The Thomas Jefferson statue at Hofstra University is the latest target of the anti-monument campaign that has seized America in the wake of the Charleston church shooting in June 2015 and the “Unite the Right” rally this past August. A movement directed originally against the public display of Confederate flags and symbols, the anti-monument campaign has expanded to critique a wide range of figures from America’s past.
Perhaps the most paradoxical target of this phenomenon has been Abraham Lincoln, whose century-old bust in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago was defaced last August, about the same time that the Lincoln Memorial in Washington was spray-painted by vandals. What is at the heart of this development? Historical monuments that have stood unmolested for generations suddenly become the object of public ire. Why, and how, have monuments erected in honor of Lincoln and Jefferson become our scapegoats?
More fundamentally: Why has the passion that many on the left ostensibly have for free expression not extend to these monuments, erected to the memory of leaders venerated by American progressives in decades past — and why are the respectful defenders of such monuments unfairly slandered?
With respect to explicitly Confederate memorials and monuments, the issue is often more clear. A number of the monuments to the Old South were erected during the civil-rights battles of the 20th century and so have the potential not only to provoke pained reactions to slavery but to reopen old wounds from the era of Martin Luther King and the drive to end Jim Crow. As long as the debate over whether such monuments should be removed is held in a respectful and lawful manner, there should be no deep problem with it.
Confederate grave sites, such as the monument to the Confederate dead at Arlington National Cemetery, deserve protection, as do many of the historically significant memorials erected in the aftermath of the war. Even many of the newer monuments should not be viewed as entirely indefensible — honoring the past is distinct from endorsing every aspect of it. In attacking a given monument as racially hateful without any nuance, one might be inadvertently insulting many for whom it is a memorial to their dead relatives and ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
Removing a monument entirely can stoke anger as great as what its presence engendered in the first place. In many cases, relocating the monument may be a wiser move.
Where does that leave us with respect to Jefferson and to the situation at Hofstra? What do these principles have to do with the student group that has drawn up a petition against the campus’s Jefferson statue, in a legitimate exercise of their free speech, indeed, the same free speech that Jefferson himself championed? It is true that Jefferson was a slave owner for much of his life. Indeed, from our perspective in the 21st century, he held some distasteful views concerning people of races different from his own. Yet, imperfect though he was, it would be wrong to destroy his entire reputation on that basis alone. Besides, it should be noted that he was hardly the trenchant defender of slavery as a unadulterated positive good that Alexander Stephens and John C. Calhoun, for example, were in the context of the Civil War. To his credit, Jefferson, who came of age in the 18th century, did feel that slavery had unfortunate moral consequences.
But it has become apparent that the real issue here is not about Jefferson — or Lincoln, for that matter. Consider Mitchell Gunter’s report at Campus Reform a few days ago:
Richard Caldwell, the student who created the petition in favor of keeping the statue, said “I was originally not going to get involved in this, even though I disagreed with the statue being taken down, until we were falsely accused of being white supremacists and racists for simply wanting the statue to stay up.”
“I was shocked at this accusation, because I’ve never been called that,” Caldwell continued.
It has come to the point where simply being in favor of a monument to Thomas Jefferson is enough to get one characterized as a white supremacist, unworthy even to engage in debate. If this is the modus operandi of our public debates from this point forward, the legacy of Jefferson ought to be the least of our concerns.
In the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual godfather of the New Left, famously concluded that the right to free speech had become inherently repressive because it could be used as a cover for anti-Left and anti-egalitarian views. That move set the stage for the ultimate alienation of some liberals from the essence of liberality itself. Certainly many who are of a traditional bent are not above bigotry or cruelty, but it is nonetheless remarkable when a liberal rejects liberal ideals. Not only freedom of the press but freedom of the past seems to have fallen under the shadow of Marcuse’s ideology. We need only look to Orwell’s 1984, or to any of the 20th century’s fascist or Communist regimes, to see what a refusal to let the past speak for itself can lead to. And one need not support leaving up the Jefferson statue to share this worry.
The Hofstra community should have a fair debate over whether the Jefferson statue ought to come down. If the community determines that it should come down, then perhaps they should remove it — but the way the process is unfolding now is unconscionable. It violates the ideals — of reason and the free exchange of ideas — that we all ought to be supporting.
Gunter at Campus Reform continued:
Conor Dawson, another Hofstra student who gave a short speech advocating respectful dialogue, described how the notion was met with derision from the opposing side.
“Richard [Caldwell] and I went up to give our speeches which equated to ‘listen to the other side and maybe you’ll like get a new perspective’ or something like that,” he told Campus Reform. “These were greeted with boos and jeers from the opposite crowd including one of them yelling at us that we were white supremacist.”
“We were disappointed with how it turned out because we felt that even though the whole point of the counter protest had been that we’d be heard as people, we really weren’t,” Dawson concluded.
Echoing Dawson’s sentiments, Mulvena stated, “Some protesters were considered and respectful of everybody, but many were very rude to those that wanted to make counterpoints and statements.”
To provide more perspective on the issue, it might be helpful to consider the example of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, an organization for descendants of Union veterans. Founded in 1881, it was chartered by Congress during the Eisenhower administration and serves as the official successor to the Grand Army of the Republic. One of the duties of the Sons of Union Veterans is to preserve the many monuments and grave sites dedicated to the Civil War. The organization also carries out ceremonies and dedications at places such as Arlington National Cemetery.
If two groups with such different patrimonies and backgrounds can work together so well and for so long without rancor, there is no excuse for the fractiousness on the Hofstra campus today.
Yet notwithstanding its allegiance to a military cause, the organization is neither ideological nor sectarian in its outlook.
The Sons of Union Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans have a longstanding relationship with one another. They often cooperate to preserve the history of the Civil War period, monuments included. If two groups with such different patrimonies and backgrounds can work together so well and for so long without rancor, there is no excuse for the fractiousness on the Hofstra campus today. We should avoid repeating the divisions of the past. Let us not squander the chance to create a new era of cooperation, culture, and the rule of law.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its publication.