Monuments and history have recently captured the nation’s consciousness anew. A debate is raging regarding statues and other monuments — how, or if, they should be displayed and their impact on our understanding of history.
History is a collection of facts and an interpretation of facts. We must accept that over time facts don’t change but how we interpret them does.
Some suggest that the Civil War was not fought over slavery — that the war was motivated by economics and states’ rights. Those may have been factors, but make no mistake: The war was about slavery and those who tried to break apart our country were traitors.
In the years after the Civil War it became impossible to justify fighting a war to preserve the enslavement of people. So a myth was built. The war was about states’ rights and the conflict became the “Lost Cause.” Confederate leaders were heroes whose only sin was trying to preserve a way of life.
Around 1900, statues and monuments to these men were erected across the South. More recently the demand has grown to remove them and they are literally toppling throughout that region. But nearly 1,000 remain.
All people have flaws. Time and context play important roles in how we interpret history.
I will not defend the unlawful removal of Confederate statues or even that of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds. Such decisions should be weighed by governmental entities, public forums and through other prescribed avenues to study the history, value and objections concerning art and monuments. The decision should not be left to the violent impulses of mobs.
In Minnesota, as in other places, we have a process for evaluating monuments and artworks on our Capitol grounds. The Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, chaired by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, has auspices over monuments and should have been consulted.
To those suggesting that the process is too slow or doesn’t work, let me point out that it does work. I served on the Capitol Restoration Commission and the subcommittee on Capitol art. After studying various pieces of art, we moved two paintings off the Capitol complex and moved two others out of the governor’s reception room.
Some misguided legislators have recently attacked President Abraham Lincoln. We have been urged to remove his painting from behind the speaker’s rostrum in the House of Representatives chamber because of how he dealt with Dakota Indian people.
In 1862, following the U.S. Dakota War, Minnesota was rife with hatred for most Dakota people, and 303 were sentenced to be hanged. Minnesota officials demanded that the sentence be carried out. They wanted Lincoln to authorize it and sent him the list.
Lincoln appointed two lawyers to examine the records and to isolate those who could be proved to have committed egregious depredations. The list was pared to 38. Based on the evidence provided, Lincoln believed he was doing the right thing. But mistakes were made and some innocents were hanged.
In 1864, Lincoln won Minnesota in his successful re-election bid — but with fewer votes than he’d received here in 1860. He was told, “You would have won by more if you hanged more Indians.”
Lincoln replied, “I won’t hang men for votes.”
This is a complicated debate. Destroying a statue doesn’t erase history, but it may diminish our ability to learn from it. Moving artwork whose meaning to us has changed is a better option and we have processes in place to do that.
Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, is a member of the Minnesota House. He was a teacher of U.S. History at New London-Spicer schools for 35 years and has authored seven books on the U.S. Dakota War and Civil War.