Charlottesville, Statues, Free Speech and History



In the middle of the furore over his remarks on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the President of the United States made an interesting observation via his usual medium of communication, Twitter:

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

Though voicing concern for the preservation of American culture came at a moment when the clear condemnation of white supremacism and Neo-Nazism was more pressing, it was a contribution from a man of the highest office to an enduring debate in American society.


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Statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville

The violence in Charlottesville this August saw white supremacists and anti-fascist campaigners clash over the removal of Confederate statues. In the climax of the struggles, a white supremacist drove his car into crowds of counter-protesters, killing a young civil rights activist and injuring many more. Monitoring the situation from above, two Virginian policemen died when their helicopter crashed. It was another painful chapter in a longstanding dispute over the destruction of monuments to the past.


Since the massacre of black churchgoers at the hands of a white supremacist in 2015, several state authorities have made efforts to remove a number of old monuments and decorations in memory of the Confederate States of America. The eleven Confederate states fought in the American Civil War for their rights to preserve the slave trade and the status quo – the subservience of black Americans to their white counterparts. The Confederate states’ defeat in 1865 brought no end to racial inequality in America. It was over the next hundred years that statues and images dedicated to Confederate politicians, soldiers and generals were constructed in Southern states, honouring their commitment to white power and black servitude and reasserting the belief that black people were lesser citizens.


Today, many state authorities are working to take down these statues, sometimes to ensure that they are not forcefully toppled by angry demonstrators. In Brooklyn, two plaques honouring the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, were removed; in New Orleans, monuments nodding to the Crescent City White League, around which the Ku Klux Klan often gathered, were taken down at night by construction workers wrapped in protective armour and masks; and in Austin, Texas, the local university took down statues of Generals Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston.[ii]



Statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford

Similar efforts to take down the statues of old figures have taken place across the rest of the world. In 2015, students at the University of Oxford called for the removal of a statue within the grounds of Oriel College. The subject of the concrete honour, Cecil Rhodes, was a Victorian businessman whose commercial exploits led to the foundation of new land for the British Empire. He gave his name to the region and to a university in South Africa.


To the Oriel College protestors, the statue represented the oppression of Africans that came through Rhodes’s contribution to British colonialism. History was on the protestors’ side. Rhodes’s patriotism surpassed a common love of British institutions and traditions; by his own admission, he worked in the interest of his race. His ambitions were “The furtherance of the British Empire, for the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule, the recovery of the United States, the making [of] the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire.”[iii] Rhodesia was a project for the advancement of Britain and its people, at the expense of the local tribes.


The protest was unsuccessful – when donors threatened to withdraw their generous financial support, the university elected to keep the bust – but it started a national conversation about monuments and statues in the public sphere, who we ought to remember and whose statues ought to be removed.


Some praised the #RhodesMustFall movement for reminding us of mistreatment of ethnic minorities that came with colonialism and have not been considered until now.[iv] Others called it illiberalism “drenched in a mix of entitlement and victimhood”, a ridiculous attempt to pretend that history didn’t happen for the sake of students’ happiness.[v] To them, students were putting their feelings first, trying to tamper with history because they were offended. It was an additional irony that the leading campaigner for the statue’s demise, Ntokozo Qwabe, was a recipient of a scholarship fund established in the businessman’s name.[vi]


The fact that #RhodesMustFall took place on the university campuses of Oxford and Cape Town dragged the question of commemoration into another debate over free speech and censorship within academia. The movement was a godsend for critics arguing that students today are putting their feelings before the facts. The events in Charlottesville have restarted the debate. Along come the discussions over whether taking down statues of Robert E. Lee is censorship and history policing; along come the same people who stood up for keeping Rhodes’s bust, bringing allusions to Orwellian censorship with them.[vii]


Movements like #RhodesMustFall and the removal of Confederate symbols ought not to be swept up in the academic censorship furore. While the arguments over safe spaces and trigger warnings are fashions born over the last few years, the destruction of statues and monuments is a tradition as old as the United States itself.[viii] History is rife with examples besides busts of Cecil Rhodes and Robert E. Lee. While Oriel students fought to remove Rhodes, ISIS forces tore down the ancient temples and libraries of Palmyra and killed their keepers. Two years earlier, images of Lenin were publicly destroyed in Ukraine, continuing a legacy of destruction following the decline of the USSR in the previous century, when busts of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet idols were brought to the ground and vandalised. In previous centuries, across the globe, societies have torn down the statues of their governors and kings in the middle of extreme political turmoil.


Whether they are taken quietly from their plinths to obscure museums, or, amid revolution, pulled from their foundations and crushed to pieces, statue destruction is nothing new. When we ask whether it is right to wrap cables around the busts of Robert E. Lee, we have think beyond the statue in front of us. To address the predicament of whether pulling down statues is justified, in addition to whether it constitutes the cleansing or devastation of a society’s history and culture, we have to think about the nature of a statue itself.


The Nature of a Statue

Statues exist for celebration. They present a person, an event or a value that society deems worthy of commemoration. Statues from older times depict the gods and deities of ancient societies and their mythologies. Some statues present the likenesses of society’s leaders as well as its controllers: kings and queens, emperors, presidents and the like. The younger nations of the world, such as the United States of America, India, Pakistan or Israel, have immortalised their founding fathers in the form of statues. Other statues depict cultural figures, such as musicians and comedians: statues of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach can be found across Europe.


