Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societiesby Sanford Levinson
Is it "Stalinist" for a formerly communist country to tear down a statue of Stalin? Should the Confederate flag be allowed to fly over the South Carolina state capitol? Is it possible for America to honor General Custer and the Sioux Nation, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln? Indeed, can a liberal, multicultural society memorialize anyone at all, or is it committed… See more details below
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Is it "Stalinist" for a formerly communist country to tear down a statue of Stalin? Should the Confederate flag be allowed to fly over the South Carolina state capitol? Is it possible for America to honor General Custer and the Sioux Nation, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln? Indeed, can a liberal, multicultural society memorialize anyone at all, or is it committed to a strict neutrality about the quality of the lives led by its citizens? In Written in Stone, legal scholar Sanford Levinson considers the tangled responses of ever-changing societies to the monuments and commemorations created by past regimes or outmoded cultural and political systems. Drawing on examples from Albania to Zimbabwe, from Moscow to Managua, and paying particular attention to examples throughout the American South, Levinson looks at social and legal arguments regarding the display, construction, modification, and destruction of public monuments. He asks what kinds of claims the past has on the present, particularly if the present is defined in dramatic opposition to its past values. In addition, he addresses the possibilities for responding to the use and abuse of public spaces and explores how a culture might memorialize its historical figures and events in ways that are beneficial to all its members.
Written in Stone is a meditation on how national cultures have been or may yet be defined through the deployment of public monuments. It adds a thoughtful and crucial voice into debates surrounding historical accuracy and representation, and will be welcomed by the many readers concerned with such issues.
"In Written in Stone, Sanford Levinson suggests that rather than addressing the greatest challenge facing our multicultural society—namely, how to fashion ‘unum out of the pluribus of American society’—our efforts at achieving reconciliation seem to have produced increasingly polarized pockets of unums." - The American Prospect
“In Written in Stone, Levinson bravely confronts another article of constitutional faith, freedom of speech. Instead of the conventional examination of an individual’s right to speak without the interference from government, however, he looks at what protections the Bill of Rights provides for government-sanctioned speech.” - Peter Blake, Times Literary Supplement
“A profound and engrossing meditation on historical memory and national commemoration. It is so skillfully composed and illustrated with such striking examples that I read it in a single sitting, like a murder mystery—except that the question here is not ‘who done it’ but ‘how do we reckon with what was done?’”—Michael Walzer, author of On Toleration
“Much has been written about the controversy over public presentations of history, but rarely has the question of how to memorialize our past received the thoughtful, incisive, and fair-minded analysis provided by Sanford Levinson.”—Eric Foner, author of The Story of American Freedom
“Sanford Levinson has written a wonderfully wise and informed essay on the issue of how we commemorate the past when the past keeps on changing.”—Nathan Glazer, author of We Are All Multiculturalists Now
“This remarkable book addresses an issue as old as civilization and as topical as this morning’s newspaper. No reader of Levinson’s cultivated, nuanced, and balanced narrative will ever view a public monument in quite the same way.”—Norman Dorsen; President, ACLU, 1976–1991
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Written in Stone
Public Monuments in Changing Societies
By Sanford Levinson
Duke University PressCopyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Public Art and the Constitution of Social Meaning
Art has many functions, only some of which can be reduced to learning to appreciate standard aesthetic criteria of beauty and form. Art is, among other things, both the terrain of, and often a weapon in, the culture wars that course through societies. This is, of course, especially true of public art—the art chosen self-consciously by public institutions to symbolize the public order and to inculcate in its viewers appropriate attitudes toward that order. Although occasional museum curators may devote themselves to "art for art's sake," I think it fair to say that this concept makes no sense to anyone concerned with the art that is found in those spaces that are most truly "public" in a political sense, such as the space surrounding capitol buildings, city halls, national cemeteries, and the like. Art placed within those spaces is almost always the product of some instrumental purpose outside the domain of pure aesthetics, and one's analysis (or response) to such art will inevitably be influenced by knowledge about its topical subject and the political resonance that surrounds it. One might, I suppose, deny the honorific "art" to such creations, but I am not sure what purpose that denial would serve, especially given that great museums all over the world are filled with objects whose original purpose was to serve political ends and whose formal aesthetic merits may sometimes be questionable.
