Editorial: Make statues a learning experience

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In the nation’s capital, and in every state that has honored a slaveholder or Confederate soldier with a public monument, a debate rages over whether the statues should stay or be removed.

President Trump, in his inimical fashion, has made his views known.

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”

Asking “what’s next” is a legitimate question. More specifically, what to do about Franklin Pierce, the only president from New Hampshire, but a president who, by signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which left it up to each new state to decide whether it would permit slavery, made civil war almost inevitable. A magnificent statue of Pierce, dressed foppishly in a giant bow tie and flowing cape, stands guard in front of the State House.

Earlier this year, Yale University renamed Calhoun College, a student residence honoring John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. senator and vice-president but also a fervent supporter of slavery and its spread to other states. Earlier this month, the mayor of Lexington, Ky., announced that statues honoring a Confederate general and a Confederate secretary of war would be relocated from in front of a courthouse to park dedicated to veterans.

As the events in Charlottesville, Va., demonstrated, the statues have become a symbol and a rallying point, not just for those who glorify the South’s “lost cause,” but by racist hate groups. That sort of thing has happened before. The swastika, from the Sanskrit word “svastika,” is an ancient symbol of good luck and well-being found throughout India. Before WWII, it was woven into Navajo rugs, used in Coca-Cola advertising and worn as a badge by Boy Scouts the world over. Adolf Hitler’s adoption of it as symbolic of, in his words, “the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind” turned it into a hate symbol.

Pierce was considered “a Northern man with Southern sympathies.” He was a close friend of Jefferson Davis, who, before becoming the president of the Confederate states, served as Pierce’s secretary of war. He was a fierce critic of President Abraham Lincoln and considered the Northern abolition cause “madness.” He remains the only president denied renomination by his own party. A C-SPAN survey this year of more than 90 presidential historians rated Pierce the third-worst president behind James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

For history’s sake, we believe public monuments should be removed or relocated only in egregious cases or when, sadly, they become a threat to public safety.

The monument honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park was a travesty. Removing it was the right thing to do. That’s not true of Pierce. In his case, and many others, the right thing to do is to put such monuments in context. To its credit, the state’s website, in its description of the monuments on or near the State House, discusses the unpopularity of Pierce and the controversy surrounding the statue, which was not erected until 1914, 45 years after Pierce’s death.

Times call for doing more. A more complete explanation of Pierce and his role leading up to and following the Civil War should be posted on the state’s website, in handouts available near his statue and in the nearby information kiosk.

The state should do more to tell those who view the statue what Pierce was and wasn’t.