Can We Remember Well?

Perhaps, amid the profound divisions revealed by the national conversation over Confederate monuments, consensus could emerge over this: If their removal is justified, it should be carried out in the light of day.

That is the proper milieu for a serious civic moment whose purpose is not to vent anger or express superiority but rather, according to its proponents, to reorient what we honor and reshape public views of a shared past. It was not the milieu Baltimore chose when, fearing violence—from whom city officials did not say—it removed three monuments in the dead of night. The University of Texas at Austin, citing similar concerns, acted comparably Sunday night. Protesters in Durham simply threw a rope around the neck of a statue of a Confederate soldier and toppled it.

Yet the range of monuments that vanished—statues when the sun went down, empty pedestals when it rose again—is instructive, and it may provide some guidance on the immensely complex question of Confederate memorials, which pits the legitimate feelings of those whose enslavement was the Confederacy’s raison d’être against also valid concerns about the erasure of history.

These memorials, all removed overnight, have run the gamut from the century-old monument to the ordinary soldier in Durham to an 1872 memorial to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Annapolis to statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson erected as segregationist shrines in Baltimore in 1948. That is a considerable range of both time and honorees. The honorees cannot much help us. Time might.

The individuals cannot help because Confederates fought for an indefensible cause in a conflict that Taney’s racialist reasoning—Taney himself freed his slaves, but felt, ham-handedly, he could rescue the country judicially from impending civil war—helped to induce.

Dragged before the bar of contemporaneous reason, they are justifiably found wanting. Many are. This is the standard that ensnares the likes of founding slaveholders, famous exponents of indefensible racial views, warmongers and others. Great statesmen almost always have great sins along with great virtues. We must still be capable of distinguishing between founders who sought but could not—or, for those who prefer the accusatory formulation, did not—accomplish its end and those whose entire purpose was its perpetuation.

But neither can withstand contemporary moral standards. And if the standards of the immediate are always the gauge, it will almost always be impossible to honor the past, a point emphasized by Professor Robert P. George’s powerful challenge to consider, in the context of damning the indefensible past, what is indefensible in our own time.

Yet it cannot be enough for defenders of history simply to say the past must be preserved because it is the past. By that standard the Russians would have been wrong to tear down memorials to Stalin in 1991 and the Iraqis should have kept, as memories of their troubled past, statues of Saddam in 2003. Somewhere between the immediate and the distant, everyone has the instinctive sense that complications ensue.

Hence the instruction of time, embodied in Burke’s doctrine of prescription. Burke warned against looking too closely at the beginnings of states, all of which, he noted, were conceived in violence or crime. But the doctrine of prescription, “through long usage, mellows into legality governments that were violent in their commencement.”

Might we not say something similar about monuments? Might, some, too, be “mellowed by time,” if not into legality, then at least into tolerability? There is a difference between one put up in the ashes of battle, or erected, say, at Gettysburg or Chancellorsville, commemorating a war long ended, and a Confederate memorial put up by the Klan in the 1920s or by segregationists in the era of massive resistance to Brown v. Board? As Matthew J. Franck—who persuasively argues for treating monuments to Confederate leaders differently from Confederate cemeteries or simple memorials to war dead—notes, most of the monuments are of this latter, white-supremacist type.

There is similarly a difference between dragging every past figure before the bar of contemporary reason, on the one hand, and, on the other, accepting history as a storehouse of custom but also complications. The former arrogates all power to the immediate generation. It is, ironically enough, supremely Jeffersonian reasoning. Jefferson—whose monuments some want to be next—argued that “‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”

Yet history does not operate in discrete generations. Generations are constantly passing in and out, contracting debts and making demands. We are all heirs to our complex history, sharing both its blessings and its shortcomings.

That we, right now, might make a permanent moral judgment for all generations by simply excising the past like a tumor rather than confronting its complexity requires both a generational arrogance and a supreme faith in contemporary reason that is at odds with the typical Progressive presupposition that moral feeling is generally advancing. On the contrary, it accepts an ironically transcendent morality that can only transcend for an instant before something else transcends it in turn. (Consider that Woodrow Wilson was a hero to generations of Progressives before his recognition as a notorious racist.)

To use prescription as a measure for gauging monuments to the Confederacy or other morally flawed causes or people is not to provide an airtight abstract standard. That is, in many ways, the point. This is ultimately a prudential question that must account for the legitimate feelings of those who feel excluded and in fact outright assaulted by these monuments and those who will feel further alienated by their removal.

