Monuments for “Good Guys”: Rethinking History

By Brian Ward

Across the United States, toppled monuments are forcing people to grapple with the country’s history, a bloody history that the nation as a whole has never properly addressed. A new consideration of this history would force us to rethink American wealth and power. Stolen Indigenous land and stolen African labor created the country’s wealth, but Indigenous people and African-Americans have never been allowed to share in that wealth. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed people to confront some of this history and the white power structure behind it. It has been inspiring to see the removal of statues of Confederate generals and other slave owners, and the act of removing Confederate statues is easy to defend to mainstream liberals. These figures are clearly racist, and the depicted traitors are the conventional “bad guys.”

However, the recent toppling of the “Forward” statue and Colonel Hans Christian Heg in Madison and the President Ulysses S. Grant statue in San Francisco is now pushing us to also rethink the “good ones,” past figures that mainstream liberals view as Civil War heroes, including Abraham Lincoln, whose Bascom Hill monument is also a rumored target.

Where are the statues of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass?

When people frame these figures as the heroes, they remove the agency of the abolitionist movement and the formerly enslaved people that liberated themselves and forced people like Lincoln and Grant to turn the Civil War into a movement for Black Liberation. Where are the statues of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass? Also, the Civil War binary of “our heros and their heroes” continues the erasure of Indigenous people from history and lets people like Grant and Lincoln off the hook for their racism and role in the expansion of settler-colonialism and the invasion of Indigenous Nations. 

With this in mind, we can begin to truly examine the historical significance of Madison’s “Forward” statue that was torn down by protestors on June 23. “Forward” became Wisconsin’s state motto in the midst of the United States’ expansion and settler-colonialism in 1851. At that time, Wisconsin had been the frontier for colonizers in the decades that followed the American Revolutionary War and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance that set up the qualifications for statehood. In short, settlers needed to outnumber the Indigenous population in an area to gain statehood, which led to an influx of settlers and forced removal of Indigenous people. The original seal of the Wisconsin Territory in 1836 contains a Latin slogan that translates into “Civilization Succeeds Barbarism” along with images of Indigenous people moving west and American moving in behind them with machinery. 

By the time that “Forward” became the state motto, the Taylor Administration was attempting to forcibly remove the Ojibwe from northern Wisconsin into Minnesota Territory, following the forced removal of other Indigenous Nations from Wisconsin like the Ho-Chunk. The removal led to the Sandy Lake Tragedy, in which the U.S. government left 400 Ojibwe for dead without promised food and supplies. After the tragedy, increased resistance to removal pressured the government to create reservations in northern Wisconsin. Despite the U.S. government’s best effort, 12 Indigenous Nations remain in the state.

The original “Forward” statue itself was later created for the Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, a known slaver and a symbol of brutal colonialism for many across the country. 

As a result, the term “Forward,” which has been adopted by many Wisconsin progressives, falls in line with the idea that this settler-colonialism was progress and that the White man brought civilization. African-Americans, Indigenous people and other people of color were never included in the “Forward” idea. 

Madison’s Hans Christian Heg statue was also brought down by protestors on June 23, which caused some to become upset on account of Heg’s anti-slavery activism. The statue, which was unveiled in 1926 after Norwegian-Americans raised money to have it commissioned, bore no mention of Heg’s anti-slavery views or his work in the Free Soil Movement or Republican Party. Instead, it focused on his Norwegian heritage and time fighting in the Civil War. 

Additionally, Heg was a settler who participated (though was not instrumental) in the 1849-1851 California gold rush that displaced Indigenous people and started a genocidal policy against Indigenous people in California. The statue, in turn, does not appear to celebrate Heg’s anti-slavery views, but rather Norwegian pride. I think that if Heg were around today, he would care more about the way African-Americans are treated than a statue.

Similarly, protesters in San Francisco also removed a statue of President Ulysses S. Grant, who was the leading general credited with winning the Civil War. Grant actually owned one slave prior to the Civil War, and his wife reportedly owned slaves through her family. To be fair, Grant did fight the Klan in the American South and was the last President to oversee reconstruction before it ended in 1877.

However, Grant’s administration also oversaw an illegal war against the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, breaking the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and his administration stole the Black Hills, a sacred Lakota site, from the Indigenous people there, because it was filled with gold. The expedition against the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho was led by General George Armstrong Custer, another Civil War hero, and soldiers attempted to round Indigenous people up for refusing to go to reservations designated to their Nation. The campaign culminated in the U.S.’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1876. Afterward, however, Indigenous people on the plains were nevertheless rounded up and forced onto reservations.

Even Lincoln, who is perched up on Madison’s Bascom Hill, who is well known as “the man who freed the slaves,” faces scrutiny for his role in American colonialism and the enslavement of Africans. In August 1862 Lincoln did, after all, state that his purpose was to save the union, even if that meant not ending slavery. This quote is often used to point out Lincoln’s shortcomings, and we must recognize that he was forced to change his tone because of the abolitionist movement and the courageous fighting of formerly enslaved people on the frontlines of the war. 

Lincoln was foundational in the new Republican Party, a third party at the time of its creation, and the Free Soil Movement, which was a movement of settlers who wanted land out west at the expense of Indigenous people and Nations. Lincoln made sure to follow up on the movement and help pass policies that dramatically attacked Indigenous Nations and expanded the U.S. settler-colonial state. 

For example, the Homestead Act  enabled any man to claim 160 acres of surveyed government land (Indigenous land) and buy it for a small fee after five years, which facilitated the expansion of states. Additionally, the Pacific Railway Act started the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which became the epicenter for conflicts between U.S. government-backed settlers and Indigenous people for the next 30 years. 

Lincoln’s Morrill Act gave Indigenous lands to land-grant Universities for cheap. In Madison, that meant that Ho-Chunk land was given to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which still benefits from that stolen land today. This act is the reason why Lincoln has sat on top of Bascom Hill since 1909.

A greater understanding of American figures . . . forces us to rethink the contradictions of this country and what we are taught from day one. As the rapper Immortal Technique says, “How could this be/the land of the free/home of the brave?/Indigenous holocaust/and the home of the slaves.”

To top that all off, Lincoln oversaw the largest mass execution in U.S. history after the Dakota people fought against the expansion of settlements in what is today Mankato, Minnesota. He approved the public hanging of 38 Dakota people on December 26, 1862. 

Holding a greater understanding of American figures is important not because it allows us to bad mouth these leaders, but because it forces us to rethink the contradictions of this country and what we are taught from day one. As the rapper Immortal Technique says, “How could this be/the land of the free/home of the brave?/Indigenous holocaust/and the home of the slaves.”

Statues have always carried political agendas. Confederate monuments, for example, were erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s to create a resurgence of Confederate revisionism. Yes, it would be nice to have statues of abolitionists and other freedom fighters, but people across this country need more than statues. We need to challenge a system that has built its wealth on bloody history. 

Some people may still feel uncomfortable with the recent move to tear down statues of figures like Heg and Grant, the long-held idols of this country, but they are just that – statues, and we can still discuss these figures and learn about this country’s past. We are in a challenging moment, and popular ideas are quickly changing. Let’s take time, then, to amplify the voices of the oppressed and to know that Black and Indigenous lives are more important than these mere images of past figures.

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