The Problem with Monuments

Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella, by Larkin Goldsmith Meade, in the California State Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.

Today is the traditional Columbus Day holiday, which in many places is now being celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day, among other names. For years, Christopher Columbus was celebrated as the person who “discovered” America. The reality is that indigenous people were already settled here long before any Europeans came and Columbus never set foot anywhere on the North American continent. He landed on islands in the Bahamas and explored a bit of the coasts of Central and South America, but never North America. Nevertheless, his voyages opened the door for European colonization of the Americas, so he was considered the one to discover this part of the world from a white Eurocentric view of the world.

His voyages also opened the doors for enslavement of the indigenous peoples and decimation of their population through European diseases. His part in American history is being reconsidered and his legacy is at best problematic. In addition to the problems of disease and his enslavement of other humans, he was accused by his contemporaries of brutal treatment of the native population.

Because of this reassessment of Columbus, some cities and states have started using the traditional holiday as a way to honor Native Americans, who lived on this land long before European settlement and colonization. Statues of Columbus have been removed by some governments and in other cases citizen protestors have forcibly taken them down.

In the last several years, there has been a push to take down statues honoring Confederate leaders who led an insurrection against the United States to protect the institution of slavery. Some governments have voted to remove them and others have again been taken down by citizens. Since the death of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality in the United States, many other Confederate statues and monuments have come down and others, including statues of Union Civil War heroes, Presidents, and other leaders have been toppled or questioned, many of them causing consternation among some members of the majority population.

But those who question why we should honor our founding fathers with statues have reason to question their heroic status. George Washington owned over 300 slaves. Most of the founding fathers were slaveowners. They also created a government in which African-Americans were considered 3/5ths of a person, simply for taxation purposes and voting representation in Congress. They created a nation in which white male landowners held all the power and kept it that way through much of America’s history.

Of course, an argument for continuing to honor them is that they were products of their times, and that is true. But we are products of our times, too, and in our time in the course of history, we don’t believe that slavery is a good thing, we don’t believe that women should have no power, and we don’t believe in honoring those who promoted or supported those beliefs. The same people who argue that monuments honoring historical figures should remain standing because we need them to remember our history were likely the same people who celebrated the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, even though he represented a part of Iraqi history. They were likely the same people who celebrated the destruction of the Berlin Wall or the removal of a statue of Stalin in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution.

Nothing created by man is permanent and historians and the people are constantly reevaluating history and its heroes. When by modern standards or new politics, those put on pedestals by previous generations are no longer considered heroic, it is likely time to take them down. In some cases they will be replaced with those who more closely resonate with our modern conceptions of what heroes mean, though the likelihood is that at some time in the future, perhaps generations removed, those newer statues will be taken down by even newer thinking.

The problem with monuments is that all of our heroes are human. We all have flaws. While a person may be heroic in one aspect of their life, they may fail miserably in others. Thomas Jefferson was a great thinker and leader of the Revolution, but he also owned slaves. Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, but he was also an anti-Semitic fascist. Joe Paterno was the winningest coach in NCAA history, but he did nothing to stop an assistant coach from sexually abusing young boys. No person can claim that they have lived a perfect life, that they have not hurt others in some way, whether intentional or not.

The other problem with monuments is that we as human beings cannot always agree on what heroism means. And if we take human heroes out of it and decide to erect only statues honoring great ideals, we also cannot agree on what those are. What is considered an ideal government today may be anathema to tomorrow’s citizens. In addition, what is considered beautiful art by one may be reviled by others. Who gets to decide who is honored and how? The majority? And what happens when they become the minority?

Perhaps the answer is that we should not erect public statues and monuments at all, though it seems as as though it is in our nature to do so. If it is something we feel compelled to do, perhaps we have to work our way to an agreement about who or what deserves honor at the moment. Maybe we can keep some that honor great contributions, but that are problematic, but can also add plaques that give some more context to who they were. Maybe we should agree that it is simply okay for us to remove the monuments which we deem as not aligning with our current agreed upon values, such as statues of Columbus, and then erect monuments which honor our beliefs and morals at this time. Future generations can decide if our choices were right for them.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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