Annette Gordon-Reed on Why Monuments to Thomas Jefferson are Not in Jeopardy

Earlier this Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed was part of a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on race, monuments, and the Civil War. She was joined by  poet Elizabeth Alexander and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Watch it here:


Over at The Atlantic, David Graham reports on the session.  Here is a taste:

Some hesitation about removing monuments is grounded in a sense among Southerners of still being condescended to, Landrieu said. “I think some of the pushback is [the sense that] if we admit this and we admit we were wrong, it will feed into the misapprehension that people have” about continued racism in the South. Of course, it is just the opposite—the backlash only brings unwanted attention to the persistence of Confederate monuments—but as the poet Elizabeth Alexander pointed out, the North is hardly immune to racism itself. “As Bree Newsome said,” referring to the activist who, as part of a protest removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds in 2015, “the Confederacy may be a southern issue, but white supremacy is an American issue,” Alexander said.

Nevertheless, the concerns about erasure of history remain perhaps the most potent objection, espoused not only by irredentist rebels but even by those who declare strong disdain for the Confederacy. And Gordon-Reed offered two rejoinders.

The first was that removing a statue hardly constitutes erasing history. “We’re always going to know who Robert E. Lee is,” she said. “The question is where these monuments are. The public sphere should be comfortable for everybody.”

But what about the idea that once the Lees and Stonewall Jacksons and P.G.T. Beauregards are pulled down, the revisionists will inevitably start agitating for pulling down monuments to slave-owning Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

But Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, said it was not hard to draw a bright line separating Jefferson’s generation of Virginians from the ones who tried to secede.

“We can distinguish between people who wanted to build the United States of America and people who wanted to destroy it,” she said. “It’s possible to recognize people’s contributions at the same time as recognizing their flaws.”

“You’re not going to have American history without Jefferson,” Gordon-Reed said. Alluding not to the demise of the Lenin statutes but to the infamous deletion of disgraced figures from Kremlin photographs, she added, “It’s not the Soviet Union.”

Read the entire piece here.