The Monuments & Memorials Controversy

Monument: “Something venerated for its enduring historic significance or association with a notable past person or thing.” Memorial: “Something, such as a monument or holiday, intended to celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event.”

As a historian, I’m into monuments and memorials. I want historic events and significant people in history to be remembered. Sometimes, I want them remembered because they deserve honor; other times, they should be remembered as valuable lessons of what can go wrong.

Auschwitz is a memorial to those who lost their lives in Hitler’s Holocaust. No one of sound mind would consider it a veneration or celebration of a historic event. Yet it serves a purpose: a reminder that we should never allow this to happen again.

So even awful things that have occurred in history should be recalled for our benefit. We have to be sure, though, that we have the right reason for the monument or memorial.

Which brings me to the current desire of some to tear down monuments to those who served the Confederacy during America’s Civil War. A lot of heat has been generated on this issue, but a lot less rational thought.

A little personal history here. In my early days studying history, I had sympathy for the Southern position because I believe in our federal system of government that leaves most decisions to the states. My concern for overreaching federal power led me to think that Lincoln and the North should have allowed the Southern states to secede without intervening.

Then something happened: I studied more. I came to realize that the secession was illegitimate constitutionally; I eventually saw that the states’ rights argument, in this particular case, always revolved around defending slavery as a positive good; I saw more clearly the attitude of the South and its aggressiveness in seeking to spread slavery into more areas; and I read a lot of what Lincoln had to say and gained tremendous respect for his constitutional basis and decency as a man.

In short, I changed my mind about the Civil War. Those who took leadership in the South, both in its government and in the military, were in rebellion against the legitimately elected American government.

Now, I may have just lost some readers who continue to believe otherwise, but stay with me.

I don’t paint all Southern leaders with the same broad brush. I know that both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson didn’t like slavery. I have respect for how Lee conducted himself once he understood the war was lost. He used his reputation to put down the suggestion that the South should continue the conflict through guerrilla warfare. He called for unity.

While I disagree with his decision to join in the rebellion, his personal character can still be admired despite the flaws in his thinking. So I can understand why some want to erect monuments to him. When it comes to character, his is far and above most of those who are now either promoting or protesting any memorial to him.

And the mania for tearing down all monuments relating to the South during the Civil War has gotten out of hand. Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands and tore down a statue without any authorization. They constituted a mob, and we don’t have mob rule in America.

When rational thought is dismissed, where will we end up?

Where do I stand on those Civil War monuments to the South? It depends. If they are simply memorials to those who lost their lives, I have no problem with them. They mark a tragic event in American history. If, however, they are there to celebrate those who openly rebelled against the government, basing their rebellion on how wonderful slavery is and defying the Constitution, I have no problem with their removal, especially due to the horrific memory of slavery and racial prejudice that affects so many today.

It also depends on the location of those monuments. For instance, when I visited the Manassas Battlefield, I took this photo of an iconic statue:

This marks the spot where Thomas Jackson stood like a “stone wall” and rallied his troops in the battle, thereby earning his nickname. It is appropriate to have this statue at this particular spot. It notes a significant historical event. Leave it alone. Learn from it.

So while I’m not a full supporter of keeping all such monuments, neither do I believe it is right to succumb to mobs and allow them to be torn down without regard to the rule of law. Consider each monument and memorial individually and make a decision on each, taking into account whether they advance historical memory in the right manner or if they inflame passions with the wrong emphasis.

There is also the matter of the slippery slope. Some are so exercised against what took place in history that they are beginning to promote the argument that the Founders, because some were slaveholders, ought to have their memory erased from our national consciousness.

Tear down the Jefferson Memorial, some would say. Destroy the Washington Monument. Rub off Mt. Rushmore. It gets silly, but also dangerous to real history. Even though some Founders owned slaves, those who know history also know their consciences bothered them about an institution that existed before they were born and into which they were placed. They thought a lot about how to end that institution because they believed it was detrimental to the nation.

Those who cannot make a distinction between the attitude of the Founders and those who later took up arms to defend slavery are too simplistic in their analysis. In most cases, I fear, analysis is lacking; emotion reigns.

Let’s revisit this issue of which monuments are proper, but do so rationally.

Should Convention Delegates Be Unbound?

The Republican party is getting anxiety attacks from the latest move to deny Donald Trump the nomination at the convention. There is an organized effort to release the delegates at the convention from the restriction that they must vote for whoever won the primary or convention in the individual states.

Is this anarchy? Is it a threat to the voice of the people?

While not an exact comparison, let me offer a history lesson today.

We are so used to referring to our nation as a democracy that we fail to grasp what the Founders actually established. They called it either a federal republic or a constitutional republic. Regardless of the precise wording, the one word they always avoided—actually abhorred—was “democracy.”

Constituitonal Convention

James Madison’s notes at the Constitutional Convention, and the comments made elsewhere throughout this Founding Era, reveal a profound antipathy to anything resembling a direct democracy. They constantly called to mind the ancient Greek city-states that were often democracies. The problem? The citizens were often deluded into following the rantings of popular speakers who would lead them astray by appealing to their emotions. Many Founders referred to democracy as “mobocracy.”

The word that describes those kinds of speakers/politicians is “demagogue.” As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a demagogue is “a political leader who tries to get support by making false claims and promises and using arguments based on emotion rather than reason.”

