Marx famously wrote in 1851 that history “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’ In dissecting the persistent failure of people’s revolutionary imagination, he goes on to say, “Just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before… they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” He goes on to give examples of Martin Luther invoking the Apostle Paul, and the French Revolution’s need to conjure up both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire to justify its allegedly revolutionary aims.
Marx’s argument here suggests that we shouldn’t have any monuments saddled with the baggage of the past at all. But I’ve come to be convinced that human beings need myths, like they need love or adventure, and that a political persuasion that eschews myth entirely has no hope of gaining mass appeal.
The quandary of what to do with our history is highly prescient in this American moment of historical identity crisis. The question of which monuments or street names to preserve or strike is only the most tangible outward expression of the fight over the meaning of our shared public memory.
The latest flare-up over monuments comes a few years after the last one, when New Orleans led the country by removing — through a transparent and protracted democratic process — statues put up by racists a hundred years ago in an effort to erase the memory of Reconstruction. It was one of New Orleans’ finest hours. Conservatives from outside New Orleans made a big stink about our decision, but they were soon distracted by other efforts around the country to re-think the American past.
Academic historians are always engaged in revising, updating the way former eras are interpreted, but the anniversary of the first slave ship to arrive in the English colonies 400 years ago sparked a more popular public reckoning that made many conservatives downright anxious. A New York Times series, “the 1619 Project,” seemed to encapsulate every fear conservatives had about Americans looking beyond public statues and into public records and under-read public testimonies. Just as in their critique of monument removal, conservative critics of the 1619 Project confused history for myth. The narrative thread that unites a particular group around certain principles is more correctly understood as myth, not history.
Such efforts as the 1619 Project are not new. Since Frederick Douglass, at least, many Americans have taken pains to remind other Americans of how the country has not lived up to its vaunted principles. Conservatives are deeply uncomfortable with reminders of the many instances in which freedom, justice, and equality have been empty and hypocritical propaganda slogans rather than lived values. They don’t dispute that slavery and Jim Crow and Native American genocide and dozens of other moral failures existed. So why are they so upset when people revisit these spectacles of injustice and hypocrisy?
The question of which monuments or street names to preserve or strike is only the most tangible outward expression of the fight over the meaning of our shared public memory.
While the American left has always drawn on the rhetorical foundations of American democracy to continue working toward “a more perfect union,” conservatives often want to call the work done, insisting that the union is perfect as is or even as was. When Donald Trump declared at Mount Rushmore on July 3 that Americans will not “apologize” for American history, he was effectively saying that Americans should not even think about, should not debate the meaning of their history at all. To genuflect before monuments of great men without daring to question their value has nothing to do with the democratic principles put forth by the very men whom some of these statues commemorate.
Critiques of the New York Times’ 1619 Project reveal the authoritarian agenda that, in the brief but destructive age of Trump, has replaced the free “marketplace of ideas” that conservatives once claimed to value. Why would any citizen of a democratic society have a problem with an honest review of their country’s history? Ask conservative commentator Cal Thomas: “Not satisfied with practicing what used to be called journalism, it appears the newspaper’s ultimate goal is to change what is taught in public schools so that children will no longer think highly of their country.”
How? By reporting facts about the country that are not actually in dispute? After Reconstruction, conservative historians collectively referred to as the “Dunning School” grossly distorted facts to portray a demonstrably false portrait of the Antebellum South and Reconstruction. “Revisionist” historians in the mid- to late-20th Century called out the lies, so now conservatives say we just shouldn’t talk about slavery, Jim Crow, etc. at all because it will make Americans look bad to the schoolchildren of the future. We should lie, they argue, for the good of the country.
Another conservative argument against the revision and reframing of the past that every society constantly engages in also dates back a hundred years: the idea that some Americans had done bad things in the distant past, yes, but that these injustices have been overcome — long ago — because of the actions of other Americans. The problem is, they don’t like naming names. Thus Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has said, “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.” How true, but no thanks to Mitch McConnell and the ideological constituency he represents. Mitch McConnell himself bent over backwards to hamstring and discredit everything the first African-American president sought to accomplish.
The memorialized Confederates that Trump conservatives (including McConnell) cannot bear to part with fought to preserve slavery, not end it. And the ideological ancestors of Trump and McConnell’s Republican Party fought tooth and nail to stop the landmark civil rights legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, the last liberal and only true “Civil Rights President” to occupy the White House (and a big reason white supremacists abandoned the Democrats and became Republicans).
I don’t see how Andrew Jackson meets the standards of either national of local considerations of who should have a statue.
The reason conservatives rightly fear today’s historical reckoning is that it discredits not America, but them. They must realize that the protests in the streets today represent exactly the model of American democratic resilience that forms the core of the only national mythos that all of us can share in: the struggle for freedom. To remind people that certain Americans have been deprived of the fruits of freedom is fully in the spirit of American democratic intellectual traditions, as is the reminder that there was a degree of incontinence and hypocrisy behind the beautiful words of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, et al.
There’s no way to defend Confederates or Christopher Columbus on the basis of sharing a positive mythos of American freedom and democracy. However, since the American revolutionaries built the rhetorical edifice from which future liberation movements majestically unfolded, they deserve a spirited public debate over whether there should be statues and street names honoring their memory.
It’s not hard to make the argument that Jefferson’s own ideas support the removal of his name from streets and structures. He was the anti-slavery slaveholder, which is confusing and upsetting for the inheritors of his intellectual legacy, but his words are clear as can be that slavery needed to end, and soon — he just didn’t want to be the man to do it.
