Lamar Alexander on Statues

A few years ago I started considering fiction, non-fiction, speeches, movies in subjective terms: some made me simply “happy”; some didn’t. This is probably a function of sentimental aging; maybe I let my guard down to accept the hokey. But cynicism tops everything when we are rebels without a cause and perhaps I finally left that behind. Certainly, it is more difficult for me to appreciate a Bergman movie than in the sixties.

Of course happiness is part identification – in being an American (or Texan or Nebraskan or woman). But it also comes from a telling religious narrative. Warmth came from narratives or axioms or theories or gestures that seemed quintessentially human. We are aware of our broken nature – all of our broken natures – but we see an action prompted by our better angels – heroism, love, loyalty, generosity, nobility, strength. We are moved by the sailor at the gate at Corpus Christi, the generosity of music sung to the elderly during covid quarantines. Plenty of works seem inspired by our worse angels – cynical, bitter, moving into nihilism: paintings from the the thirties in Germany, harsh preachy modern art simmering with “Gramscian” arguments. In short, the ugly: graffiti on a statue, violent destruction of the great Shaw statue, the ignorance of the mob. But yesterday, I turned on the tv and paused at Lamar Alexander in mid-argument on the removing of statues.

I felt, well, happy & filled by the richness of human nature he described. I wonder about his effect. The objective, thoughtful rational comments, which make this blog so attractive, might be a bit subjective here. What does this and other moments in the last few weeks make you feel? Does he disgust you or do you feel warmth from it? What do our feelings mean? Some of the best lit crit begins with the feeling of the reader and then bores down on it, trying to analyze what prompted the feeling, what the feeling meant in a broader and deeper way than just one person’s response.

Thanks to Grurray, a link comes in below. I had found the transcrit and it lies below the fold; a border state statesman’s statement.

From CPspan 2:

Thank you, Madam President. Madam president, the late historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said this, that self-righteousness in retrospect is easy and cheap. The late Samuel Huntington, who was a professor at Harvard of United States history and politics, wrote in effect that most of our politics is about setting great goals for ourselves – we, the American people – and then the struggle we have with the disappointment we feel when we don’t reach those high goals, like all men are created equal. Ben Hooks, who was from Memphis, and a well-known citizen of our state and a good friend, and once president of the NAACP, used to tell his students at the University of Memphis, remember that our country, America, is a work in progress. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. It’s in light of those three comments that I would like to discuss the effort that some people made last night to tear down president Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House.

Now, Madam President, I believe it’s always appropriate to review the monuments and the places that we name to see if there is a more appropriate name in the context of today’s times. For example, in this capitol, every state has two statues. From Tennessee, it’s Andrew Jackson and John Sevier. Senator Blunt, who is chairman of our rules committee, tells us that at any given time, some of those statues are in rotation because the state of Mississippi or Tennessee or Oregon or some state may have decided instead of those two individuals, we’d like to send up another statue. We would like in the context of today’s times to name somebody else and as we think about statues that are already named for generals in the confederacy or the union, a war that was fought a long time ago, it’s appropriate, I think, to keep in mind we have had a lot of wars since then. Two world wars, Korea, Vietnam: we have had a lot of very distinguished generals. We have had courageous Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Maybe in the context of today’s times, there is a place for a Camp MacArthur or Camp Eisenhower or Ivan C. York, Congressional Medal of Honor winner from Tennessee. It’s always appropriate to review the places that are named and the documents we put up to see if there should be a better name or a better place for a monument in the context of today’s times.

