A statue in a public place can serve many purposes, but outside of the proper context of a battlefield or other specific location, its main role is to honor someone. That is what Confederate statues do: honor generals, soldiers, and politicians that represented the Confederacy.
The Civil War was about slavery, and these statues were placed in prominent locations to honor those who protected the institution of slavery. This becomes painfully obvious when you look at the dates on which these statues were erected. The majority of Confederate statues were built during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement, times in which southern states enforced the strictest and most racist policies since the end of slavery.
These statues portray General Lee and others as powerful leaders on horseback — as heroes. There is a sense of irony when Lee’s statue sits in the center of “Emancipation Square” and there are schools with majority black student bodies that bear his name.
These statues, which show Confederates as heroes, should be removed, not by a destructive mob, but by the state or local government. We must not repeat the actions of those in the past who decided to burn anything they disagreed with. Instead, these statues should be placed in a location of suitable context, in a public or private museum, or sold to a private owner.
We must not bury the sins of our past, but more importantly, we must not portray those who fought a war to defend one of the most evil institutions in the history of the world as heroes. General Lee and others may have been great generals, and Americans can correctly remember on a battlefield, as Gettysburg has done, or in a museum. For school names though, they should be renamed as there is no proper way to place them in the correct context. It is a tragedy for students to attend a school named after someone who fought for their ancestors’ enslavement.
This libertarian argument breaks from both conservatives and progressives, as private ownership of monuments and statues allows them to exist without the government owning them or having them in public squares. Museums holding the statues will ensure the preservation of history. It will allow the intricate history of General Lee and the Confederacy to be documented and presented with adequate context, both good and bad.
This must not be mandated by the federal government, however, because it is far outside its constitutional powers and role. Polls show the majority of people want statues to remain when given the option of complete removal or having them stay, but another poll states that when given the option to place statues in the adequate context or in museums, most people support this option. This is a key difference: Remember them but do not venerate them.
Black children should not have to grow up looking at statues honoring the men that fought to keep their race enslaved. White children should not grow up looking at statues honoring men who fought to enslave another race.
Instead, these statues should show the power tyrannical government has whenever natural rights and rule of law are not cherished and protected. The oppressive history of American slavery also teaches us a lesson about the threat government can pose to our liberties. The same government that can choose which races and religions to specially protect can also promote the enslavement of a race, imprison people of different nationalities in internment camps, beat non-violent protesters in the streets, prevent people from speaking about controversial ideas, and restrict the right to worship freely.
In the words of F.A. Hayek: “We shall not grow wiser before we learn that what we have done was very foolish.” We must accept mistakes of the past without dwelling on them, so that we ensure they do not happen again.
Brendan Noble is a senior studying economics. He is the president of Young Americans for Liberty.