When I was a child I became enamored of coins. I had inherited from my father a few large U.S. one cent copper coins dated from the early 1800s. In those days money was made from copper, silver, and gold. These early coins were beautiful objects. The interesting thing and what is pertinent here is that they were decorated with images of “Liberty”, a female head of various styles, or later, a seated Ms. Liberty. Somewhere on the coin was the word “liberty”. The point being that from 1796 to 1909, there were no presidents on our coins. In 1909 the new copper penny bore the image of Abraham Lincoln which is still with us today. We are now following the examples set by Roman emperors and other despots and rulers who wanted their subjects to know who was in charge.
Paper money’s history is a little different since private banks issued paper currency. You would see historical scenes, portraits of bank presidents, and American presidents and other historical figures. The Treasury and later the Federal Reserve issued currencies backed by gold and silver. Most of these notes were decorated with presidents, historical figures, or treasury secretaries. Until 1964 our current bills were known as silver certificate and were redeemable in silver. Today they are backed by nothing. Our current paper dollars are decorated by presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jackson, Grant, and Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Washington, Jackson, and Grant owned slaves.
Presidents Washington (25¢) and Jefferson (5¢) are the only slave owners on our coins. But we also have Franklin Roosevelt, the guy who tried to impose top-down fascist-style economic regulations in America, is on the dime.
And then there are statues.
There are statues all over the place, public and private. There are presidents, generals, politicians, scientists, educators, explorers, sports heroes, saints, angels, Mary, Jesus, war memorials, native Americans. You name it, there is a statue somewhere for it. Though I don’t know of any statues to economists here in the U.S., except perhaps one of Milton Friedman.
Let’s keep the discussion to statues of historical figures owned and maintained by local, state, and federal governments, since, after all, they are supported by our tax dollars.
Many statues were erected for political purposes. Whichever party or group is in power wants to promote their interests and ideas and whomever they believe represents those ideas deserves a statue as a public reminder of those ideas. In other words, it is a form of propaganda. That’s why you saw statues of Lenin and Marx all over the Communist empire. Roman emperors did the same. That’s also why you see statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes all over the South.
Most of these statues of Confederate heroes were erected after the Civil War when Segregationists who controlled the Jim Crow South wanted to celebrate what is now known politely as “southern heritage”. Confederate statues are offensive to African-Americans who, rightfully, see them as defenders of slavery. Especially galling is that most of them are on public property and are maintained by tax dollars.
Washington, D.C., otherwise known as Imperial City, is full of statues. Many of them are of wonderful, brave, admirable people. Many not. Washington is the political and administrative seat of the all-powerful federal government. And they let you know it: massive monuments to presidents, generals, Founders, various politicians, and historical figures. Many of them were erected at the behest of private interests who paid for them. Many are beautiful and awe inspiring, making you remember and contemplate the great man (few women).
It is not that I am anti-Jefferson or Washington, or others for whom monuments were erected. I admire Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Benjamin Franklin. It is important to note that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, but that’s not the essence of who they were. On the other hand, Robert E. Lee’s sole role in history was to protect the Confederacy and slavery.
I say get rid of all of them.
Yes, I am against statues. If you wish to erect a statue of some dead politician, go right ahead, but do it with your own dollar on your own property. Don’t make me pay for your ideology. Don’t force me to worship your idol, which is what statues are all about. It goes without saying that I shouldn’t be able to force you to pay for mine.
These statues are not public art. They are for the aggrandizement of the political ideas for which the person stood. Or, more cynically, for the promotion of the objectives of the interest group who lobbied for the statue. This applies to most statues in America’s cities. Politicians at all levels of government love statues for a variety of reasons: politics, tourism, a sign of progress, or what they feel is beautification.
Understand that most of our cities are relatively new, at least as compared to Europe and Asia. And the farther West you go, the newer they are. European capitals are filled with public statues as well as public art. This probably created some envy among Midwesterners who thought their cities ought to follow the European path. But that was a mistake.
America is different. We were not founded by kings or other despots. They don’t call it the Old World for nothing. We were founded by philosophers who fought off the most powerful force in the world at that time: Great Britain. We are, as de Tocqueville said, “exceptional”.
There is a reason we adorned our coinage with the head of Ms. Liberty for about 130 years. The point of America is individual liberty and our Founders and certainly the designers of our money understood that. That, and the nature of our founding, is the basis of our exceptionalism.
So, here is my proposal. Get dead presidents and other guys off our money and replace them with images of Ms. Liberty or Mr. Liberty. Don’t do what the rest of the world does; celebrate liberty instead.
As to the statues, start in the South and auction off all the statues of Confederate heroes. If those advocates of Southern heritage wish to idolize them, let them buy them and put them up on private property. In other words, put up the money or shut up.
We aren’t Rome, we aren’t Europe, we don’t need idolize dead politicians and generals.