Some decisions in the monuments debate are tough — some aren't

Some decisions in the monuments debate are tough — some aren't
© Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

The raging debate over memorials and monuments could be a constructive conversation — if it avoids a false choice: discard our heritage or honor a racist history.

Public and political opinion has moved swiftly — especially against tributes to the Confederacy — following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white policeman.

The Republican legislature in Mississippi — Mississippi — has voted to remove the confederate symbol on its state flag.

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This environment also has generated calls to eliminate tributes to other historical figures, from the founding fathers to Christopher Columbus.

What's critical in this discussion is context, to differentiate those whose central role and/or whose character was defined by the evil championing of slavery and racism from those who —despite personal flaws — personify the better ideals of America.

George Washington, our first president, and Thomas Jefferson, prime author of the Declaration of Independence, both owned slaves, an enduring stain.

We celebrate Washington as the commander of the out-manned forces that won the nation's independence and for framing the American Presidency, including the principle of peaceful transfer of power. Washington is central to the American experience.

So too is Jefferson: the renowned memorial to him "has nothing to do with the fact he owned slaves," notes Princeton University historian Sean Wilenz, who has written about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., citing the Declaration of Independence at his famous 1963 "I have a Dream” speech, celebrating its spirit of democratic equality.

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Columbus was brutal to indigenous people, but he's recognized as the boldest 15th century European explorer — who opened the way to the Americas. It's frivolous to suggest changing the name of the U.S. capital or the capital city of Ohio; moreover, as much as I usually hate slippery slope arguments, would the next targets include Franklin D. Roosevelt, who interred Japanese-Americans in 1942 and didn't open the borders to pre-World War II Jews fleeing persecution? Or Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, who was not very supportive of gays and lesbians? Few great people in our history could withstand a perfection test.

But the confederates, without exception, are different.

They were traitors.

All those Army bases, named after the Southern generals, should be renamed, starting with North Carolina's Fort Bragg. In 1922 this was named after Braxton Bragg who not only deserted America but was a lousy General.

Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army was a prominent general, but he betrayed his country. He was a West Point honors graduate and later superintendent, where his picture rightly joins the other 59 who've led the academy.

But it is unacceptable that his name is on one of the nine West Point barracks. Rename the Lee barracks for, say, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, the heroic leader of the 82nd Airborne division in World War II and later commander of forces in Korea. Ridgway barracks — along with such other patriots including Eisenhower, Grant, Sherman and MacArthur — would do West Point proud.

John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and powerful pre-Civil War legislator, died before the war and thus technically escapes the “traitor” label — but the South Carolinian was the intellectual and political leader of the pro-slavery, secessionist cause that led to the insurrection. It's good that his alma mater, Yale, removed this name from one of its residential colleges.

Princeton, in a tougher decision, plans to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations. Wilson was president of the school before he was U.S. President, where he made important policy contributions.

But he also was a vile racist, undoing some of the mild desegregation efforts begun under a predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. Booker T. Washington had dinner at the White House with TR, the first Black to be invited to such a dinner by a president. By contrast, 50 years after the Civil War, Wilson hosted a White House showing of “Birth of a Nation,” — originally titled “The Clansman” —an anti-Black movie credited with leading the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th Century.

Overall, these are very important, overdue, discussions and debates. Some decisions are easy, others aren't.

Beyond monuments and memorials — and to help avoid the false choice between discarding heritage or honoring a racist history — the focus should be on learning and how we teach history, including the sins of our most revered figures.

Every history or political science department, starting in high school, should have a course on what may be the greatest con job in American history: the “lost cause,” which for more than a century glorified traitors who fought against the United States in order to keep four million people in bondage.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.