This, like most matters in politics, requires judgment. Perhaps that judgment should include the remaining statues being accompanied by genuine educational efforts. It should certainly include another Burkean value—a proper constitutional distance between the deliberate decisions of a political community and the caprice of demonstrators. Perhaps the decision to remove some monuments is defensible; to remove them under demagogic pressure never is.

All this is all the more reason for judgment to be exercised in the daylight. If a political community so fears a conversation about its past that it must eradicate monuments to it by night, it is not mature enough to confront its future.

Reader Discussion

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on August 22, 2017 at 10:29:47 am

The removing of slave-holder statues is a political event, not an historical one. The left generally denies history as a matter; its is conservatives who conserve, obviously. This entire "issue" is yet another slight-of-hand to avoid talking about anything that really matters. Where did all the police shooting videos go after November 4? This too shall pass. A few hundred meatheads fighting with sticks will not bring down the republic, but cowardly leaders might.

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Ron Johnson
on August 22, 2017 at 10:47:54 am

Considering the nature of the critique of the following comments, some personal biographical background (which may be duplicative of prior posts) may lower somewhat the casual reader’s sense of regional chauvinism.

I “grew up” (ages 1 – 17) in tidewater Virginia the child of Midwestern parents; thus, not having any of the Old South traditions imbued in my upbringing. We were “cultural Yankees.” But, we did “fit in” as the Old South and then ultimately parts of the Deep South underwent transitions during the periods of internal migrations throughout the nation.

Given Greg Weiner’s broad scholarship, it is dismaying to read his implied summary of history. True, my early education in American history was in the public school system of Virginia. However, time has shown me that education was not “prejudicial,” nor ideological. Of course, the education system (1930 – 1942) was racially segregated, during the same period when there were other forms of social segregation and their education systems in other parts of the nation.

Greg Weiner appears to categorize the War between the States as a conflict (mistakenly called “Civil” War) conducted by powers within certain states to preserve the oppression of a large racial group of laborers.

A closer reading of history, and not much closer at that, quickly reveals the development of at least three regional societies particularly differentiated economically, socially and culturally in their backgrounds and the objectives of their populations for future development. At the same time (Around 1848) the Northeastern and Western segments of those societies had evolved into Open Access social orders. The South had not.

The states making up the “South” with its differences in both background and the then ongoing limitations in development, chose to withdraw from union with the other segments and create a separate nation. Most of the resulting war was defense against the reassertion of Federal authority over the governments and peoples of the several Confederate states.

The huge majority of the Confederate combatants were not “slaveholders” nor beneficiaries from slaveholding. The maintenance of “Oppression” of others was not their motivating factor. Some of the nature of that motivation surfaced again at the time of WW II.

What we are observing today is the maturing of a generation of “Injustice Seekers,” who, if they cannot find it in their immediate circumstances of their advanced quality of life, wish to impute it to those who dealt with very different historical circumstances and cultural origins.

Our society is fragmenting, as is Western civilization. Injustice Seekers are not looking for causes of the fragmentation, or causes of the loss of cohesion, but for symbols of, and persons to, blame.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 22, 2017 at 12:22:01 pm

In March 2015 the Director General of UNESCO declared that the "deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime" . Of course she referenced the crimes of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where many ancient memorials were destroyed. Or, perhaps she had also in mind the destruction of the statues of Bamiyan a decade before. Indeed, we could proffer a very long list of monuments and memorials lost in contemporaneous expressions of propriety and appropriateness by ruling power. To be wondered at, though, is how far apart are the reactions to detached and distant symbols of violence from those near at hand. Nor will it suffice to emphasize the injustices that drip from the lineaments or raiments of the memorials we presently condemn, for there are hardly any monuments or memorials -- from the pyramids to the tokens of southern revanchism -- that do not convey tales of systematic injustice. Indeed, we need not doubt that even recently constructed monuments to noble deeds and characters may not at some future time come to be seen in the light of painful deprivations and thus meriting to be disassembled just as ceremoniously as they have so recently been assembled.

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W. B. Allen
on August 22, 2017 at 16:17:34 pm

Weiner predictably characterizes the motives of secession as fundamentally racist. However, the motive for American slavery was not racist ab initio but rather economic.

