The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass eulogized Ulysses S. Grant as a “man too broad for prejudice.”
“May we not justly say … that the liberty which Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen, Gen. Grant made effectual with his sword?”
In San Francisco, protesters nevertheless toppled a statue of Grant, the general who put the final nail in slavery’s coffin. Grant was not perfect — he inherited a slave before the war. Then again, an understanding of nuance and context is never a mob’s strong suit.
Chances are, if there’s a statue of a historical figure in this country, it’s either defaced, toppled or being quickly moved into storage for protection.
Statues that have gone down include Grant, priest Junipero Serra (destruction of Native American culture), Francis Scott Key (slave owner), various Confederate leaders (slavery again) and pioneer women (white expansion). At the University of Missouri, there are calls to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson (still more slavery).
It is true that on a personal basis Jefferson and Key did not live up to the lofty ideals of this nation’s founding or the moving words of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Serra established a mission system that spread the faith but resulted in incredible suffering for native people in what is now California. An element of intimidation can’t be ignored with some of the Confederate monuments.
But the rush to tear down so many monuments seems to ignore that history is made not by gods on a pedestal, but by fallible human beings who sometimes took courageous stands and sometimes made compromises that seem distasteful to modern sensibilities.
Take Grant, who owned a slave prior to the war but as president ordered the arrest of hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members. For its time, his administration hired large numbers of Blacks and Jews for the civil service.
Or Theodore Roosevelt, whose statue was removed from the American Museum of Natural History because it depicts Blacks and Native Americans in a subservient role. Will those who wish this statue to disappear also forget Roosevelt’s stand against accumulated wealth or his devotion to protecting America’s vast natural beauty?
Their lives teach us much, and their shortcomings show us how far we have to go. Tearing them down or hiding them only creates a vacuum filled by the anger and self-righteousness of those who believe that the ends justifies the means.
It opens a void for people like V.I. Lenin, who has a statue in Seattle and once remarked that “history needs a little shove.”
That seems to be the spirit behind those who take spray paint and hammers to anything bronze. Those who study rather than destroy history know how it sometimes works out.