American Monuments Should Honor Freedom, Not Slavery

The history of America is a long march towards the fulfillment of the values that inspired independence. Each generation has assumed the obligation to advance freedom forward from an imperfect beginning. Our nation’s monuments exist to honor this struggle to extend individual rights to all. Two weeks ago, when a group of white supremacists rallied to stop the removal of a Confederate statue in Virginia, they refocused our attention on a segment of our history that saw this march towards freedom come to a halt. 

Just as the citizens of Berlin celebrate the crumbling of the wall rather than its construction, Americans have to consider which aspects of our history deserve to be glorified. Statues and monuments that memorialize tyranny, oppression and the denial of freedom have no place standing in the land of the free. Public spaces should ultimately be a reminder of the many rare freedoms that we enjoy. Tearing down Confederate monuments will be a step towards completing this task.

If we believe in freedom, then we do not believe in the Confederacy. It was created to protect an institution of incredible oppression and cruelty. It rejected the uniquely American ideas of equal protection of the laws and robust individual liberty. Though the institution of slavery was not an American invention, the Confederacy’s continued practice exemplified the worst of the human condition. To them, defenses like “individual freedom” and “state’s rights” were simply slogans, nothing more than a means to fulfilling a dark end. Its monuments belong encased in museums for study and remembrance- not appreciation.

There is a  point to be made about how most historical figures that we memorialize also have their own personal and philosophical failures. A number of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Franklin Roosevelt spearheaded the imprisonment of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans. The racism of Woodrow Wilson re-emerged into the conversation earlier this year. 

But we build monuments to our forefathers to remember how they moved the American idea forward. We honor the Founding Fathers for maximizing individual freedom to the point that no society had yet achieved, even if we were still a long way off. The figures and aspects of our history that worked to increase the blessings of liberty should remain standing. This litmus test makes a considerable distinction between the legacy of Confederate heroes and the legacy of our Founders.

There is no slippery slope rolling down from statues of Confederate heroes to statues of the Founders. We celebrate Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, for helping to abolish a different form of tyranny in his lifetime. Jefferson penned a document fortifying individual and equal rights even as his convictions did not often match his actions. George Washington led the uprising to establish a republic with more guaranteed freedoms than any other in their world. James Madison, the author of those guaranteed freedoms, wrote in a compromise that would allow for the eventual abolition of the slave trade. In Federalist No. 42, he praised the achievement as a “great point gained in favor of humanity.” These slaveholding men- among many others immortalized in stone- laid the framework for the future breakdown of slavery and expansion of American freedom.

To compare, in what ways did the Confederacy expand liberty and justice in their own time? The Confederate constitution, while modeled in many respects after its predecessor, contained complete limits on how their government could expand freedom for slaves. Article I, Section 9 stated that no law “denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves” could be passed. This provision was a departure from the notion that constitutions should limit the expansion of government by guaranteeing individual rights. It would take sweeping legal reform and decades of strife to overcome the effort the Confederate States made to preserve slavery in America.

Conversely, the march towards equal rights that our Founding Fathers began is exactly what we should honor. Local governments across the country have already begun tearing down the monuments to slavery that do not represent the American idea. We should celebrate this movement not because these symbols are offensive to any one group of Americans but because they are offensive to the very idea of America itself.

Confederate monuments honor values that are antithetical to our nation’s very premise. Memorials to oppression and slavery have stood for thousands of year across the world. This is why our ancestors fought for independence. We should fill the country with monuments to the men and women who risked their lives for that freedom and remove the ones glorifying those who fought against it.

About Matt Liles

view all posts

Matt Liles is an economics and government student at the University of Texas at Austin. He is passionate about economic freedom and constitutional law and plans to become an attorney. Originally from the Dallas area, Matt’s work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News as apart of the Community Voices editorial program. Matt is uncomfortable referring to himself in the third person.