After the Stuart restoration in 1660, the English proprietary and royal colonies in the Americas petitioned Charles II to allow His Majesty's American colonies to change the English common law to provide that the civil status of "slave" should be henceforth changed so that the civil status of slave would be inhered at birth from the mother, whose civil status was always know, instead of from the father, whose civil status was invariably not know. This law was adopted by what we call the slave states. [N.b: Under English common law. a child always inherited the civil status of the father and, if the status of the father was unknown, English juries always presumed the father's civil status was "free" rather than "slave." That's why slavery died out in England.}

In the late 17th C., the plantation colonies in English Americas produced rice, tobacco and indigo and were very profitable but their profitability was declining through the 18th C. and the Constitution was ratified under the belief that slavery would simply die out in a generation. Then came technology in the form of the cotton gin and cotton became wildly profitable. The acquisition of Louisiana in 1803 greatly expanded the territory suitable for a plantation economy based on cotton and sugar and slave labor. At this point, the plantation economies and cultures of the South began to markedly diverge from the free labor economies of the North and old Mid-West and the necessary pre-condition for civil war emerged.

In the colonial economies that did not depend on agricultural exports, slavery was hated. Slavery was tolerated in these colonies after 1692 only because it was encouraged by the English/British Board of Trade as being profitable and English or British law was the supreme law and the free colonies had no way to ban it.

The New England abolitionists of the 1850s always characterized "The Slave Power" as an economic threat, not a moral problem; something that both Garrison, Douglass and Thoreau constantly harped upon.

After the Civil War, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 but cotton and sugar still accounted for more than two-third of the US's GNP and, predictably, the Supreme Court struck down most of its provisions in the Civil Rights Case of 1883. Then, the Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Meanwhile, consistent with Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and anxious to cast the Civil War as a war of reunification rather than a war of conquest, the official narrative became: The Civil War tested an ambiguity in the Constitution about secession; the issue was tried by the sword; and the CSA lost and they are again our brothers. This was the narrative every cohort born in the US between 1880-1970 was raised with.

Attempting to now impose a new narrative has the potential for fomenting another civil war.

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on August 23, 2017 at 09:35:08 am

And - it is unbecoming a disinterested academic.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 23, 2017 at 09:39:24 am

It might also be recalled that the first "secessionist" movement arose in the mercantile Northeast (NOT the South) in the period leading up to and through the 1812 War with England.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 23, 2017 at 13:28:58 pm

That's true. The old Yankees' ideal republic was New England plus Nova Scotia and New Brunswick all bounded by Long Island Sound, the Hudson and St Lawrence Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.

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on August 23, 2017 at 19:28:22 pm


" At this point, the plantation economies and cultures of the South began to markedly diverge from the free labor economies of the North and old Mid-West and the necessary pre-condition for civil war emerged."

Perhaps a question / comment:

It is possible to take this sentence to mean that there were not significant cultural / political / economic differences between the several sections of the country prior to 1803. Are you familiar with "pursuit of Happiness" by Jack P. Greene. I am, myself, hesitant to refer to this work as there is much in it find unsatisfactory or contradictory. However, Greene does make a fair case that well prior to the Revolution there were significant cultural / economic divergence between the Chesapeake, the Upper south and the Northeast. He "hints" at the need for a common resistance to the British as a reason that the "divergence" did not assume such a prominent role in colonial relations.
Following Greene it may be fair to argue that once the issue was settled with the British AND as Northern States, no longer subject to British rule, gave up slavery, that only then did the differences between the merchant / industrial economies of the North and the *peculiar* labor / economic system of the South assume such importance.

Any thoughts on this.

As an aside: Luvv'd the 1692 / British Board of Trade comment:

In a fit of pique / frustration when pestered by some SJW decrying the inherent racism / history of America, I have been known to lay the whole "dang" thing on the Brits (true, of course, although it does not absolve us of our culpability) but I will now use this Board of Trade matter as an addition to my counter of historical facts and dates.

And it is clearly true that the common confederate soldier was neither emotionally nor economically vested in the "Slave Power"; if anything that "Power" was as oppressive a force upon the yeoman farmer as any he would have had to contend with. Peter Kolchin has a nice chapter on white farmers in "American Slavery" (there are as I am sure you know many others).
Frankly what disturbs me is the inability on the part of our modern moralists to recognize the multitude of motivations that may have impelled many a poor young man to "defend' his country AND to dishonor the courage and sacrifice made by these young men in the face of unspeakable horror. I suppose this is to be expected from a generation that satisfies its war-fighting impulse on a PlayStation.

Anyway, luv your informed commentary.

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on August 23, 2017 at 19:33:12 pm

Now for some lighthearted comments:

I think this whole monument craze is about to implode.

The SJW's are going after the White Horse used by the USC Trojans because....... Well, because the Trojan Horse is called Traveller and Gen. Robert E. Lee.s white stallion was named Traveler. Hey, makes sense doesn't it?

