The United States’ frenzy of statuary iconoclasm has taken a turn into the theater of the absurd. Knocking down or defacing statues of national founders or heroes not only displays ignorance of history but also assaults the principles of Western civilization that allow for racial progress to continue.
Destroying statues is often a part of revolutionary movements. Patriots tore down a statue of King George III as the American Revolution gained steam, and those seeking freedom from communism’s vile yoke pulled down the monuments to their oppressors, Lenin and Stalin. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the protests over the killing of George Floyd have targeted edifices honoring the heroes of the Confederacy. As the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, said in his “cornerstone speech,” the Confederacy rested on “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Monuments to this revolting sentiment have no place in a United States that is dedicated to the opposite principle — that all men are created equal.
That principle was first politically enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, and it has been America’s cornerstone ever since. All reasonable people acknowledge that it has been inconsistently applied throughout our nation’s history, but that principle has been the fuel of every movement that brought further emancipation. The early suffragists explicitly appealed to it at the first women’s rights meeting, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery under its banner, and Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal by citing its promise. The greatest speech of the 1960s civil rights revolution, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is a masterful disquisition on that immortal principle. It is America’s gift to the world.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.