When Donald Trump asked on Twitter on Aug. 17, “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”, he signaled to his white support base that he stood with them against attempts to rid public areas of Confederate memorials and against broader changes that threaten their view of American society. As inexcusable as his race-baiting is, Trump’s “Who’s next?” question crudely expresses the concern of many Americans that the campaign against Confederate monuments will move on to other groups, including the founders.
There is, indeed, such a faction on the left. In the past year, activist groups have demanded the removal of a statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York City, citing his racism and imperialism, and the expunging of “all symbols of white supremacy” in New Orleans, not just those connected to the Confederacy. If liberals appear bent on the cleansing of non-Confederate memorials, they will hand Trump a potent weapon for his strategy of portraying liberals as radical and unpatriotic.
In fact, Trump is already close to the mainstream on Confederate monument removal, as demonstrated by a recent Economist/YouGov poll that found only 25 percent of whites and 29 percent of Latinos favor the removal of Lee’s statue in Charlottesville.
In order to counter this ploy, liberals need to explain why the campaign to remove public statues and memorials should mostly stop with Confederates. The primary case they have made thus far for removing Confederate monuments is that the CSA was founded on the explicit basis of white supremacy and for the preservation and expansion of slavery. This is a powerful moral case, but it does little to counter Trump’s “Who’s Next?” tactic. The response to this question cannot be approached solely from the angle of anti-racism, given the manifest racism of figures like Jefferson or Roosevelt. To make the case for drawing the line at Confederates, liberals should draw on the idea of the United States as both a “city on a hill” for the world to emulate and an experiment in “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
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Scholars often call this idea the American civil religion. It emphasizes Americans as a single community united by a common set of values and a common purpose in moving toward greater moral and material advancement. More liberal, expansive versions of this concept stress the slow but steady historical progress in expanding the circle of freedom and equality to oppressed and excluded groups. Barack Obama paid homage to this vision in his last speech as president: “So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.”
Following this tradition, there are several reasons to reject Confederate memorials. The Confederacy threatened our experiment with representative democracy by seeking to cancel the results of an election and pre-empt Republican efforts to contain slavery. They did so for the worst possible reason: preserving and expanding slavery. As Abraham Lincoln put it, failure to defeat the Confederacy would have jeopardized the test of whether any nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could survive.
Unlike the Confederates, the founders and other figures furthered this great experiment and passed down vital principles and institutions. We can acknowledge Jefferson’s racism while still recognizing that he gave us something that could be expanded upon: the idea, in Obama’s words, “that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument or our democracy, can form a more perfect union.” The same can be said of Theodore Roosevelt’s crusade against the corrupting power of big money in politics and Woodrow Wilson’s defense of the core ideas of the liberal international system. These figures fit, however unevenly, within our civil religion and thus deserve to keep their public places of honor.
This case for removing Confederate monuments justifies drawing a line between removing these markers and purging our public sphere of all associations of racism. It reassures the majority of whites that Trump is wrong in claiming that liberals want to remove statues of other cherished but imperfect figures. Lastly, it reaffirms the message that most liberals criticize America’s flaws not as cynical outsiders but as members of a broad moral community who want their country to live up to its highest ideals.
Joseph Stieb is a Ph.D candidate in U.S. history at UNC Chapel Hill.