When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it, it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state…. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation!. … Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men. It is the misfortunes of Kings only which afford the proper subjects for tragedy…Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their goodwill. Their benefits can extend but to a few; but their fortunes interest almost every body. …Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it…” 

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” 

Lord Acton

There is an old, indeed ancient, charge against democracies that they are so egalitarian in culture that they refuse to celebrate greatness or excellence. The people, according to this story, are so unwilling to see anyone set above them that there is no recognition of the great contributions made by some to the common good.

In reality, the new United States fell almost immediately into the habit of building Roman temples to its most esteemed politicians. George Washington was still alive and still president when the new capital city was named for him. Just one lifetime later, the Capitol was adorned with The Apotheosis of Washington, an enormous painting that remains there today. Americas do not literally worship the Founders, but one would be hard-pressed to identify any divine-right-of-kings monarchy whose public representations of its ruler ever looked quite as much like worship. The French Revolutionary Panthéon, another creation of an egalitarian political culture that was eager to display its reverence for great men perhaps comes closest. But the most famous occupants of that mausoleum have always included philosophers and artists; it has never been a site reserved for the veneration of the leaders of the state.

United States Capitol rotunda / Public domain

All of which is to say: the strong-for-its-time democratic political culture of the United States, and its distinctive strain of anti-statism and suspicion of rulers, never prevented the public celebration of those who held political and military power. The familiar problem that the same words — noble, honor — describe political-economic status and moral praiseworthiness is a symptom of something that remains true in democracies as well as in monarchies and aristocracies. As Smith saw, the desire to exalt the powerful, to imagine them as morally exemplary and personally happy, to protect their reputations from any blemish, is psychologically powerful. We see that psychology carved in stone and cast in bronze everywhere we look. 

Moreover, as Smith notes, “we sympathize even with the dead…” We imagine ourselves suffering through their awareness of being “obliterated” from affections and memory.

The tribute of our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive our melancholy remembrance of their misfortune. That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity.

If both these thoughts are right — and I think they are — we not only overestimate the moral standing of rulers, we overestimate the harm in moral criticism of the dead. This means that the basic underlying tendency in any society is to over-celebrate the holders of power, to praise them and memorialize them as if they were better than they truly were, and thereby to pass along distorted lessons about what kind of life is praiseworthy. This distortion commonly takes the form of minimizing faults and flaws more or less unrelated to the valuable public service we wish to honor. But it’s not at all rare to distort the past, and morally miseducate the present, by celebrating pernicious exercises of power themselves. Smith helps us understand why so many people are so ready to care about, say, Robert E. Lee, always recalled for his conflict of loyalties and for his military valor and brilliance, and so quick to ignore the moral importance of the millions of people who were neither famous nor powerful whom he fought to keep in chains. 

Celebrating treason in defense of slavery

Defenders of Confederate statuary, flags, and public place names in recent weeks (and indeed in recent years) have tried to maintain that these public representations are about remembering history. As President Trump, who has committed to a full defense of Confederate statues and place names, put it:

 We have a heritage, we have a history and we should learn from the history, and if you don’t understand your history, you will go back to it again. You will go right back to it. You have to learn. Think of it, you take away that whole era and you’re going to go back to it sometime. People won’t know about it. They’re going to forget about it.

This imagines the memorials and monuments as something like open-air educational installations that help societies avoid repeating their mistakes — as though Germany would remember the Holocaust more clearly if it were dotted with thousands of kitschy statues of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Mengele.

In fact, of course, the Confederate memorials were attempts to rewrite the past. Erected mainly in the twentieth century as an exercise in Lost Cause myth-making by local and state governments organized around the exclusion of African-Americans from the franchise, these monuments, memorials, and shrines claimed public space and civic consciousness for the celebration of those who fought and killed for the right to continue to hold human beings as slaves. They served as straightforward public expressions of white supremacy and white nationalism. The public lessons they taught were that African-Americans are not full citizens and that fighting to keep it that way is a noble and glorious endeavor. Confederate politicians and military men were honored precisely for their offenses.

These relics of Jim Crow have been criticized and opposed since they were first put up, but continue to be protected by raw political power, as when state legislatures intervened to prohibit localities from taking them down. It is long overdue for almost all of them to come down, and for those with particular historical or artistic importance (not many) to be relocated into museums where their meaning and significance can be properly contextualized, discussed and criticized. 

There is another bad defense of these commemorations: the relativist claim that you cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. This is routinely falsely applied, of course — as if no one in 1860 knew that slavery was wrong, as if that is a standard only of our time and not of theirs — but this line of argument is odd even beyond that. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his ilk are long dead; either they escaped judgment or they have long since faced whatever judgment there is to face. The argument that a bust of Forrest — a slave trader turned postbellum Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — should be removed from its place of honor in the Tennessee State Capitol is in a straightforward sense a judgment for the present and the future about public space. Forrest, it would seem, is beyond our reach. The sculpture remains to be judged for the message it conveys.

If this strikes us as not quite right — if we think it would be somehow unfair to the genuinely worthy dead if their public commemorations were taken down on the basis of mistakes we made now about facts or morals — that confirms that public iconography is meant to honor the dead, not merely to remember or take notice of them. Though this should heighten our attention to whether the honors are deserved, it doesn’t. If Smith is right, it makes us more reluctant to correct our moral judgments than we would be if the statues and so on were mere tokens of memory, because we imaginatively sympathize with the loss suffered by the powerful person whose reputation is belatedly brought down to size. Those who object to existing symbols, names, and statues are often accused of irrational anger, but it is overreaction in defense of the status quo that arises out of inflamed feelings of resentment.

