“We cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln said.
Even though it gets clouded in memory and mystique, history is forever examined and reexamined. We look at past people and events from all angles, seeking clarity and certainty. To discover history—and to expand our understanding of humanity—we examine books, films, speeches, interviews, and observations. But not statues.
Statues serve a different purpose. They are erected to honor, elevate, and celebrate not only a person, but also the ideals that the individual represents. A statue that stands in public reflects the values of the people who surround it. But if the people’s values change, so do their role models. So, also, should their statues.
When we study history, we should consider all sides. But not so with statues of history’s figures that we choose to honor in public. We don’t both-sides our heroes. Where you find a statue of Abraham Lincoln, you won’t see a bronze figure of James Wilkes Booth beside him.
But when we enter the Kentucky state capitol and view the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, we also see Lincoln’s adversary, Jefferson Davis, in the same space. By elevating both men, we have said that we revere them equally. As we admire the man who preserved the union and freed enslaved people, we’re saying we also venerate a man who tried to dissolve the United States of America and fought to perpetuate slavery.
Take Jefferson Davis’ away.
That’s not to say that statues of every flawed individual should come down. Here in Kentucky, we look up to Henry Clay as an accomplished statesman who promoted economic stability and peaceful compromise. Yet he owned slaves. Lincoln himself suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War; he jailed editors.
By the same token, Jefferson Davis undoubtedly had redeeming qualities. While still serving the United States, he was said to be a brave soldier and an innovative administrator. But we measure people from the head down. Heroes are honored for crowning achievements, and scoundrels are disowned for their depravity. A hero’s boots may be muddy, and a traitor’s boots might shine, but if the good a person accomplishes is so grand as to outweigh the flaws, we award them with hero status. Yet if a person’s dreadful actions overpower their attributes, we kick them to the curb.
In Kentucky, history didn’t change. It’s inescapable, right? But our attitudes and values, for the most part and for the most people, have changed. To remove Jefferson Davis’ statue from a place of honor is to step away from the cruelty and treason he stands for.
Take it away. Kick him to the curb.