But what about Andrew Jackson? Whose statue is one that the state of Tennessee has sent here, whose statue is on a horse is outside of the White House in Lafayette Square. The similar statue is in Jackson Square in New Orleans. What about Andrew Jackson? Well, let’s make the case for Andrew Jackson. Presidential historians, almost without exception, put him in the top ten of America’s presidents. They see him as a sophisticated, often subtle political actor that he really was. What they realize and unfortunately what only dedicated students of the American presidency often realize is that Jackson was arguably the most important American president between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln because much like Lincoln, he preserved the union. If not for Jackson’s devotion to the union against his own local political interests, the union might well have fallen apart in 1832 or 1833. Jackson risked everything to keep our union together instead of siding with South Carolina’s United States Senator John Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification. When a serious constitutional crisis arose, when South Carolina decided, following Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification, that it could decide which federal laws it would follow, it was Jackson who stood up and said our federal union must be preserved. And Jackson who had the political will and the skill to make sure it was preserved. Jackson’s decision as president gave us an additional three decades to form what Lincoln eventually called the mystic cords of memory in his first inaugural address. Surely that is worth recognition.

Andrew Jackson was our first non-aristocratic president. When he was born in 1767, it was not possible — possible or plausible – that the young boy, orphaned at 14, could some day rise in an emerging republic. He wasn’t born rich; he wasn’t born to privilege. He fought for everything he had and he rose to our government’s highest office through the sheer force of personality and political courage. That is the case for Andrew Jackson. Now, let us also recognize that Andrew Jackson was not perfect. In fact, he was at the center of the two original sins of this country, slavery and the treatment of native Americans. But if we’re looking for perfection, we’re not likely to find it in American history or the history of almost any country or in human nature.

The historian John Meacham who won a Pulitzer prize of Jackson and wrote a biography of Jefferson, said when he wrote all men are created equal, he was most certainly writing about all white men – those were the context for the times of Jefferson. What do we do about Jefferson if he was writing all white men are created equal in the context of those times? What do we do about Jefferson who the only slaves that he freed, apparently, were those that he fathered with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings? What do we do about George Washington and Mount Vernon and the slaves that he owned? What do we do about Abraham Lincoln who some say was slow to act on emancipation? What about Franklin D. Roosevelt and his internment of American citizens who were Japanese in camps during World War II, or more recently, what do we do about Bill Clinton who signed the defense of marriage act which would not be in the context of today’s times if two recent Supreme Court decisions are to be followed, as they will be.

Or let’s not just pick on our presidents. What are we going to do about the Congress, the senators, the members of the house? They approved the trail of tears, Andrew Jackson’s removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma and they approved the laws requiring segregation, the congress did. And what about the people who elected congress? They approved those members of Congress who approved of segregation, who approved of internment of Japanese in camps. What are we going to do about us, the people of the United States? Do we pretend we didn’t exist when we made decisions that we wouldn’t approve today? Some of which would be abhorrent today.

Do we burn down the monuments, burn down Mount Vernon, the Jefferson Memorial, Hyde Park. Do we erase all of that from our history? That’s not what we should do. We should not try to erase our history. We should not pretend it doesn’t exist. We shouldn’t ignore our history. Here’s what I think we should do. Number one, as I said earlier, recognize that it’s always appropriate to review the places that we have named or the monuments that we put up, just like the monuments the states send here, to see if there’s a more appropriate monument or name place that is appropriate in the context of today’s times. Remember, as Ben Hook said, America is a work in progress. It’s always changing and our monuments and the places that we name can change with that. That’s an appropriate, healthy exercise to go through.

That’s number one. But number two, Madam President, with the history that includes things we today abhor, we should try to learn from those things and build a better future. And let me give an example. Each year I bring on to the floor of the Senate teachers of American history who have been selected to attend Academy for Teachers of American history that I helped to create when I first came to senate. I thought it was important to learn American history so children could grow up knowing what it means to be an American. When they come to the floor, they look for the various desks because the desks of the Senate are what best describes it. They’ll go to find Daniel Webster’s desk, which is still there. They’ll go back to there and find the desk that the three Kennedy brothers used, where they sit. The ones from Tennessee would come here because Howard Baker had my desk and so did Fred Thomas. They are interested in the desk of Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer because they are the leaders and they go to Jefferson Davis’ desk. Jefferson Davis was a United States senator who had a great deal with the building of this capitol. But he, like many other United States Senators from the South, resigned from the Senate and joined the Confederate Army. Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy. When I take them to Jefferson Davis’ desk, these teachers of American history, this is what I tell them. That there is on that desk what looks like a chop mark. The story that is told is it was created by a Union soldier who came into this chamber when the Union soldiers occupied Washington, D.C., and began to destroy the desk of the man who was the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, until he was stopped by his commanding officer who told him, stop that, we’re here to save the union, not to destroy it.