You may be able to take down a statue of Lee on horseback BUT I suspect the living Traveller may supply what is most needed - a good swift kick in the butt to any who approaches.

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on August 23, 2017 at 20:22:25 pm

Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought Lincoln justified the war because of inconsistencies in the way southern political leaders claimed authority to exit the union. Their claims to republican authority were invalid because of they way they were elected.

In contrast, when the colonies separated from Great Britain was through a proper formal legal process. It started with the Declaration of Rights in 1774, continued with a statement of cause for taking up arms in 1775, and finally a restatement of the violation of rights in 1776 that documented the intractability of the Brits with respect to those rights and that formally declared that the colonies were free and independent of GB. At all times they held to proper legal forms per the British constitution.

Lincoln's claim, I thought, was not that the confederates lacked the right to exit properly. Rather he questioned the propriety of their process. I assume that the wily trial lawyer could never say as much publicly because that would give the confederates the information they needed to take the proper tac and then be able to leave with no proper recourse from the federal government.

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Scott Amorian
on August 24, 2017 at 09:44:33 am

This issue is not "immensely complex." Most people think it is silly. It's just another smokescreen for scoring political points with certain groups.

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Michael Schaefer
on August 24, 2017 at 14:15:09 pm

My argument is that in the English American colonies there were always two fundamental and distinct factions or political estates; the gentlemen of trade and the professions, who clustered in the coastal cities and towns, and the freeholders who dominated the hinterlands. In the colonies, the gentlemen can be usefully described as Whigs while the freeholders can be described as republicans. I have already defined these terms and the recent elections seem to show things haven't changed much in almost 400 years.

From 1630 to 1790 the highly educated, politically engaged Whig gentleman merchants in Massachusetts had more in common with the highly educated, politically engaged Whig gentleman planters in South Carolina than they did with the republican farmers 30 miles west of Boston in Worcester. For example, by 1800 the senior branch of John Winthrop's line of descent was in South Carolina, not Massachusetts, and during the early Federalist period, a candidate from Massachusetts and a candidate from South Carolina was typical of the Federalist ticket. Amongst the freeholders in the hinterlands, the same was true. A freeholder in rural Massachusetts had more in common with a freeholder in the Piedmont than he did with a merchant in Boston but both were frozen out of government by the Federalists between 1790-1800.

The framers of the Constitution of 1789 were uniformly idealistic and highly educated Whigs from the North and the South who knew they had to make some accommodations and concessions to the rural republicans in the hinterlands.

After 1800, the relationship between the Northern and Southern Whigs began to change as the plantation economies in the South that depended upon slave labor benefited enormously from the growing international demand for cotton, tobacco and later sugar. This resulted in a relative reduction in the status of the gentlemen in the North. Meanwhile, the relative relationship between a freeholder in Worcester County, MA, and a freeholder in any given county in the other states remained unchanged.

The political consequences of the relative change of positions of the gentlemen of the North and South between 1808-57 was played out in the Senate. This was the "Golden Age" of the Senate and the objective of the Northern and Southern Whigs was to maintain political parity between the increasingly mercantile economy of the North that depended upon free labor and the increasingly plantation economy of the South that depended upon slave labor.

After 1820, the Union was held together by a series of ever more contentious compromises hammered out by the Whigs in the Senate. Beginning with the Missouri Compromise, these compromises were aimed at balancing the Senate between what soon came to known as Free and Slave States. Since the great power of the House of Representatives was the power to levy taxes on the freeholders, and since it was the policy of all administrations from 1790 to 1860 to avoid at all costs having to levy such taxes, the House was almost irrelevant and the expenses of government were limited to those expenses that could be covered by tariffs and duties on foreign exchanges. This divergence of the economic and political interests of the Northern and Southern Whigs is what drove dis-union. All the while, the idea of union remained strong in the hinterlands.

Meanwhile, upstate New York and the Ohio Valley was being settled by migrants from New England. The Piedmont, Appalachians and Western Pennsylvania were being settled by the Scots-(Ulster) Irish and Rhineland Germans. They, like the rural New Englanders, were also uniformly low church Calvinists, freeholders and republicans.

What made the Free States different in the early 18th C. was that the free-holding republicans tended to have more power in their state governments than did the free-holders in the Slave States but nowhere, except intermittently in Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont, did the free-holders have effective control of their state governments.

This is the idea I was trying to capture in my statement that cultures of of the North and South began to diverge after 1800. The culture changed because in 1789 Whigs from the North and South could easy adopt the idea that all men are created equal and look forward to the end of slavery. But after plantation economies based on slavery became wildly profitable, the Whigs in the South had every interest in justifying the idea that all men are not created equal but rather some were born to be slaves.