Though the saying attributed to him, “Every generation needs its own revolution,” may be apocryphal, it certainly belongs to his myth, and coheres with many of his extant writings. The ideal of Jefferson, as distinct from his flawed person, is contained in the words etched in stone at his memorial in Washington. Beside one passage, that honestly and eloquently acknowledges the crime of slavery, is this gem: “With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Would Jefferson count himself among the “barbarous ancestors” that his descendants are destined to outgrow? There’s no doubt in my mind that he would. Jefferson, the man, is dead. His words live on as beacons against tyranny including, most significantly, “over the mind” of human beings. One way to handle the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. is to remove the statue and leave everything else — the rotunda and the words (though I’m willing to confess an aesthetic and sentimental attachment to the statue itself that I cannot dislodge with the aid of reason). At any rate, it’s crystal clear, based on the words inscribed at the Jefferson Memorial itself, that conservative calls to salute the statues of former generations, without ever wondering why they’re there, have nothing to do with anything Jefferson ever envisioned for the country he helped found.
The issue of officially sanctioned public memory in New Orleans must also adhere to the minimum criterion that memorials celebrate heroes in the struggle for freedom — assuming, of course, that we reject Marx’s view that nods to past heroes just obscure a more rational vision of possible futures (no monuments at all). We also owe it to ourselves to honor local people who have fought for freedom. And I think we give the wrong impression if we limit candidates to people who lived after the Civil Rights Movement era. The fact is that people — black and white — have been fighting injustice, including racial injustice, for hundreds of years in New Orleans. It’s almost pointless to begin a list, but maroon leaders such as Jean Saint Malo and Bras Coupé are a distinctively local expression of the struggle against slavery in our area, as are the leaders of the 1811 German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. These men were also all Francophones.
I believe that one aspect of our local mythos richly deserving preservation is the sense of New Orleans as distinct from the White Anglo-Saxon protestant cultural hegemony that dominated the 13 Colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. Indeed, the language of resistance in early American New Orleans was often French, was tied as much to French revolutionary thought as to American.
I don’t see how Andrew Jackson meets the standards of either national of local considerations of who should have a statue. He wasn’t from here, and he didn’t advance freedom for anyone during his leadership (though he benefited from a recently empowered voting bloc of unpropertied white males). He also does not deserve credit for the diverse forces that defended New Orleans from the the British at Chalmette. Popular memory needs to stop patting him on the back for allowing black militias that had first been armed and trained under the Spanish, then disarmed by the Americans. Part of New Orleans’ contribution to understanding the struggle for freedom in our region is the knowledge that the Americans brought less freedom, not more, to people of color (enslaved and free) who had a better deal, including achievable pathways to freedom, under previous colonial regimes.
In 1910, a letter was printed in the New York Times calling for inclusion in Congress’ statuary hall of another veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, Jewish businessman and philanthropist Judah Touro: “Never before or since has the American flag waved in battle over as many types of nationalities and races…Jews, Catholics, Protestants, English, Irish, Scotch, French, Spaniards, Germans, Portuguese, Scandinavians, Greeks, Mexicans, Africans, Afro-Americans…Our forces symbolized all the great races embodied for the defense of the rights of man.”
The letter was drafted on behalf of a Battle of New Orleans veterans group. It’s interesting to note that they apparently viewed their effort as part of an international struggle to extend the “rights of man” (after the French revolutionary “droits de l’homme”) to all the peoples of the world. This is exactly what people are calling for once again in the streets of America.
I’ve long wanted Marie Laveau to take Jackson’s place on the pedestal, since she was not only a beloved New Orleanian but also a devoted parishioner of St, Louis Cathedral. Since New Orleans is a majority-black city, I do think a New Orleanian of African descent belongs in that highly prominent location. Perhaps one of the many black veterans of the Battle of New Orleans would be the most logical choice, with something like the quote above on the pedestal. Hippolyte Castra, who later wrote a poem about getting cheated out of his veteran’s pension, would be perfect for portraying the promise and betrayal that has dogged our search for a “more perfect union” for centuries.
The most striking recent monument to the 18th Century American revolutionaries was crafted by a Puerto Rican New Yorker. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit, “Hamilton,” is a reverent re-visioning of the American Revolution that should provide solace to conservatives who fear a wholesale dismissal of the accomplishments of the revolutionary founders — unless the conservatives’ aim is white supremacy rather than democracy. The radical decision to cast Jefferson and Madison as black goes a long way toward transferring ownership of our national myths to an emergent generation who must decide what these myths mean to them. Miranda also points the way to a productive reframing of national mythology by elevating to visibility anti-slavery South Carolinian John Laurens.
But we need to remember Marx’s fear that getting hung up on ghosts of the past might prevent us from tackling the living impediments to freedom and justice. Razing every monument and re-naming all the streets after numbers and letters accomplishes nothing if the living monuments to white supremacy continue to rule over us. To be bluntly Marxist, a cultural revolution that leaves in place the prevailing economic power structure is a sham revolution.
And the biggest obstacle to a more egalitarian society — in terms of race, gender, environment, and distribution of resources — is today’s Republican Party. The fact that Republicans are more enthusiastic for Trump than for the past several party leaders — including George W. Bush — shows the degree to which white supremacy has become their core unifying principle
Yes, some brave Republicans have stood up to Trump, but not many elected ones and none from Louisiana. Our state’s Republicans have been among the loudest cheerleaders for America’s newest white supremacist political formation, and they are in more dire need of removal than any statue. After Attorney General Jeff Landry, Congressman Steve Scalise, Senator John Kennedy, and Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser are gone for good, then I say we can have a party and toss Old Hickory into the river. It would be earned then, and Jefferson would expect no less of us.
C.W.Cannon is a native New Orleanian novelist and essayist. He teaches in the English Department at Loyola University.
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