Theodore Roosevelt
Credit: Getty Images

Nobody believes in anything.

— Katya Polikanov, age 17, Moscow, 1978

The trouble with statues is that they are carved in stone or cast in bronze, unyielding to the fluid shifts in surrounding sentiment. They cannot easily be revised. So they are erected in one time and toppled in another, and neither their creation nor their demise carries the nuances and contradictions of the real world. Statues that are celebratory and monumental represent myths, not true history.

Some national myths are useful as long as they set high standards that the nation aspires to achieve. These include the founding myth of equality and liberty, the myth of racial acceptance, the myth of the American Dream’s promise that hard work brings prosperity, the myth of blind justice holding impartial scales. The distance between the myth and the reality is a gap we should seek to overcome.

Therefore, as Americans rally to tear down and deface the offensive symbols of a shameful past, it is worth considering what vacuums will be opened and how they will be filled. A country without heroes, which is what the United States is becoming, can be a land adrift, susceptible to demagoguery and absolutism. The challenge is to make the empty pedestals into foundations of conscience and self-correction. If destruction is the only result, trouble looms.

Most historical figures are complicated, not one-dimensional. Statues, on the other hand, are rarely complicated. They honor and revere, nothing more. And they can perpetuate perverse notions of virtue. The Confederacy was not a noble enterprise, unbecoming as an expression of pride in Southern identity and culture. Surely there is more to the traditions of the South than treason, slavery, and a lost and bloody cause that left scars on America. Heroic sculptures of anti-heroes, and military bases named after them, have no place in an honest society.

But they are part of history, it is argued. Yes indeed, and history should not be erased. Dictatorships do that with abandon to suit momentary political doctrine. But neither should history be sanitized and distorted. Let the Confederacy be taught by scholars who parse the competing impulses of its leaders. Let museums educate in context. If Confederate figures are retained in public squares, let them be accompanied by their opposites: abolitionists, slaves who joined the Union Army, memorials to all the useless deaths of that war. If Jefferson Davis must have a statue, stand Abraham Lincoln beside him.

The risk comes not from cleansing the countryside of abhorrent characters but by the spreading outrage of iconoclasts who want to obliterate too widely. President Teddy Roosevelt is coming down from before the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, despite his legacy of national parks—one of the country’s finest treasures. The problem is the demeaning portrayals of an African and American Indian by his side. You can’t edit bronze. As Bret Stephens suggests, a new statue would be appropriate for a president who “busted trusts, championed conservation, and caused a scandal by inviting Booker T. Washington to dine with his family in the White House.”

Francis Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant were deposed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Key owned slaves and defended slavery. Grant, however, had a foot on each side of the divide. He came from an abolitionist father and married a Southern woman whose slave-owning father gave him a man named William Jones. Grant, then a struggling farmer in Missouri, also employed freed blacks, and he freed Jones before the Civil War, then led the Union army in its defeat of the South. As President, he supported blacks’ rights during Reconstruction, ordered his newly formed Justice Department to go after the Ku Klux Klan, and endorsed the 15thAmendment giving the vote to African Americans. But his policies on American Indians were mixed. He wanted citizenship for them, and he tried to negotiate peace, but met fierce resistance from Congress and the Board of Indian Commissioners. Ultimately he sent the army into a series of bloody battles with tribes, enough to cost his monuments their justification.

Since real human beings are never perfect, it might be legitimate to regard certain statues as monuments to ideas rather than to people. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a womanizer, unfaithful to his wife but instrumental in raising the conscience of the nation. Should his name be scrubbed from streets and schools, his statues removed because of his philandering? Of course not. As of 2020, at least, King’s statues are safe, as they should be.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were walking contradictions, both slaveholders but central to the democratic values that ultimately made the country freer and more inclusive than they could have imagined. Protesters took down Washington’s statue in Portland, Oregon, then spray-painted it with “1619,” the year the first enslaved Africans landed on the continent. But what if Washington were cancelled out of our history? Would the American Revolution have succeeded? Would the disparate states have relinquished autonomy to form a union? Without Washington as the presumed president, would a consensus for the Constitution have been possible?

These were flawed leaders who transcended their limitations at a crucial juncture of history. Their ideas have proved larger than themselves. If we see them clearly—Jefferson in particular—we see ourselves vividly, in the ongoing clash between our faults and our principles.

Jefferson was a patriarch of the American idea. His declarations on individual liberty still serve as a moral and political compass, yet his belief in the racial inferiority of blacks also endures, embedded in the stereotypes that afflict African Americans today. He abhorred slavery as a “fatal stain” but never abolished it, not as governor, not as president, not as plantation owner. He owned enslaved people inherited from his father and his father-in-law, including Sally Hemings, with whom he had at least one child, DNA tests have shown, and probably five others.

His draft of the Declaration of Independence included an excoriation of slavery as a “cruel war against human nature, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.” He called it “piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers” and accused England of engaging in “execrable commerce.” He was pained when the Continental Congress deleted this denunciation.

Yet in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he describes white skin as “preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers the emotions.” He asserts that blacks “secrete less by the kidneys and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.”

He sees less ability than whites to anticipate consequences. “They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome,” he writes. “But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”

He portrays blacks as primitive in sexuality, emotional capacity, and creative powers. “They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient.  . . . Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. . . . Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.” And so on.

Do we cancel Jefferson because of this? If we do, then we cancel ourselves, for alongside his prejudices, he nurtured momentous concepts of liberty. They remain alive, essential to the progress that the nation craves.

Countries without proud histories suffer. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, just seven years after the teenager quoted above assessed her society as lacking in belief, he tried to open the door to historical condemnation—only partway. It was suddenly permissible again to criticize Stalin, as Nikita Khrushchev had allowed in the 1950s. In the bold second chapter of de-Stalinization under Gorbachev, the press was mostly freed to spread the dictator’s crimes before the public, which heard from officials and ordinary citizens who had been witnesses, victims, or even perpetrators. Capricious arrest and exile, mass execution, famine, and even Stalin’s failures in World War II were under scrutiny. It was a heady time.

The delight was hardly unanimous. Many conservative, antidemocratic citizens were uneasy and resentful that their history was being trashed, especially when other Russians took the denunciations farther than Gorbachev intended. They expanded back in time, condemning all that had been revered from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on. An ecstasy of revisionist truth-telling swept the country, bringing down statues of Lenin and his henchmen, revising the names of streets and other public places. Leningrad reverted to St. Petersburg, as under the czars, whose era of reign became a font of nostalgia.

Lenin’s mausoleum remains in Red Square, but the November 7 anniversary of his revolution is no longer observed. With the exception of the victory against Germany in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, the reverence for modern Russian history has been practically extinguished.

No sensible argument can be made to preserve it, given the monstrous nature of the Communist Soviet Union. But the psychological effects were instructive. In the vacuum, a kind of chaos developed—economic and political primarily, but also spiritual. A weightlessness was felt, with nothing much to grab for steadiness. Where in this exhilarating change could you get a foothold to find solid ground again? I asked Russians at the time. There were no good answers. Who are your heroes? I asked them. There were no good answers. Instead, they have settled on a strong hand at the top, abandoning—at least for a while—their search for pluralistic democracy.

The United States is not at all like the Soviet Union, obviously. But we have no heroes, either. We are not divinely ordained to be a pluralistic democracy, either. And if we discard those whose ideas we rightfully revere as pedestals of that democracy, because they were not also saintly human beings, we lose more than the statues.

David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.