Perched above the Mississippi near the elegant mansions of Summit Ave in St. Paul stands a statue commemorating the Revolutionary War figure Nathan Hale. A 1907 inscription provides Hale’s famous last words about having “but one life to lose for my country.” The statue is tidy, surrounded by flowers and hedges, but last Sunday afternoon visitors to the park focused on yoga, dog-walking and napping in the sun, not Hale. Volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution maintain the statue, but during my visit it attracted little notice, and a few of the neighbors that I chatted with did not even know who or what it was. Nathan Hale enjoys a monument, but is largely ignored.
The same day, almost 4,000 miles away, another statue of another subject of the 18th-century British Empire was not so neglected. In the English city of Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston, who made an enormous fortune investing in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was dumped into the harbor by protesters. At his death in 1721, Colston bequeathed over 70,000 pounds to Bristol at a time when 10 pounds was an annual living wage. He had long been celebrated for such philanthropy, but in recent years the violent basis of his wealth attracted new attention. In 2018, Bristol’s member of Parliament said “having statues of people who oppressed us is not a good thing.” Removing his statue, she added, was “an opportunity for us as a city to talk about that history.”
The vigorous public conversation about Colston (whose statue is removed), and the lack of current interest in Hale (whose statue stands) suggests a gap between public monuments and historical memory. As protesters and public officials remove statues and memorials to conquerors, oppressors, enslavers and murderers, people like King Leopold II of Belgium, Cecil Rhodes, Robert E. Lee and, perhaps above all, Christopher Columbus, it is sometimes complained that such acts erase history. Vice President Mike Pence made exactly that argument in 2017 as he explained why he opposed removing statues of Confederate leaders.
But historians almost universally reject such arguments. This is because we know that knowledge of the past comes from the archive, documents and objects preserved in libraries or museums. We scour these records in order to produce scholarship for experts, in the form of academic books and peer-reviewed articles, and for the public, in the form of podcasts, blogs and op-eds. We teach what we’ve learned to students, whose questions prompt us to return to the archive and revise what we know.
None of this requires statues. Indeed, the process of removing monuments and renaming streets, squares and even cities themselves has always resulted from remembering the past. For Minnesotans, such history should raise the possibility that we, too, can rename our spaces and remove our monuments if they no longer reflect who we want to be. This can be a process of thinking through our own past, asking new questions and searching for new stories. How many of us, if we’re honest, know much about who Hennepin was, or Ramsey, or Scott, or Carver? Do we admire them? Was there much discussion of John C. Calhoun’s vile politics before the campaign to rename the lake as Bde Maka Ska? Does flying through MSP make us contemplate Lindbergh’s sympathy for fascism? Probably not. But when AIM activists demand real scrutiny of Columbus’ life and legacy, or when local students decide that their schools can be named for people better than Alexander Ramsey or Patrick Henry, this is not erasing history, but rather facing up to it with honesty and bravery.
William M. Cavert is an associate professor of history at the University of St. Thomas.