I haven't read Greene or Kolchin.

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on August 24, 2017 at 14:49:05 pm

My understanding is that the Declaration of Independence was the last document the unionists and secessionists held in common and that it was the position of the secessionists that the DoI established their natural right to secede. The unionists could not identify any provision in the Constitution that prevent secession. Rather, the unionist's argument was essentially "original contract." But that was the same notion that supported the institution of slavery so that could not be pushed too far.

I have not heard of the highly technical and procedural argument you suggest. It is clear that Lincoln was having a good of trouble dealing with Taney's decision in Scott v. Sanford and the subsequent events.

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on August 24, 2017 at 14:57:52 pm

One fact missed in Mr. Weiner's treatise, is that most of the statues being removed are of Democrats and often the most surreptitious and rapidremovals were by Democrats.
Could the true motive be to remove reminders of the role Democrats play in establishing and continuing racism in this country to serve their own ends?
What makes the uproar seem even more facetious is that the old military adjunct of the Democratic Party (the KKK) is being attacked by what seems to operate as the new military adjunct to the Democratic Party (Antifa). Are we reliving the brown shirt era?
This conflict is being used to justify further obscuring Democrats' contributions to racism in our history. It smacks of classic Saul Alinsky tactics.

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on August 24, 2017 at 20:57:13 pm


Goodness gracious - there is MUCH to digest in your comments.

A few initial reactions / thoughts.

Agreed re: the "power" of the Senate and the machinations of the respective Northern and southern representatives; as well as the reluctance to tax. Thus, the controversy over the tariff of Abominations.
Viewed froma purely "political" perspective, one can agree that prior to the period you cite, there may very well have been a certain commonality of interests between the Northern Whigs and the Southern Whigs.

Yet, I wonder if we were to view the individuals, or at least the professions, of those individuals comprising either Whig grouping, a) would we still find such a commonality and b) if the *success* of the plantation system after 1803 - 1820 were itself not a cause for the "separation" but rather the *success* of the Northern merchant / banking class?

a) Were Southern Whigs primarily political / ideological Whigs? Were Northern whigs not primarily engaged in the merchant, nascent industrial and banking class. We have numerous analyses of southern plantations and shipping concerns that show that it was the Northern financial interests that financed bith southern industry (limited as it were), the plantation system and the merchant marine of the south. In time would not the growing financial power of the North not caused both resentment and distance between the two whig groups.

b) While it may be argued that post 1803, Southern plantations increased their profitability enormously, it must also be remembered that this *wealth* was not, as in the North, converted into usable finance / venture capital but rather was "squandered" (according to a number of researchers) on an ostentatious display of wealth and power. Absent was a usable pool of finance capital that could, as in the North, be used to fund industry, railroads (minimal, at best) and other nascent industries. The South was beholden to the Northern Whigs for not just capital but for tooling, shipping, etc. Indeed, it may be said that for the plantation system, all capital was human capital - and this is to be taken in the most literal sense - slaves. Slaves are not as readily convertible to finance capital. In short, one is lieterally and figuratively "stuck" with the capital you have.

Lastly, I do not know how familiar you are with the concept of Open Access societies as cited by my friend R. Richard Schweitzer - but it deserves a good study.

While it may be true that prior to 1803, the commonalities between North and south were made preeminent as against the divergences, it is clear that the Open Access society / economy / culture of the North would greatly outpace the southern system with or without the cotton gin and the heightened demand for cotton and tobacco. The south and its Whigs were doomed.

BTW: I do not mean to be contentious here; rather I wish only to emphasize that the seeds of the Souths demise were inherent within the southern plantation system; indeed, it was inherent in Jefferson's own "agrarian" republic (as I previously intimated).

Anyway, I really do garner much from your informed comments.

take care

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on August 25, 2017 at 11:07:09 am

You might like this, "The Slave Power":


It's an 1848 pamphlet by John Gorham Palfrey, a Massachusetts Unitarian minister, historian, abolitionist and member of the House. Palfrey was a charter member of Cod Fish Aristocracy, a throughly despicable mob of grandees who imagined that they were all descended from gentlemen of high status and the lesser nobility. But that aside, Palfrey is a good historian and his pamphlet does reflect the way the culture of the Northern Whigs had diverged from that of the Souther Whigs.

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on August 26, 2017 at 12:03:34 pm


Thank you for the link. Interesting!

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