What do we do with Jefferson Davis’ desk? I say keep it there. I say to learn from it. To learn from the fact that there was a civil war, that there was a Confederacy, that senators left this body, that Union soldiers were here and one wanted to chop it up and his commanding officer said let’s build a better future. Stop that. We’re not here to destroy the union, but to save it. There are lessons in American history, there are lessons we should learn. The lesson of Ben Hooks, we’re a work in progress, we’ve come a long way, we have a long way to go. The lesson of Samuel Huntington that most of our politics is about setting high goals for ourselves, all men are created equal. And then dealing with the disappointments — struggling with the disappointments of not reaching those goals, deciding what to do about it.

Do we dishonor Andrew Jackson’s effort to keep our country together between Jefferson and Lincoln? Do we dishonor Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence? Do we dishonor George Washington’s probity and character or F.D.R.’S grand leadership during World War II all because they weren’t perfect, all because they did things and lived things and said things that today we wouldn’t say? I think not. Doing any of this would be a terrible misunderstanding of American history and of human nature. It would be ahistorical. In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the better angels of our nature. If there will better angels of our nature, I guess that means there must be worse angels in us as well. Not just in Washington and Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt and great men or great women, but in all of us. They are the better angels; they are the worst angels. And in this country, our goal is to bring out the best in us, which does not mean ignore the worst. We need to be honest about our weaknesses. We need to be proud of our strengths. We need to learn from both to create a better future for the United States of America. I yield the floor. I suggest the absence of a quorum.

10 thoughts on “Lamar Alexander on Statues”

  1. We could do a lot worse than Senator Alexander. We have done a lot worse.

    I have admired him from afar for many years.

  2. the people in the streets throwing rocks and tearing down statues are most certainly NOT showing us our better angels …

  3. Thanks Grurray and Renminbi; I think it was Foster who linked to Hoyt’s Sterile. Whoever did, I’m thankful. She’d good and right: – that is the difference between what is warming and what is chilling: productivity, fertility, growth, creation, beauty. And certainly destruction is sad because it is loss, as well as ugly and chilling.

  4. Senator Alexander is wrong about one very important point which delutes his point that history should be understood in context. This point is that history is not substitutable. It is additive. We can add monuments celebrating modern efforts and leadership without removing those of the past. They still remind us where we came from. To remove history in context because it is not presently “trending” is ignorant.

    We have plenty of space to add without removing. Once we get into the removing business, by mob action or governmental deliberation, we are into censorship by public opinion. In the case of the capitol building state statues, space is limited so rotation is appropriate. Rotation does not imply eliminating/permanent replacement.

    I personally dislike the Viet Nam memorial. To me it symbolized a massive black grave marker. It speaks nothing to me about the heroism of the warriors who served, were wounded, went missing and died there trying to save foreigners from marxist oppression. That memorial diminishes what they sacrificed there. My feelings for them do not give me any right to deface, remove or replace it. I do understand why it is what it is. I would vigorously oppose its removal. Same for the bedraggled, hollow eyed statutes of American soldiers of the Korean War memorial.


  5. I agree about the Vietnam memorial and I understand the architect who designed it was opposed to the subsequent statue memorial.

    I don’t understand why these Confederate statues are not put in a park. I guess the symbolism of toppling them is the point. Columbus is just ignorance. The idiots attacking those statues could not navigate to the men’s room. I understand many of them were erected by Italians but his accomplishments are massive.

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