The Problem of Monuments

One of my favorite writers of history is Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’m rounding the home stretch of her 2018 book Leadership In Turbulent Times, a fascinating comparison of four former presidents- Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and LBJ.

In an analysis of how Abraham Lincoln led, Goodwin writes this, “Guided by the principle of forgiveness, Lincoln insisted he did not care if someone HAS done wrong in the past, ‘It is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter.'” (Page 224)

In a time when some seem committed to the erasing of the footsteps of where the American journey has been, we’re discovering that there seems to be no grace period for monuments. What takes lifetimes to create is crashing down in a few minutes of pulling. No statue, it seems, is exempt. If it’s a statue the worst is thought about it. An abolitionist from Philadelphia toppled. Mahatma Gandhi, the promoter of peace, and who Martin Luther King drew inspiration from, was desecrated in Washington, D.C. George Washington was pummeled in Portland, Oregon.

People, like me, are confused by the illogic. It seems as if any statue with the dust of time on it must be prime for removal. There is a longing for past perfection and deafness to the fact that we are all imperfect. Some people were rooted in the idealogy of warped, imperfect systems. Some people were drafted into the purposes of suspect principalities and powers. And some were simply reflective of the opinions and perspectives of their day. But make no mistake about it, perfection was, and is an extinct condition.

So we seem to prefer tearing down instead of building up, defacing instead of forgiving, pulling apart instead of coming together.

Do we rewrite history and rename streets, parks, and institutions that commemorate it? If we “bland-ize” our surroundings we may solve the unrest in our spirits for a moment, but lose sight of where we’ve come from.

Back to Lincoln, the sixteenth president sought a cabinet that brought a mixture of political preferences. Instead of gathering only those who thought like he did, he appointed people who would bring different perspectives, and he valued each one of them. He saw the need for justice and the threats to unity.

However, a statue in Washington, D.C. called The Emancipation Monument has protestors threatening to tear it down because a black man is kneeling beside Lincoln.

architecture usa statue face

Photo by Pixabay on


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