especially since my presumptions about them have proven to be so false, and the truth about who put them up ("Children of the Confederacy"?) is so ugly.

  3. Or maybe I should just shut up and listen.

  4. Well, we all should, of course.....