As already noted, I am interested primarily in Southern cities and their use of public space. I thus begin with Richmond, Virginia, and its aptly named Monument Avenue, one of its principal thoroughfares. It gains its name from the fact that over many blocks one sees impressive statues of Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, and three of his most prominent generals, J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and, of course, Robert E. Lee. A final statue memorializes Matthew Fontaine Maury, "the father of modern oceanography" who resigned his commission in the United States Navy to command, albeit from the shore (because of an injury), the naval forces of the Confederacy.
It perhaps goes without saying that there is no memorial to Abraham Lincoln or to Ulysses S. Grant on Monument Avenue or, so far as I know, elsewhere in Richmond. Michael Kammen laconically notes that a 1902 effort by some Confederate veterans to erect a memorial to Grant in Richmond foundered after receiving only sixteen dollars! And consider this outraged response by President Lyon G. Tyler of William and Mary to a 1908 proposal to erect a statue to Lincoln:
To ask the South to put a monument to Lincoln, who represents Northern invasion of the homes and firesides of the South, would be as absurd as if I were to ask the North to put up a monument to Jefferson Davis.... I do not care to force [Davis's] memory upon a people with whom he is not identified. In the same way, I am sure that the South can never be brought to regard Mr. Lincoln in any other political light than that in which Mr. Davis is regarded by the North—as the champion of a section.
Although one might be forgiven the surmise that Lee and Davis are unmemorialized in any Northern city, a monument to Lee was erected at the Gettysburg battle-field in 1917, upon the initial sponsorship of Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1903, just as a monument to the Confederate dead had been unveiled at Arlington National Cemetery in 1914. These were scarcely uncontroversial. Edward Linenthal notes an 1887 vote by the national encampment of posts of the Grand Army of the Republic "that no local post should support 'erection of monuments in honor of men who distinguished themselves by their services in the cause of treason and rebellion,'" and the G.A.R. successfully blocked Virginia's attempt to place Lee in the statuary hall of the United States Capitol. For better or worse, such passions had presumably dissipated thirty years later, as charges of "treason and rebellion" were forgotten and replaced by new narratives of the courage and valor displayed by adherents of the Lost Cause now joined together with their former opponents in an ever-more-truly United States.
The most notable tribute to Lincoln is obviously found some 120 miles north of Richmond, in Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial is the central temple of the American civil religion, though smaller memorials to the sixteenth President dot especially the Northern and Midwestern landscape. One can, of course, find jointly shared heroes of the two cultures, the most obvious one being George Washington, venerated both in Richmond and the city that bears his name. (Though recall that the current New Orleans school board refuses to honor Washington at all, given his status as a slaveholder.) Consider, however, the fact that the great obelisk called the Washington Monument is surrounded by American flags and is clearly meant to celebrate Washington the national liberator, the founding father of a new Union, not Washington the Virginian. One doubts that this is altogether true of the Houdon statue of Washington in Richmond, whose local admirers might want us to believe that Washington, like Robert E. Lee, would have given priority to his Virginia identity over his national one had the two ever emerged sharply in conflict in his own lifetime. After all, Washington had given priority to his parochial American identity against wider loyalties to the Great Britain that claimed sovereign authority over its colonies.
Moving farther south, to Columbia, South Carolina, one can see not only civil statuary reminiscent of Richmond's (though nowhere so grandly displayed as on Monument Avenue), but also, waving over the state capitols (though under the American flag), the battle flag of the Confederate States of America to which South Carolina, like Virginia, proudly belonged (or, depending on one's theory, attempted to belong) between 1861-65. This flag, the "Southern Cross," is commonly, though incorrectly referred to as the "Stars and Bars," which properly refers to the "official" flag of the Confederate States of America, which consisted of three stripes—two red separated by a white — and a circle of seven stars in the upper corner. Most Americans, one suspects, could not identify this official flag, whereas few indeed, whatever their regional background, could fail to identify the battle flag. This no doubt helps to explain why the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi explicitly incorporate the battle flag of the Confederacy, rather than the official flag, into their current state flags.
One quite dramatic difference, then, between many Eastern European capitals and those of the present United States is precisely the extent to which memorials to lost (and ostensibly defeated) causes continue to occupy places of public honor. Unlike the displaced statues of Stalin or Hoxha, the statues on Monument Avenue (and elsewhere throughout the South) remain for all to see (and learn from). Since 1884, for example, visitors to New Orleans have been able to see a statue of Robert E. Lee rising high above the landscape, and even the buildings of modern New Orleans have not entirely diminished its power at the center of Lee Circle.
