Statues in America - When Is the Use-By Date

The underlying questions are not all that easy and perhaps raise more controversy than the statues themselves. Harry Melkonian
Harry Melkonian


It started with the generals of the Confederacy but now the controversy has extended to Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt – both of whom have statues in prominent locations in New York City. Should old statues be removed? And, under what circumstances should they be removed? While emotions can run high, the underlying questions are not all that easy and perhaps raise more controversy than the statues themselves.

The presence of numerous statues of so-called heroes of the Confederacy from the American Civil War appears to be the genesis of the present debate. I must confess that I have always been puzzled by the reverence for Americans who took up arms against the United States. But, I must disclose my own perspective. I was born and raised in Connecticut – where the Civil War heroes fought for the Union. But, under the standards raised in the present debate, some of those Yankee statues might also fall to the wrecking ball.

Let me start with General Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate forces and still revered by many in the South. I find nothing meritorious about this man. Look at the record: he was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point New York; he was a citizen of the United States of America; he was an officer in the United States Army and offered command of the US Army. With this background, Lee chose to lead an army with the intention of destroying the United States and, for a time, he was quite effective in that role. No doubt he was skilful and through his efforts the war was prolonged and many thousands lost their lives for a hopeless cause.

As if that were not enough, not only did Lee seek to break the Union apart, he was fighting for a loathsome cause. By 1860, there was no longer serious controversy about slavery. Slavery was indefensible and abhorrent by the middle of the 19th Century – any justifications for its maintenance were simply devoid of moral and legal merit within Western philosophy.

Let’s be honest, were it not for the imperative of national reconciliation, after the defeat of the Confederacy, Lee would have been an appropriate candidate for the hangman’s rope. But, Lincoln was undoubtedly correct, and it is a facet of his greatness, that recriminations would only make the situation worse. That Lee was allowed to live should not be construed as an endorsement of his character; it was simply political expediency. Statues to Robert E Lee not only offend many African-Americans; those statues also offend me as an American. I see no reason to celebrate treason.

By way of example, my home state of Connecticut is singularly devoid of statuary and memorials celebrating its greatest home-grown general of the Revolutionary War – General Arnold, the hero of the key battle of Saratoga, wounded in action on multiple occasions and a native of Torrington, Connecticut.

But Benedict Arnold, despite his contributions to the Revolution, rightly remains a symbol of opprobrium because he infamously switched-sides and tried to surrender West Point to the British. There are no monuments to this scoundrel and even at the Saratoga battle memorial, Arnold is not mentioned.

But, giving the devil his due, the American Revolution was not universally supported by the colonists – many people remained loyal to the crown and many more were ambivalent. Indeed, Arnold’s treason was not that he fought for the British but that he betrayed the uniform which he wore.

Arnold was a traitor – and if he had been caught, he surely would have been hanged. But, in all fairness, Arnold was not fighting for an evil cause. It was a political dispute; the Americans wanted independency, the British wanted to keep their most-prized possession. Contrast this with the Civil War where the battle was not just political but had a deeply moral and even theological dimension. The South fought to keep slavery – the North fought to end slavery.

Viewed in this light, Benedict Arnold compares rather favorably to Robert E Lee. But before anyone thinks that it is time for Connecticut to start erecting statues to Arnold, the broader question of statues should be dispassionately considered.

The simple fact is that time and mores change. The French celebrate Napoleon – not for all the misery and havoc he caused or how he treated prisoners of war (not well) but for what they feel he did for France as lawgiver and conqueror. While I have no personal knowledge one way or the other, I doubt that Napoleon’s attitudes on race or gender equality would measure up to 21st Century standards. But, that should not be the test for whether his sarcophagus is removed from Les Invalides in Paris. Applying 21st Century mores, it is hard to imagine any historical figure who would be acceptable for a statue in the park.

For example, while Connecticut recoils from the mention of Arnold as a native-son, the State is effusive about its other Revolutionary War hero – Israel Putnam. There is a town named after Putnam, a major State park that bears his name, and statues and plaques throughout the State celebrating him. Bunker Hill and New York were among his major campaigns – but he also distinguished himself in the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, both fought before the Revolution. Pontiac’s Rebellion was an effort by Chief Pontiac to form a confederation of Native-American tribes to oppose British colonisation. Under British command, Putnam proved himself to be a stalwart fighter. But, there were no rules of war on the frontier and the treatment of Native Americans was hardly compassionate. To Native-Americans, Putnam was no hero.

Should we take down the statues of Israel Putnam? I would say no. Putnam was fundamentally different from Benedict Arnold and Robert E Lee. He certainly never betrayed his country and he never espoused ideas that were contrary to the norms of his time. Similarly, Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt never betrayed their country and as harsh as they may have been, they were not out of tune with their times. But the same cannot be said of the Confederates – they took arms against their country and they fought for a cause that had been universally condemned.

There are lots of theories justifying why those Confederate statues were erected and racism cannot be ignored as one of the reasons. But, regardless of the reason for building the statues, they were always an embarrassment. If there must be a statue to Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, then they should be joined by Benedict Arnold; and maybe that would make the point better than any protest.

First published . Last updated 23 Jan 2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Harry Melkonian

Harry Melkonian is a freelance writer, educator, commentator and lawyer with a focus on US politics. He has conducted short courses on US politics in Sydney on topics ranging from current elections to historical issues including well-known events such as the Kennedy Assassination and Nixon and Watergate to less well-known American history such as When No One Was Elected – the Presidency and Vice Presidency 1974-1976. He has periodically appeared on the ABC and SBS as a commentator for Australian elections. Harry was previously a partner at the law firm White & Case in the US, and is licensed to practice law in the jurisdictions of New York, California, England and New South Wales. He is now an Honorary Associate at Macquarie Law School, specialising in US constitutional issues as well as media and defamation law.

The University of Newcastle, Sydney Campus is a leading provider of short courses in Australia, with industry qualified and experienced educators that bring up-to-date real-world skills directly to the classroom.