When should we erect statues of prominent public figures?

The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, centers on a proposal by the city council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leading general of the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War. One of many news articles about the statue and the controversy over its removal is here. Some groups approve of the plan to remove the statue. Some groups oppose the plan to remove the statue. Some group oppose the groups approving or opposing the plan. It’s a real mess.

Rpbert E Lee statue

But the situation in Charlottesville is not just messy and ugly. It is also complicated by persistent and unresolved problems of racial prejudice and discrimination that exist in the country. Therefore, it is not surprising that the question of the statue removal has resulted in arguments fueled more by emotion than by reason.

I don’t pretend to have an answer to these problems. But I would like to revisit the plan to remove the Confederate general’s statue. Is removing the statue the right thing to do? The answer to this question depends on understanding why we erect statues of prominent public figures and when it is necessary to remove them.

I can think of two reasons why we erect statues of or monuments to public figures. One is to honor the person and the other is to honor the cause supported by them. For instance, placing the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore would be appropriate because by most standards these men were honorable and the causes they promoted were as well. In saying this we need not approve of all aspects of their lives. But if we can respect persons and want to acknowledge and remember the causes they advanced, then a statue or monument would be appropriate.

What would we say about a statue of Adolf Hitler in Berlin? Well, if we erect statues to honor the person and their cause, then a statue of Hitler would fail on both counts. No reasonable person can argue that Hitler was a good person and that the causes he advanced were honorable. If we want to ensure that we don’t forget our history, then museums, well-written history books, etc, can accomplish this without the need for a statue.

But what if a person was good and honorable but the cause they advanced was not desirable? Of course, we can consider the other possibility, too. What about a statue to someone who was neither good nor honorable but who supported, promoted or advanced a worthy cause? Would we erect a statue to this person? I’m supposing that we would not. So if we won’t erect a statue for someone who is not honorable but who advanced a worthy cause, is it appropriate to erect or maintain a statue for someone who is honorable but who advanced an undesirable cause? I think this question points to why the issue of the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue is controversial. There may be things we want to acknowledge, remember and emulate about General Lee as a person, but is the cause he fought to uphold—a political and economic system based on slavery—one of them?

Regardless of how we feel about the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, we need to agree in principle on the conditions that warrant the creation and maintenance of statues of prominent public figures. Once we have decided on this we can determine whether it is appropriate or not to remove a statue. If statues should exist when these two conditions are met—for honorable persons whose works and ideals promoted socially-desirable outcomes—then the answer to question of what to do about the statue in Charlottesville becomes clearer.

If we can’t agree on general conditions or principles for erecting and maintaining statues of prominent figures in public spaces, then debates about the removal of some will degenerate into claims that all statues and monuments will eventually be removed, an outcome that is neither healthy nor desirable for society.



Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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