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Democratizing American Commemorative Monuments

ISSUE:  Spring 2001

John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, once remarked that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals. It bears the head of no man on a coin.” In the short run, from a historical perspective, he was only half right at best; yet in the long run his assertion seems fairly astute. Over a span of almost two centuries there has been a gradual (though imperfect) democratization of monuments and memorials in the United States, a process that has inescapably been accompanied by controversy simply because that’s the way democracy works. Whenever we decide to take the views of Everyman into account, we discover once again that Everyman is of many minds, quite a few of them mutually contradictory. Consequently our thinking and decision-making about monuments is protracted, normatively controversial (sometimes even tumultuous), and rarely satisfactory to everyone concerned. Yet those characteristics seem to be inevitable in a democratic society; and I cannot envision an alternative mode of attempting to memorialize.

To begin, then, why was Adams only half right? On one hand, we might point to four 19th-century obelisks, fairly representative, that share common qualities and attributes. At Bunker Hill (built 1825—43), at Fort Griswold in Groton, Connecticut (1826—30), at the Chalmette Battlefield near New Orleans (1850—1908), and at the Bennington battle site in Vermont (1887—91), the military markers are all austerely ornamented. The absence of allusions to individual bravery and the anonymity of the soldiers who fought there are deliberately democratic gestures. Events are being commemorated in which many individuals participated—their social status as variable as the roles that they played in achieving armed success.

On the other hand, abundant evidence indicates that Adams would also be off the mark until well into the 20th century. One only needs to think of the heroic statues erected in a worshipful manner to George Washington on Wall Street in New York City, Benjamin Franklin in front of the Old City Hall in Boston, William Penn presiding high above the skyline of Philadelphia, Christopher Columbus standing in front of Union Station in Washington, D.C., Confederate heroes on Monument Avenue in Richmond (augmented by Arthur Ash five years ago), the equestrian glorification of Andrew Jackson in New Orleans, and the tribute to Abraham Lincoln by Saint-Gaudens at Lincoln Park in Chicago. In these instances, and many others, we have great men, personae for a national pantheon, receiving enduring tributes for being exceptional—literally as well as figuratively, head and shoulders above the average person. Although such monuments are not intrinsically wndemocratic, they do celebrate the vision, leadership, and civic convictions of extraordinary individuals.

During the course of the 20th century, especially, a gradual process of democratization has occurred and it has been expressed in diverse ways: a shift from the memorialization of particular “great men” to a preferred emphasis upon “ordinary” men and women (meaning persons whose names are not household words) who provide symbolic representation of a just cause or some courageous effort. The glorification of an anonymous but representative warrior is epitomized at Arlington National Cemetery, of course, in the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier, dedicated in 1921 (now designated in the plural and no longer “open” for additions), making it in key respects a quintessential 20th-century memorial in the democratic mode.

The gradual shift from singular and specific to collective and idealized memorials can be exemplified in numerous ways—even as we keep in mind that this transition is neither absolute nor lacking in conspicuous exceptions, such as the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the Jefferson Memorial (1943), and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997), all clustered close to the Tidal Basin along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. (The designs for all three of these now iconic structures encountered extremely harsh initial opposition.) Nor can we ignore Mount Rushmore (1926—39), though sometimes I wonder whether that illustrious and crowded quartet would not really like to be playing a rubber of bridge when we are not watching them, like the bridge clubs so popular in the Mid-Western “Middletown” described in two classic works of Americana written by Robert and Helen Lynd (1929 and 1937).

Nevertheless, the 20th-century trend is well illustrated by the various markers and memorials found all along the Oregon Trail, stretching from Independence and Kansas City, Missouri, to Independence Rock and South Pass in Wyoming, and ultimately at Portland, Oregon. One also thinks of the figural monument to the Pioneer Mothers of covered wagon days, now so oddly squeezed among ordinary buildings on Wisconsin Avenue in the Washington suburb so aptly named Bethesda.

The inclination to favor collective (though not anonymous) memorialization culminates, of course, in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington and the Names Project AIDS quilt (individual panels bear names of the deceased), a mode of remembrance combining specificity with inclusiveness that seems to have increasing appeal, ranging from the inscribed stele at the Battery in Manhattan to recent proposals for new Holocaust memorials. Actually, the listing of little-known names on a plaque, a panel of fabric, or in a chapel does not date from the 1980’s. One finds it all across the country in communities and colleges that wished to memorialize native sons who lost their lives in the nation’s wars—a phenomenon with post-Civil War origins that really took hold during the 1920’s following World War I.