This all suggests that we will usually be too slow, not too quick, to stop honoring those whose public acts should be remembered as shameful. That would seem to be confirmed by the fact that so much official Confederate iconography remains in place a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, a century after much of it was put in place, and half a century after African-Americans gained effective access to political voice in most of the cities and states where it’s located. And yet a few weeks of faster-than-usual change have convinced many worriers that the American public square is about to be stripped down to empty pedestals. We can safely take down statues celebrating the Confederacy, rename military bases that are currently named for those who fought to secede from the United States, and stop using the Confederate battle flag, without destroying the whole business of public commemoration. 

What is dishonorable? Says who?

There’s no getting away from substantive judgment here. The assessment that committing treason against the United States in defense of slavery should not be publicly honored and treated as praiseworthy isn’t neutral or procedural. This can make those of us who believe in such impersonal values as free speech, legal fairness, and public religious neutrality uncomfortable. In other contexts, we would rather that the state not take sides in contested moral and political disputes. But taking a stand is inevitable in symbolic state speech, since that speech isn’t (and can’t be) neutral to begin with. Putting the statues up in the first place was a substantive judgment about praiseworthiness. 

It would be perverse to say “Jim Crow-era white state governments were entitled to commit the public space to the celebration of the Confederacy, and that commitment must last forever because who are we to say who’s right?” For any particular value of “we,” we will also get some moral judgments wrong; future generations will disagree with some of our judgments too, and sometimes they will be wrong in turn. None of that means that the present generation or future generations are stuck forever with the decisions, judgments, and mistakes of the past. And it doesn’t spare us the obligation to try to get things as right as we can, here and now.

It’s widely and rightly understood that honoring the powerful in spite of their wrongdoing is meaningfully different from honoring them precisely for their wrongdoing, though those defending Confederate imagery pretend that no such distinction is possible. We don’t dedicate public space to the commemoration of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because of their deplorable actions as slaveowners; we do it in spite of them, because of other actions throughout their lives. 

There could and should be a great deal less uncritical celebration of Washington and Jefferson than there is; there could and should be a lot more acknowledgment of their serious wrongs alongside the praise for them. But this is not going to lead to mobs tearing down the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial; the likeliest outcome is that there will continue to be too little acknowledgement of their grave misdeeds rather than too much destruction of their memory. In any case it’s clear enough how to distinguish Washington and Jefferson from Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and for that matter John Calhoun, and public protest and activism broadly observes this common sense distinction. 

There are, of course, intermediate cases: people honored for admirable public acts that sit alongside shameful ones, or that were deeply intermixed with them. Those who put up the Confederate statues across the South openly intended to assert white supremacy over their black neighbors. The push to celebrate Christopher Columbus was not in the same deliberate way aimed at Native Americans. Italian-American identity politics were focused on their own inclusion, and that community was no more guilty of the willful forgetting of crimes against indigenous peoples than was the rest of white America. But Columbus was indeed guilty of heinous crimes entwined with the public acts for which he is celebrated. He set out across the Atlantic in search of wealth for himself and his Spanish sponsors, and when he didn’t find the spice wealth of the East Indies he sought to extract wealth by brutalizing and enslaving the people he encountered in the West Indies. 

Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt are similarly celebrated in a way that sits in between because of and in spite of the racism of their notable deeds. Think of the relationship between, on the one hand, the expropriation of Indian lands that both Jackson and Roosevelt celebrated and, on the other, Jackson’s promotion of white settler egalitarianism, or Roosevelt’s expansion of the national park system across previously-Native land in the American west. In all of these cases I think there is a clear case for less: less-uncritical honoring, less concealment of these connections, a lessened position in the public pantheon. 

Personally I’d be happy to see all four demoted out of the public pantheon altogether, though I recognize that this is a harder sell than the case against statues of Confederates. In the context of today’s legitimate public recognition of their wrongs, continuing to honor them sends a public message: “we don’t take those kinds of wrongs very seriously.” That said, consigning Jackson, Roosevelt and Wilson to civic oblivion isn’t an available option. Less esteem won’t lead to none, even for them. 

I haven’t here spoken about decision-making processes, about the relationship between official decisions to take statues down and unauthorized action to do so by protestors. More than enough has been said about those questions recently. The small number of cases of destruction by protestors are being used to obscure the more basic question of what’s right and what’s wrong to commemorate in the first place.

The passage from Adam Smith with which I began continues on:

The strongest motives, the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment, are scarce sufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them [the powerful]: and their conduct must, either justly or unjustly, have excited the highest degree of those passions, before the bulk of the people can be brought to oppose them with violence, or to desire to see them either punished or deposed. Even when the people have been brought this length, they are apt to relent every moment, and easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look upon as their natural superiors. … Compassion soon takes the place of resentment, they forget all past provocations, their old principles of loyalty revive…

In a year or five or ten, we will still be left with too many public honors for too many of the powerful dead who used their power for ill. The US is making more progress, faster, against the public celebration of slavery and Jim Crow than it ever has before; but the moment will pass. This will be partly a matter of inertia and partly a matter of real continuing support for white identity politics. But it will also be partly because we’re too ready to forgive and excuse the powerful for their abuses of power. 

As I’ll argue in the next installment, “the Dishonorable Living,” this temptation to honor dishonorable rulers, corrupts not only our memory of the past but our politics in the present. 

Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and of scholarly articles including, most recently,” Contra Politanism” and “Political Libertarianism;” coeditor of Interpreting Modernity; and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow.

Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign under CC by 2.0 Generic.