The Founding generation wanted cooler heads to prevail in political discourse and the decisions to be made by the federal government. That’s why they deliberately chose to divide up the representation in a number of ways.

Constitutional Republic

First, they did give the people a direct say by letting them choose their representatives in the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, was to be chosen by state legislatures, thereby giving state governments representation as well. A lot can be said about how we later changed that—for the worse—but I’ll let that slide for now.

The president, in the Constitution, is not chosen by a direct vote of the people, but by specific “electors” chosen by the state legislatures. The goal was to ensure that popular enthusiasm wouldn’t allow a poor choice. They hoped the electors, who were supposed to be the wisest of statesmen, would choose better. In fact, the first time a direct vote by the people became common was in 1828, three decades after the Constitution was ratified.

Again, that electoral college approach has been altered by states simply allowing the slate of electors for whichever political party wins the popular vote to cast the official votes. Keep in mind that in the disputed election of 2000, the Florida legislature would have been well within its constitutional rights to choose its electors rather than waiting for all those recounts to be completed. They didn’t do that purely for political reasons: they would have been accused of overturning “democracy.”

Unfortunately, that’s where we are today in our understanding of how the system is supposed to work.

One of the big arguments in the decades following the ratification of the Constitution was whether the congressmen elected by the people in the House could vote their conscience or whether they were bound to vote according to what the majority of their constituents wanted.

Andrew JacksonThe ones pushing for the latter position were primarily the Democrats who, with the advent of Andrew Jackson, began to believe that congressmen were mere ciphers who cast the official votes for whatever their constituents desired. The feeling began to grow that the people are always right.

But the overwhelming view of the Founders was just the opposite. They knew that people could be misled and congressmen had a responsibility to consider seriously every proposed bill that came before them and vote according to what they believed was best for the nation, regardless of what their constituents wanted.

If they went against the wishes of those who elected them, they then went back to the people to explain why they did so. If they could convince the voters that they did the right thing, they were reelected; if they were unsuccessful in convincing them, they resigned themselves to the results of the next election.

That’s called living by principle and following one’s conscience. That means a representative is exactly that—a representative—which differs from a public functionary who must do whatever the people demand, even if it goes against sound logic and good policy.

Why even have congressmen if they are mere functionaries robbed of their own minds? Just take a nationwide vote on everything and do whatever the people want at a given moment? Sorry, but that sounds very scary to me. Public opinion is anything but stable and principled.

So how does this relate to the upcoming Republican convention?

Republican voters in the states made their decision on who they thought the nominee should be. They send delegates to the convention to make it official. What are those delegates? Are they thinking people who should have an opportunity to evaluate the voters’ decision or are they mere ciphers who are forced to vote a certain way even if they believe it would be to the detriment of their party and the nation?

I’ve read quite a bit about whether these delegates are truly free to vote as they wish. I think the evidence comes down in favor of that overall. Yes, some states have told them they have to vote according to the results of the primary. One Virginia delegate has now challenged that in court.

In other states, the Republican party itself has dictated they have to vote according to the results on the first ballot, at least, or in some cases, beyond that. But party rules can be changed at the convention.

A hypothetical: suppose the presumed nominee, prior to this convention, should do something particularly outrageous, along the order, let’s say, of advocating a lifetime tenure for the president, or giving the president the authority to dismiss federal judges whenever he disagrees with a court decision. If such a presumed nominee were to do something like that, do you think it would be wise to force the delegates to vote for that person regardless? Or would the party then rethink its rules?

Donald TrumpThe nomination of Donald Trump has divided the Republican party in a way no previous nomination ever has. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates 52% of Republicans are not satisfied with Trump as the nominee. That is unprecedented in the lead-in to the national convention.

Trump won only 44% of the vote in the primaries, and that figure is only as high as it is because he added to the percentage once his remaining opponents dropped out and the voters were resigned to having no other choice. Other polls indicate that up to 70% of the general electorate can’t stand this man.

Trump’s antics—whether one focuses on his character, his lack of policy knowledge, or his highly disorganized campaign—have not changed since his pledge to become more presidential in his bearing and manner.

Most political prognosticators (I know, they can be massively wrong at times) see an electoral disaster looming for Republicans.

Why, then, is the party establishment circling the wagons around Trump? They argue, with some discernment, that a circus at the convention would doom the party for sure in November. It might.

I would argue that going forward with Trump is the surest path to a Hillary Clinton presidency. Anyone else nominated would stand a better chance of beating her than Donald Trump.

So if the delegates were unbound, yes, there would be some instability introduced into this election even if Trump were to win the nomination anyway. And he would be an even more damaged candidate afterward.

If Trump were to lose the nomination at the convention, who would be nominated in his place? I don’t know. Perhaps that would be an even bigger tumult and the eventual nominee would be trounced in the general election.

However, it is also conceivable that someone might get the nomination who could unite the party in a way that Trump never can. If that should occur, and this nominee is a good communicator of Republican principles, there is a chance that the most despised Democrat nominee in history could be kept out of the White House.

I’m often accused of helping Hillary Clinton become president by not supporting Trump. I firmly believe, however, that those who are in Trump’s corner are the ones who are assuring a Clinton victory. He is electoral poison. Trump as the Republican nominee will put Clinton in the presidency.

So I do understand the anxiety over a contested convention, and I know there could be disastrous results, but I think we already have a disastrous result in a Trump nomination.

Free the delegates to be true representatives, not mere ciphers.