Because historical change, not to mention overt transformations, are never neat and tidy, it is incumbent upon us to notice some of the major “landmarks” (so to speak) that were instrumental in the process of democratizing American monuments and memorials by making them more inclusive. Most of these exemplars, inevitably, will be found a full generation (and more) following the American Civil War. First, quite notably, there is the dramatic, brilliantly conceived memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment organized in a free state, located at the northeast corner of Boston Common directly across the street from the Massachusetts State House. Although it is frequently referred to as the “Shaw Monument” because of its central figure, Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the regiment, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens lavished great care in creating the individualized faces of the African-American soldiers who lost their lives along with Shaw in the assault upon Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863. The centennial observance of that memorial in 1998 provided a splendid opportunity for interracial voices to be raised in praise of freedom and civic redemption. Yet it is also important to remember that fierce racial antagonisms in Boston less than half a century earlier prompted the poet Robert Lowell to write, in For the Union Dead (1964), that “Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat.”

Next, there is the decision made early in the 20th century by the War Department to permit monuments erected in honor of Confederate units to appear at the intensively memorialized Gettysburg Battlefield site in Pennsylvania. The Virginia State memorial, including an equestrian bronze of Robert E. Lee, was unveiled in 1917; and the dramatic (as well as non-elitist) North Carolina monument, depicting three representative soldiers rushing into the final charge, was dedicated in 1929.

Needless to say, erecting a single monument to the archetypal Yankee soldier or to his counterpart in Southern communities, Johnny Reb, usually on the town green or in its public cemetery, served as a crucial transition to democratization, mainly during a notably undemocratic era, the later Gilded Age in the North and turn-of-the-century in the South. That is also when a considerable number of monuments were erected in the North to honor the emancipation of African-American slaves, usually with a grateful bondsman kneeling obsequiously at the feet of a standing white liberator (most often Abraham Lincoln) who has broken the shackles so that human property might achieve liberation.

The transition that we have been tracing to “monumental democracy” is by no means complete, however. There remains, for example, the vexing question of what to do with memorials from yesteryear that are offensive to segments of the population in our own time. I have in mind, for example, the Memorial to the Confederate Dead that stands on the state capitol grounds in Austin, Texas; or the colossal equestrian statues of Confederate leaders that punctuate Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia; or the so-called Liberty Monument erected in New Orleans in 1891 to commemorate the return of Louisiana to conservative white control in 1874 at the close of Reconstruction. Although these highly visible colossi may seem to some observers out of step with progressive values at the start of the 21st century, should they simply be knocked down and destroyed, like so many statues of V.I. Lenin in the former Soviet bloc? In a brilliantly argued book, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (1998), constitutional historian Sanford Levinson has urged that we should not destroy such signposts of our history, thereby fostering forgetfulness about roads that the country once traveled; but rather that we should remove them from highly prominent public places to less conspicuous settings contiguous with museums and historical societies. Relocated in that way, they can be viewed as obstacles we have surmounted rather than heights we have scaled. The jury, as they say, is still “out” concerning the issue of permanent monuments that roil civic sensibilities rather than grace the public conscience.


In the meanwhile, democratization in our own time does move forward in interesting and unexpected ways. First, there are overt acts of reinterpretation that actually alter the identity and meaning of sites. Early in the 1990’s Congress renamed the Custer Battlefield site in Montana, the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The Seventh Cavalry Monument on Custer Hill, where the last remnant of Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s battalion fell is now counterbalanced by commemoration of Medicine Tail Ford along the low banks of the Little Bighorn River, where seven tribal encampments comprised a significant Indian village site. Markers on Calhoun Hill indicate where Lakota warriors triumphed over Custer’s Company L and a force led by Crazy Horse overcame the survivors of C and L companies as they fled toward Custer Hill. The commemorative interpretation at Little Bighorn is now far more balanced.

Similarly, King Philip’s War in 1676—77, the last great (and very gory) struggle for white dominance in New England, was memorialized in 1906 by the Great Swamp Fight Monument, unveiled by the Society of Colonial Wars at South Kingstown, Rhode Island. A tall and rough-hewn obelisk is centered among four massive boulders, one for each of the four United Colonies (Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) that cooperated to provide “security” from a coalition of Algonquian Indian tribes. In September 1992 another memorial gathering took place at that same monument, but this time several members of the Narragansett Nation led the ceremonies. That moving occasion marked the culmination of a deeply symbolic struggle to reclaim the monument at the Great Swamp and publicly designate it as a “massacre” of Native Americans rather than a fair fight.

Second, we should also note that social historians and students of American culture increasingly look at the advent of skyscrapers early in the 20th century as living monuments and memorials, not simply to prominent architects who designed them, but also to the ordinary laborers (so many of them immigrants) who supplied the muscle power that facilitated the construction of these modern megaliths. This democratic re-orientation has been enhanced by increased attention to the dramatic photographs of high rise buildings taken by Lewis Hine and Edward Steichen during the early decades of the 20th century and by Joseph Mitchell’s classic essay, “The Mohawks in High Steel” (1949) which Edmund Wilson included in his Apologies to the Iroquois (1959).

