Overall, the American foundation myth remains strong. But it does not enjoy unchallenged status, particularly among minorities of color. While 39% of non-whites see the Founders as “heroes,” 31% find them to be “villains.” That only nine percentage points separates these very different evaluations within a group that comprises approximately 30% of the US population should be a source of concern for political elites, writes Thomas Sherlock, Professor of Political Science at the United States Military Academy, West Point.
How can we make sense of the recent repudiation of historical monuments in the United States which commemorate individuals as diverse as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson? How widespread is this phenomenon? Does it herald a “critical juncture” in American politics that allows for fundamental disputes over the legitimacy of the Republic?
The causes for the current problems of American democracy and challenges to its symbols are varied but mutually reinforcing. The COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent severe economic downturn, and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman have intensified long-standing socio-economic, cultural, and political challenges, particularly the growth of income inequality, political polarization of elites and mass publics, and ideological battles over how to define the American community. These factors have coalesced to produce a perfect storm of political confrontation of which attacks on certain historical monuments and dominant historical narratives are important byproducts.
The disavowal and often destruction of monuments, and the disputes over American history these acts represent, have been initiated from both below and above in the American polity. While some statues have been toppled due to spontaneous or planned action by societal groups, others have been removed in an orderly fashion by political and cultural elites. Whether and how such action occurs often depends on the local political landscape.
For example, in the wake of the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and nationwide demonstrations held on June 19 (called “Juneteenth,” it marks the date the last slaves were freed at the end of the Civil War), the American Museum of Natural History announced it would remove a well-known equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt that had stood at the museum’s entrance since 1940. The sculpture, with a commanding image of Roosevelt flanked by likenesses of a Native American and an African American on foot, had been criticized by activists as a bigoted representation for years. The head of the museum now assessed the work as racist in its “hierarchical composition.” The mayor of New York supported the decision to remove the statue.
By contrast, a bust of Ulysses S. Grant and other statues located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park were toppled by indignant multi-racial crowds on “Juneteenth” 2020. Although Americans widely respect Grant for his pivotal role in defeating the Confederate rebellion, he is also criticized by some for briefly owning a slave and for decisions when he was president that led to the gross abuse of the Native American Lakotas.
Although the treatment of the sculptures of Grant and Roosevelt reflect different modes of historical contestation, these and similar acts are part of a broader debate on the political and ideological legacies of America’s historical leaders, with an increasing focus on the Founding Fathers of the Republic. Although long-standing among academics and activists, this dispute over the legitimacy of the American Pantheon remained outside the nation’s attention until recently. It gradually extended into society over the past decade due in large part to growing public criticism of statues and flags associated with the American Confederacy. Americans have increasingly evaluated these objects as symbols of slavery and contemporary white supremacy, not simply as politically neutral artifacts of regional history and culture.
Activist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, as well as establishment politicians at the local level have mobilized public opinion against Confederate monuments. After the Democratic Party won control of the state legislature in Virginia in 2019 elections, statues and busts of Confederate leaders in legislative buildings in Richmond, the capital, were ordered removed by the new Party leadership. The legislature also empowered local authorities (and their constituencies) to determine the status of other Confederate monuments, enabling the mayor of Richmond to begin the removal of controversial Confederate statues along its Monument Avenue.
This increasingly national debate broadened to include criticism of revolutionary Founders who were slave-owners, and intensified as it intersected with the unsettling factors noted above, including long-term political polarization and the social and economic distress of the COVID-19 pandemic which disproportionally affected some minorities, including Black Americans.
How does the American public evaluate the current controversy over monuments to the Confederacy and the revolutionary Founders?
Polls offer useful data on both counts. Although popular approval among white Americans of the Black Lives Matter movement has increased in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, American society is far from united on whether to take down Confederate monuments, which for many remain powerful symbols of racism. In a June 2020 Quinnipiac University survey, 52% of respondents (who were registered voters) supported the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces, marking a 13 -point increase from an August 2017 poll. But 44% of respondents overall opposed taking any action. The controversy over Confederate “places of memory” has also exposed important political and racial fault lines: 80% of Republican respondents opposed the removal of Confederate statues while 85% of Democrats supported the measure (as reflected in the decisions of Virginia’s legislature). At the same time, 84% of African-Americans were in favor while 44% of white Americans were not.
Public opinion is also divided, but not as deeply, over the race-based activism of the Black Lives Matter movement. While 68% of respondents thought that discrimination against Blacks was a serious problem and 67% supported the mass demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd, only 51% overall had a favorable view of the BLM movement as opposed to 83% of Black Americans. In terms of political affiliation, only 19% of Republicans supported BLM while 89% of Democrats expressed their approval. However, for every demographic category (gender, race, age, region, urban-rural) with the exception of “political affiliation/Republican,” a majority or plurality of respondents had a favorable view of BLM, from 71% of the 18-34 age group to 42% of rural inhabitants (40% had an unfavorable view).
