Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Rewriting History in the Urban Landscape

By Telos

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the United Kingdom, growing numbers of statues of historical figures have been toppled, beheaded, or turned upside down. It has been a matter primarily of figures charged with participation in the extermination, oppression, and enslavement of non-white ethnic groups, such as the famous generals of the Confederacy during the American Civil War of 1861–65. The matter gets complicated because not a few of these targets of symbolic attacks or executions embody quite different qualities. Several of the American founding fathers, the first constitutional state, were slaveowners, for example, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and later third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, a figure of the Enlightenment and a wide-ranging intellectual. Although never a rigorous defender of slavery, he viewed blacks—in contrast to Native Americans—as inferior.

Enraged militants would have toppled the statue of Andrew Jackson, a former military hero, across from the White House, had it not been protected by security forces. There is no doubt that it was under Jackson that the expulsion of native communities east of the Mississippi was organized and carried out brutally, the initiation of large-scale genocide. Jackson’s presidency (1829–37) however also involved a persistent political democratization, although this only benefitted white Americans. Are these instances of progress, both for the United States and humanity, now obsolete because of the evident discrepancies in the thought and action, including clearly egregious misdeeds, of the participants? Of course not. Principles of constitutionalism, human and civil rights, as well as democracy would later turn into intellectual weapons in the fight against slavery and oppression.

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