Far more startling to a contemporary consciousness is another New Orleans monument, this one erected in 1891 commemorating the so-called Battle of Liberty Place, an 1874 encounter in downtown New Orleans. An admiring local historian describes the battle as "The Overthrow of Carpet-Bag Rule in New Orleans — September 14, 1874," and he is clearly not alone in his feelings about the battle. An extensive review of the event in a 1920 issue of the Louisiana Historical Quarterly concludes as follows:
Well may New Orleans glory in its Liberty Monument, for it commemorates a wonderful page in its history; but not much less distinct should be the pride therein of all the people of this great country, for it tells of the binding up of old wounds and of the cementing of ties, that have enabled this nation of ours to grow and prosper and to become, as it is today, a worthy example to all the world.
The denizens being honored were members of the aptly named White League, who engaged in the violent overthrow of the existing Louisiana government, composed of an alliance of Republican whites and newly enfranchised African Americans. Thirty-two lives were lost on both sides, with about three times that many persons injured. The ousted administration of the Republican William Penn Kellogg was in fact restored by force of federal arms, but it was only a matter of time until the Compromise of 1877 resulted in the full-scale restoration of conservative white rule sought by the White League, with attendant consequences for the future of African Americans.
Immediately following the battle, with the partisans of the White League in apparent control of the state (of which New Orleans was then the capital), the New Orleans Daily Picayune saluted the downfall of the former government. "Big, inflated, insolent, and overbearing, it collapsed at one touch of honest indignation and gallant onslaught." This leading voice of New Orleans called for the erection of a memorial to the eleven whites who had died on behalf of the insurgency. The New Orleans City Council formally agreed in November 1882, when it passed an ordinance renaming the area of the battle as "Liberty Place" and authorized the erection of a monument "in honor of those who fell in defense of liberty and home rule in that heroic struggle of the 14th of September, 1874." By 1891 these hopes were achieved with the construction of an obelisk near the Mississippi River at the foot of Canal Street, a principal thoroughfare in the city. The Liberty Monument included the names of those White Leaguers who gave their lives in attacking the hated mixed-race government, as well as the names of some of the League leaders. It goes almost without saying that the members of the Metropolitan Police and of the largely black militia who died fighting the White League were unmemorialized. The 1891 dedication of the monument apparently initiated what became a yearly parade thereafter on each September 14th, with suitable wreath-laying ceremonies to honor the civic heroes.
Lest anyone fail to get the intended message, the city, using artisans funded by the New Deal's Work Projects Administration, added in 1934 two plaques setting out what might be called, in our postmodernist times, the officially privileged narrative of the events. On one side of the base was chiseled, "United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state." On the opposite side appeared, "McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored)."
As one might well expect, the Liberty Monument has remained a source of controversy in New Orleans, especially as African Americans have become a dominant political force in the city (though no one should confuse this with a genuine regime change à la Hungary). In 1974, for example, Mayor Moon Landrieu agreed to the installation of a bronze plaque describing the battle as an insurrection and noting that the controversial language had not in fact been part of the original 1891 monument. Most important, no doubt, was the plaque's additional message that "the sentiments expressed are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans," a statement itself raising delicious political and philosophical questions. Is New Orleans an entity that can have a "philosophy and beliefs," and, if so, how precisely does one identify what they are? Who is granted the power to speak authoritatively as to their content? One might well believe, of course, that the statement was designed more to create a desired state of public consciousness than to describe accurately the actual constellation of public opinion in New Orleans as of 1974. Still, there can be no doubt that New Orleans adopted an overtly tutelary role in attempting to limit the pernicious consequences upon the untutored who might otherwise have been tempted to treat the words contained on the monument —and placed there, after all, at public expense —as an authoritative enunciation of the meaning of the commemorated event.
