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Why Removing Historical Monuments is a Bad Idea

Why Removing Historical Monuments is a Bad Idea

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

While most Americans watch helplessly, our stateside Taliban vandalizes and removes long-standing public monuments. As some commentators point out, this destruction weakens our consciousness of history, including history’s darker side.

Even more importantly, however, erasing monuments of once-revered figures upsets an unspoken, but long-prevailing, consensus governing our decisions of whom to commemorate.  The consensus renders the commemoration process more meaningful and less political than it otherwise would be.

The standard traditionally applied is as follows: When deciding whom to commemorate—by statues, place names, monuments, holidays, currency, or coins—we select individuals who performed extraordinary feats that, on balance, made the world a better place. We disregard or discount those faults common to the individual’s time and place. We do not erect monuments to people who performed extraordinary feats that were unquestionably evil, even if their characters included some virtuous traits. Thus, George Washington is memorialized in statues and place names, although he held slaves. Adolph Hitler gets none, although he was kind to dogs.

George Washington is one example of the traditional standard in action. Other examples are the decisions to name towns in New York State, Illinois, and Indiana after the Roman consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was a great orator, an outstanding lawyer, a spokesman for balanced government, and the single person most responsible for transmitting the Greek philosophical tradition to Western Europe. It does not disqualify him that he selected a husband for his daughter rather than allowing her to select one for herself. Parental selection of spouses is anathema today, but in Cicero’s society, “everybody did it.”

Stupendous vision, energy, competence, and courage distinguished Christopher Columbus from others of his generation. His explorations united a world previously divided by hemispheres. His disreputable actions reflected attitudes and practices common to his society. Thus, we honor Columbus by monuments, place names, and a federal holiday.

Our domestic Taliban has made Robert E. Lee a target, allegedly because he held slaves and fought for his home state rather than the nation. But so did tens of thousands of others similarly situated. Lee was distinguished from his contemporaries by an exemplary career, both in the U.S. and Confederate armies, of competence and honor. In later years, Lee also distinguished himself as an educator: As president of the institution that is now Washington and Lee University, he was largely responsible for fashioning the modern college honor code.

There are at least two reasons for not permitting contemporaneous vices to disqualify historical figures from favorable commemoration.  First, virtually everyone acts in ways consistent with contemporaneous social norms—norms of which later generations may disapprove. Common faults are, by definition, common. If we disqualified all figures because we now reject their society’s practices, we would commemorate few people indeed, and we would deprive ourselves of many sources of inspiration.

Second, because almost everyone conforms in most respects to prevailing social practices, disqualification for such conduct is necessarily arbitrary and driven more by politics than by merit. The fact that a particular vice prevailed in a person’s place and time becomes an excuse for stripping recognition from people whose lives contradict the propaganda of those in power. Today “progressives” vandalize statues of Columbus and Lee, allegedly because of actions motivated by racism. Tomorrow a “white nationalist” majority may uproot monuments to Martin Luther King, allegedly because of his adulteries and other indiscretions. Or a religiously-conservative majority may blacklist outstanding women who in private life opted for legal abortions.

Admittedly, the traditional consensus is not an infallible guide to deciding whom to commemorate. For one thing, it can be a close question whether a person’s extraordinary feats made the world a better place: Franklin D. Roosevelt is widely commemorated, even though scholars still argue over whether his leadership during the Great Depression actually improved American life. Politics plays a role in answering close questions.

In some cases, moreover, politics induces decision makers to ignore the traditional standards. It is hard to explain on other than political grounds why so many more monuments and places are dedicated to John F. Kennedy than to much better presidents.

But the traditional standard does help minimize political manipulation of history. Perhaps that is precisely why the standard is flouted by those who want to politicize everything.

 

Constitutional Convention: John Jay Letter Shows Its Power Came from State Legislatures, not Congress

Constitutional Convention: John Jay Letter Shows Its Power Came from State Legislatures, not Congress

A persistent constitutional myth has it that (1) Congress called the Constitutional Convention under the Articles of Confederation, (2) the convention drew its power from Congress, and (3) the convention exceeded its power when it recommended a new Constitution rather than merely propose amendments to the Articles.

As readers of this website know, however, the Constitutional Convention was not called by the Confederation Congress. It was called by Virginia and the commissioners (delegates) drew their authority from their respective state legislatures. All but two of those legislatures granted their commissioners full authority to recommend a new government.

This is further shown by a January 7, 1787 letter written by John Jay to George Washington. The letter also helps explain why the convention provided that the people, rather than the state legislatures, would ratify the Constitution.

The Jay Letter

John Jay - Not A Constitutional Convention Delegate
John Jay

In his letter, Jay first tells Washington that he is glad Washington will participate in the convention. Jay specifically says the delegates’ authority “is to be derived from acts of the State Legislatures.” But he says he has some doubts: Only the people—not state legislatures—can change constitutions. However, Jay then acknowledges that the state commissioners can recommend change. What they can’t do is mandate change. Yet Jay fears that after the convention makes its recommendation, “party Heats” may ensue.

Jay then suggests an alternative procedure: First, Congress should issue a statement that the Articles are inadequate, but without any particulars. Next, the state legislatures should authorize popular conventions to choose delegates to a general convention. The latter assembly would both write the changes and bind the people to them.

Thus, Jay understood that:

  • the Constitutional Convention’s power came from the state legislatures, not from Congress;
  • even without a popular mandate the Convention was free to propose; and
  • popular consent was necessary to ratify a new constitution.

Of course, in predicting “party Heats” once the convention’s recommendations became public, Jay proved to be a prophet.

The Constitutional Convention Chooses a Different Procedure

Jay was not a commissioner to the Constitutional Convention. That body, with congressional approval, agreed that the people’s consent was necessary for the new Constitution. But the Constitutional Convention opted for a different procedure: Instead of popular conventions electing a general convention that would bind everyone to change, the general convention would propose change and the popular gatherings would ratify or reject.

The letter is in manuscript form here. Because it is difficult to read, I’ve reproduced the relevant portion below:

A convention is in contemplation, and I am glad to find your name among those of its intended members.

To me the Policy of such a Convention appears questionable. Their authority is to derived from acts of the State Legislatures. Are the State Legislatures authorized either by themselves or others to alter constitutions? I think not. They who hold commissions can by virtue of them neither retrench nor expand the Powers conveyed by them. Perhaps it is intended that this convention shall not ordain, but only recommend—if so there is Danger that their Recommendations will produce endless Discussions, and perhaps Jealousies and party Heats.

Would it not be better, for congress plainly and in strong Terms to declare, that the present foederal government is inadequate to the Purposes for which it was instituted — that they forbear to point out its particular Defects, or to ask for an Extension of any particular powers, as improper. Jealousies should thence arise; but that in their opinion it would be expedient for the People of the States without Delay to appoint State conventions (in the way they chuse their general assemblies) with the sole and express power of appointing Deputies to a general convention, who or the majority of whom should take into consideration the Articles of Confederation, and make such alterations amendments and additions thereto as to them should appear necessary and proper; and which being by them ordained and published should have the same force and obligation which all or any of the present articles now have.

No alterations in the government should I think be made, nor if attempted will easily take place, unless deduceable from the only Source of just authority, The People.