Third, there is the on-going process of re-naming streets and avenues, parks and plazas across the country—sometimes for prominent individuals whose achievements are thereby memorialized in the 19th-century “heroic” manner, but oftimes as well for little-known jazz musicians or figures whose significance is local rather than national. In the instances of individual glory, moreover, many of those honored are now African American, Hispanic American, Native American, and women—a marked change from 19th-century priorities, or even from what seemed possible just a generation ago in the cases of Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, or Medicine Tail Coolee on the Crow Indian Reservation that surrounds the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Fourth, we must also keep in mind (or at least in our mind’s eye) the emerging presence of the most recent and trendy mode of commemorative monument: historical websites that serve as educational memorials of enduring value, most of them still waiting to be “discovered” by browsers on the Internet. For prime examples of thoughtfully designed cyber-monuments, check out the 1913 Triangle Factory Shirtwaist Fire website ( and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (

The educational value of such “monument” websites more than compensates for their non-traditional invisibility in public places. So many of our monuments, erected in bronze or marble over the past century and a half, celebrate individuals and occasions about which the public now knows little and cares less. A drive around the circles that punctuate avenues in Washington, D.C., serves as a useful reminder that there is a lack of foresight involved in erecting highly permanent monuments to persons and causes whose reputations are likely to fade or else prove ephemeral in less than a century. Does anyone really pay the slightest attention to the supposed cynosures in Logan Circle, Thomas Circle, Scott Circle, or Sheridan Circle in Northwest Washington?

My point is that cynosures require more adequate and more visible interpretive signage if they are truly intended for posterity. Some of our monuments are even misleading from a historical and educational point of view. The base of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, for example, has inscribed around it the names of every American war in which Marines took part. Lying in-between the lapidary Mexican War and the Spanish-American War we find “the War Between the States.” Southern members of Congress refused to vote in favor of the necessary legislation during the 1950’s if Felix de Weldon’s monumental bronze sculpture (78 feet long and weighing 100 tons) identified the Civil War by the name it bears in 20th-century history books. Here is an instance where historical partisanship was the requisite price of glory.

Those who design monuments must give greater consideration to the educational or didactic functions of their projects. If they truly are intended for posterity, their raison d’etre must be made plain and persistent. They should inform as well as convey aesthetic value. And they should also uplift the spirit in comprehensible ways long after the occasion being commemorated has passed from living memory. For prime examples of such successful monuments one turns to The Netherlands. Because the Germans bombed the very heart of Rotterdam in 1940, there is tremendous power in Ossip Zadkine’s semi-abstract statue of a man without a heart located at the River Maas—a stunning monument to heartless brutality. Similarly, the statue of a dockworker in Amsterdam to memorialize the initial resistance there in 1942 to Nazi tyranny also conveys a very clear and emotionally powerful message, particularly because it is located very close to a synagogue. In these instances, democracy, memory, and meaningful didacticism have been carefully and thoughtfully combined.

That is also true of the winning design for the first museum devoted to the history of apartheid in South Africa. Joseph Noero, a brilliant architect in Johannesburg, who also chairs the School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, observed that when rural blacks came to urban areas in quest of work during apartheid, they brought their earthly possessions in rectangular containers called “memory boxes,” frequently decorated with the colors red and black. The men lived “out of” these boxes during their bleak, prison-like existence in urban dormitories. Noero’s museum of remembrance will comprise a dozen movable units that are, figuratively, oversized “memory boxes” to contain the exhibition illustrating the history of apartheid—yet another memorial that is democratic in design, didactic in its message, and conceptually provocative.

Finally, I hope that greater consideration will be given in the future to a highly distinctive type of commemorative “monument,” the living memorial that is most consistent with our increasingly cherished environmental values. I have in mind the cherry trees that surround the Tidal Basin in Washington, a gift from the Japanese government in gratitude for United States mediation in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—05. Or the hundreds of thousands of tulip bulbs sent to Ottawa by The Netherlands as an expression of thanks for the crucial Canadian role in Dutch liberation from the Nazis during World War II. Or the spectacular grove of giant red cedars in Idaho, a National Park Service site in Idaho (named in honor of historian Bernard De Voto) on the western side of the Continental Divide.

Somehow, the most democratic and least expensive monuments of all may very well be the ones that we metaphorically create unblemished from nature. I would like to predict that they may be the most appropriate and appealing memorials that will emerge in the 21st century—rising from rootstock and striking no medals or coins. John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson—both men with enhanced transcontinental vision—would be mightily pleased.


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