How vulnerable are the core myths of the United States amid these history-based quarrels?
Foundation myths are vital resources, providing a sense of common purpose and meaning to a polity. Theorists maintain that the legitimacy of a government or a state may either decay or be swept away, and its stability endangered, if basic myths and beliefs are rejected by a sufficient number of elites and mass publics. The collapse of the Soviet Union is an important example. In a survey conducted in June 2020, negative opinions of the American Founders were strongest among Black Americans. For example, 39% of Black respondents favored the removal of statues honoring George Washington while 19% of white respondents shared this opinion. Significant divisions by race also exist in the Democratic Party on the legitimacy of the Founders. Thomas Jefferson, like Washington, was a slave-owner. 62% of white Democrats favor preserving memorials to Jefferson while only 33% of Black Democrats endorse this position. Republicans exhibit the strongest support for the American Pantheon. 80% of Republicans as a whole oppose the removal of statues honoring Jefferson, while 52% of all Democrats share this perspective.
Those respondents who self-identify as “very liberal” supported the preservation of statues to Jefferson by a margin of 47%-36%. For moderate liberals, the margin was 58%-30%. Although the Democratic Party includes radical and moderate liberals (both Black and white) who favor the removal of statues to Founders who were slave holders, its leadership, including Joe Bidden, the Party’s presidential nominee and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, opposes such measures. Pelosi remains a vocal advocate of removing statutes and memorials to Confederates on grounds of treason.
In another poll administered in July 2020, respondents were asked whether “monuments and statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should be taken down or stay up.” 46% of Black respondents favored their removal (37% were for their preservation). But clear majorities in all other demographic categories supported the status quo, including 83% of white Americans; 59% of liberals; 73% of moderates; and 86% of conservatives. 57% of registered Democrats were in favor of preservation and 90% of Republicans.
Approaching the issue from another perspective, the survey asked whether “the founders of our country are better described as villains or heroes.” 39% of Black respondents selected “villains” and 31% chose “heroes” (16% chose “It depends”). Clear majorities, but of varied strengths, in all other demographic categories chose “heroes”: 71% of white Americans; 50% of Democrats (23% “villains,” 18% “It depends”); 79% of Republicans; and 56% of Independents (15% “villains,” 21% “It depends”). By more than a 2-to-1 margin, respondents who self-identified as “liberal” chose “heroes” (50% to 23%; 19% “It depends”). Significantly, a plurality of Hispanic Americans, a rapidly growing demographic category that often endures economic struggles and social discrimination, supported the traditional Pantheon: 44% answered “heroes,” 26% responded “villains,” and 21% “It depends.” Among age groups, young Americans (under age 30) were the most critical of the Founders: 31% saw them as “villains” while 39% viewed the Founders as “heroes” (20% selected “It depends”). Only 10% of respondents over 45 years of age viewed Washington, Jefferson, and other founders as “villains.”
Any assessment of the legitimacy of the American foundation myth would likely emphasize that political elites are relatively united on the issue: the current leadership of the Democratic Party, and virtually all Republican Party leaders, do not back fundamental criticism of the Founders. As for American society, the survey data suggest that a solid majority of Americans overall remain committed to a positive image of the Founding Fathers. Despite the deep, often long-term, problems that now confront America, a robust majority of respondents in most demographic categories continue to find normative value in monuments and statues symbolizing the country’s foundation myth.
Yet the American foundation myth does not enjoy unchallenged status, particularly among minorities of color. Black Americans, who are most critical of the foundation myth, oppose the removal of statues honoring George Washington by only a narrow margin: 43% in opposition to 39% in favor. While 39% of non-whites (a group that combines Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities) see the Founders as “heroes,” 31% find them to be “villains.” That only nine percentage points separates these very different evaluations within a group that comprises approximately 30% of the US population should be a source of concern for political elites, particularly given the importance of foundation myths for the maintenance of national political identity and stability. Such concern is warranted for two other linked reasons. First, almost 20% of respondents in this group chose “It depends” as to whether the Founders were “heroes” or “villains.” This suggests that their evaluation of the American foundation myth depends in large part on whether they believe their life chances in America reflect the promise of equality and prosperity inherent in the myth. Yet the life chances of this group (“non-whites”) are very often affected – and the group increasingly disaffected – by the significant political and socio-economic problems that America will face for the foreseeable future.
This article does not reflect the views of the United States Government or the United States Military Academy