When Ernest Morial became the first black mayor of the city in 1981, he attempted to remove the monument but was stopped from doing so by the majority-white city council, which forbade the moving of any monuments without its consent. The council did, however, authorize the removal of any offensive wording on the monument. Smooth granite slabs were then placed over the 1934 additions, presumably obviating the need for the adjoining plaque's renunciatory sentiments. During the late 1980s the administration of a second black mayor, Sidney Barthelemy, tried to remove the monument permanently during the course of general riverfront reconstruction, when it had been taken down temporarily from its Canal Street location. However, an interesting alliance of traditionalists, historical preservationists, and white supremacists successfully blocked the effort. Nevertheless, the monument was ultimately moved from its quite prominent Canal Street spot to a decidedly more obscure setting about a block away, where it now languishes out of the sight of most of the tourists who otherwise crowd Canal Street and its fine shops, casinos, the municipal aquarium, and vistas of the Mississippi. It remains in the general area only because of a consent agreement between the city and the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Officer, based on federal historic preservation laws, that the monument remain in the general area of the battle.
Once again, though, the official narrative changed, as yet another large plaque was placed on the monument itself. It contained the names of the eleven members of the Metropolitan Police who lost their lives in the conflict. More important, for our purposes, is the new official message of the Monument: "IN HONOR OF THOSE AMERICANS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE CONFLICT WHO DIED IN THE BATTLE OF LIBERTY PLACE. A CONFLICT OF THE PAST THAT SHOULD TEACH US LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE." What these lessons might be is left wholly unarticulated. The voice of the tutor is quite muffled, leaving the monument to speak for itself without further elaboration. If the Millennium Monument evokes Musil's Man Without Qualities, this latest inscription on the Liberty Monument brings to mind either George Orwell, with his castigation of government doubletalk, or, perhaps less ominously, Sir Arthur Strebe-Greebling (a character created by the late comedian Peter Cook), who unforgettably stated, "Oh yes, I've learned from my mistakes and I'm sure I could repeat them exactly." One wonders if this present inscription on the Liberty Monument genuinely represents progress over the 1974 point and counterpoint that at least educated the careful reader in the ideological stakes behind the ascription of meaning to the Liberty Monument.
Similarly, the Confederate flag continues to fly over some official buildings —and to plague contemporary politics—after the hammer and sickle has become but a memory (or, at least, been reduced to an object of flag-waving protest by private individuals dismayed by the sea change that has occurred since 1991). Many Southerners, in particular, would gladly echo the comment of Theodore Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism:
You might ask mockingly: "A flag? What's that? A stick with a rag on it?" No sir, a flag is much more. With a flag you lead men, for a flag, men live and die. In fact, it is the only thing for which they are ready to die in masses, if you train them for it. Believe me, the politics of an entire people ... can be manipulated only through the imponderables that float in the air.
Even Georgia's popular Governor Zell Miller was unable to prevail in his efforts to change the flag back to the pre-1956 Georgia emblem, which, ironically, is different from the current flag only insofar as the earlier emblem was apparently modeled after the official Confederate flag—the historic "Stars and Bars" — rather than the crossed lines of stars of the battle flag. And the newly elected Republican attorney general of South Carolina in 1994 reversed the policy of his Democratic predecessor by announcing that he would defend against a lawsuit challenging the right of the state to continue flying the Confederate battle flag atop the South Carolina statehouse. And we saw above the uncertain response to South Carolina Governor Beasley's more recent attempt to lower the flag.
I offer one final example of public sculpture, a monument found in front of the Texas state capitol in Austin. The approximately twenty-feet-high statue is the first thing the visitor entering the south capitol grounds will see, even before the monument celebrating the defenders of the Alamo. Erected in 1903 by their "surviving comrades" in the John B. Hood Camp, United Confederate Veterans, it commemorates those who died fighting for the Confederacy between 1861-65. On a pedestal stand seven-foot statues of an artilleryman, an infantryman, a cavalryman, and a sailor, representing the four branches of the Confederate armed forces. Rising from the center of the pedestal is a seven-and-one-half-feet-tall statue of Jefferson Davis. According to the contemporary state librarian who compiled a breathless history of the monument, the viewer "will instinctively look up at the commanding, heroic form above him, a personification of the Genius of the Confederacy, its faith, its intelligence, its enlightened appreciation and love of liberty, its lofty purpose, its dauntless courage, and its inflexible iron will." On the side of the top pedestal is a listing of each of the Confederate states (plus Missouri and Kentucky, two of the Unionist slave states).
Excerpted from Written in Stone by Sanford Levinson. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Sanford Levinson is Professor of Law at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author and editor of numerous books including Constitutional Faith and Interpreting Law and Literature (with Steven Mailloux).
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