Embodied in a statue are both the past and the present. The existence of statues shows that the people of today believe that these individuals of the past are worthy of recognition. They ensure that the present generation is aware of past achievements, activism, discoveries and struggles. Naturally, it implies that the subject of the celebration did something that we ought to remember. People have asked for them to be publicly celebrated for a reason.


The decision to commemorate a person or a cause tends to come from government, which has historically led to extreme manipulations of the truth for political ends. The statues of Lenin and Stalin adorning the streets of the larger cities of the USSR were elements of the state’s expansive propaganda, simultaneously promoting the idols of the Soviet cause and quashing any thoughts about an alternative way of life. The beautiful landscapes and smiling workers shown on art canvases and in newspapers were fabrications to fool the people, covering up the famines, the secret police and violence.


But in societies closer to home, a mixture of public and private interests have funded the construction of statues. Politicians, composers, poets and scientists are honoured for their contributions to a society’s culture and community – making their mark on history – as opposed to glorifying their existence to cover up the shortcomings of a political regime.


The presence of statues implies that the current generation continues to hold the achievements of a past figure in high esteem; but this does not compel generations of the future to value them in the same way. Society can change its mind. Slavery was once a common aspect of business. That black people in Britain, the United States and other nations of Europe could have the same rights as white people was once considered ridiculous. Even after the abolition of the slave trade and slaves’ emancipation in the United States, many Americans could not comprehend the idea of racial and legal equality. Southern Americans constructed the statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals to reaffirm their beliefs that the treatment of black Americans as commodities for sale was a natural element of social order. But today, slavery is illegal and viewed as deplorable in most countries and members of ethnic minorities possess the same political rights as other residents. As seen in Charlottesville and beyond, many do not believe that we should continue to honour an old commitment to racial injustice.


No statue is entitled to society’s unending worship. Cecil Rhodes is now widely seen as an unpleasant colonialist. But what about the argument for the preservation of culture and heritage, espoused by Donald Trump and many others? Even if Cecil Rhodes no longer deserves public honour, should we keep his statue anyway? Here, critics of statue destruction often argue that the movement is motivated by a foolish mood of revisionism for the sake of the current political climate. Cecil Rhodes, Robert E. Lee and others may have done things that we would today find morally wrong, but they were influential in the course of history. We can no more ignore the uncomfortable parts of history as we can travel back in time and change them for the better.



While we cannot deny that the destruction of statues has at times been to remove a person from the public consciousness, deeming every moment of opposition to public commemorations to be a moment of damnatio memoriae puts us back into conversation with the proponents of the ‘Orwellian panic’ idea. There is a difference between the public’s change of opinion and the desire to oust someone from history. Cecil Rhodes ought no longer to be praised, but no one believes that we should tear every mention of his name and life from the history books and never, ever speak of him again. That really would be censorship.


Removing the statues of Robert E. Lee will not rip them from history. Historians are well aware of their roles in the American past and the absence of a statue will not affect it. If anything, the existence of a statue is an element of history itself: it shows that Lee was (and still is) revered. Disposing of it shows that Lee’s cause, the preservation of slavery and the subjugation of black people, deserves praise no longer; it shows that Americans do not see a reason to celebrate a general who fought on the field of battle for the right to own other humans as chattel slaves.


Tearing down statues and removing monuments amount not so much to the destruction of history, but its development. Manifest in the desire to remove the emblems and effigies of men and women once considered heroes is the evolution of social attitudes. Whom society chooses to honour provides us with an idea of its moral and political values; the decision to revoke an honour shows that society is rethinking its decision.


The reaction to Charlottesville in Britain has prompted some suggestions of icons who have had long enough on their plinths. Horatio Nelson, William Gladstone, H. G. Wells – do they deserve public honour?[ix] Rather than crying “censorship!” historians should ask whether their society continues to feel at ease with the public celebration of past figures and the causes for which they stood. This is history happening before our very eyes; we would do well to give it some thought.


Written by Jack Harvey



[i] Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “Sad to see the history and culture…” and “… can’t change history, but you can learn from it…” Twitter. August 17, 2017:;

[ii] Anon. “Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the United States. Here’s a List.” New York Times. August 28, 2017.

[iii] Cecil Rhodes. The Last Will and Testament of Cecil J. Rhodes, ed. William T. Stead (London: 1902): 59

[iv] Timothy Garton Ash, “Rhodes hasn’t fallen, but the protesters are making me rethink Britain’s past,” Guardian, March 4, 2016.

[v] Tom Slater, “The tyranny of safe spaces,” Spiked Online, January 15, 2016.

[vi] Javier Espinoza, “Oxford student who wants Rhodes statue down branded ‘hypocrite’ for taking money from trust,” Daily Telegraph, December 21, 2015

[vii] Brendan O’Neill, “An Orwellian war on the past,” Spiked Online, August 21, 2017.

[viii] Jacey Fortin, “Toppling Monuments, a Visual History,” New York Times, August 17, 2017.

[ix] Afua Hirsch, “Toppling statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next,” Guardian, August 22, 2017,; Steven Bush, “If you want to get rid of a British statue, start with William Gladstone,” New Statesman, August 25, 2017,; Yarden Katz, “It’s time to take the ‘great’ white men of science off their pedestals”, Guardian, September 29, 2017,