Do Confederate Monuments Need a “Fearless Girl”?

A petition is now making the rounds to keep the “Fearless Girl” monument in downtown New York City in place indefinitely. The small monument of a girl standing defiantly against the famous Wall Street charging bull has proven to be very popular. It has been interpreted in more than one way and has altered the broader meaning of the bull itself. This is something that has not sat well with the bull’s sculptor.

Should the “Fearless Girl” stay, be relocated or be removed? How, if at all, does it alter this particular commercial landscape? Finally, do the questions about this monument point the way forward or help us to think about the ongoing controversy about Confederate monuments?

A friend of mine who happens to be a very smart public historian offered the following observation in response to the above controversy:

What if, in keeping with the crowd that’s calling for adding new monuments rather than taking down the old ones, we were to add slaves to the base of the statues of Lee, Davis, or Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, just as this girl was added to the bull? Or what if there was a US Army soldier added like this girl, with bayoneted musket leveled at Lee and Davis enforcing the law and the Constitution and defiantly standing in the way of their secession and treason? How would that transform those monuments from symbols of the Lost Cause into something entirely new and different? It’s an option that we haven’t thought about. It satisfies those who say that taking them down destroys or covers up history; it preserves the monuments as part of the history of the built environment, thus satisfying the historic preservationists; and it gives the subjects of the monuments a 21st century sensibility.

I immediately thought of the recent decision in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove the Lee monument. One of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon commission was to commemorate Liberation and Freedom Day – the day that Union soldiers entered the city in March 1865. In fact, the first such celebration took place just a few weeks ago. But what if instead of removing the Lee monument a Union soldier was added to the landscape. That soldier could also be depicted as a United States Colored Troop even though they were not present. I suspect that this is something that the Friends of C-Ville Monuments could get behind.

It’s not that I oppose the removal of Confederate monuments. As I have said many times, it is ultimately up to the residents to decide. What I do believe, however, is that the right sort of addition to the landscape can have a profound impact on its meaning. I have also suggested before that Charlottesville is the right place to try something like this.

I suspect the preservationists would be satisfied. Of course, the Lost Cause crowd would be up in arms, but they would no longer be able to claim that history is being erased. If anything a bit of history that has been forgotten or ignored would be acknowledged. They would be free to ignore whatever has been added and focus their attention on Lee.

It might also render interpretive panels or wayside markers as unnecessary. I for one welcome the multiple interpretations of the “Fearless Girl.” That is what makes it so interesting. No official interpretation necessary.

It’s not that removal or relocation is necessarily wrong. In some cases it may be the only reasonable response. But what it doesn’t deal with, however, is the underlying problem of how we think about our shared history and how it continues to shape the present, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.

33 comments… add one
  • I think you have a brilliant idea! I would LOVE to see a USCT or Frederick Douglass statue near Lee in C’ville and many other such opposition and contextual statues placed in Richmond and at other monuments too. I think that would make a much better representation of fact and presentation of history too! Great idea!!

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  • I had to laugh when a female colonel friend from the Viet Nam era interpreted “Fearless Girl” for me:

    “Really? That is the best they can do? A little girl who looks like she is defying an early bedtime. How about a real woman next time. Baby steps, I guess”

    Personally, I find it intriguing how differently the bull is now portrayed once the child has been added to the arena (there have been some interesting discussions on this, but I will leave it at that)

    Since I am not personally in favour of either removing or destroying statues (except the Liberty Place Monument, which would serve best as road base), I would be open to any creativity that would bring closure to the monument issue.

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  • Very interesting idea, Kevin. Making previously omitted people visible could do much, not least to stimulate discussion.

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  • I think this is a great idea! How about a group of a US soldier and former slaves with their broken chains at their feet?

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  • I could see this working in some situations, but raises far more problems than simply disposing of the offending monuments (if that’s what the community wants). Who pays for the new monument? Who designs the new additions? Does it go through a vetting process? Counter-monuments rarely, if ever, connect with the intended purpose. There are far, far more examples of lazy waysides (and an out-of-place Arthur Ashe statue) than successfully installed fearless girls.

    This whole idea strikes me as wishful thinking for a limitless bank account.

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    • Every solution raises potential problems. New monuments (depending on what it is) costs money, but so does removal. In fact, the costs for removal are substantial as has been seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

      Counter-monuments rarely, if ever, connect with the intended purpose.

      Do you have an example in mind?

      There are far, far more examples of lazy waysides (and an out-of-place Arthur Ashe statue) than successfully installed fearless girls.

      I have been critical of waysides as solutions, but your opinion of the Ashe statue is just that. I happen to find it to be an important addition to Monument Avenue.

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  • Also, I should have remembered to note that “fearless girl” is pure marketing (as should have been mentioned by your public history friend). No matter how powerful it seems, “fearless girl” is a top-down, pro-capitalism creation by Boston-based investment firm State Street Global Advisors. Resistance to Confederate monuments has, thus far, been largely a grass-roots movement.

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    • Also, I should have remembered to note that “fearless girl” is pure marketing…

      Monuments to historical events and individuals are almost always a form of marketing. There is nothing unusual about businesses being involved in their organization and placement. I am not sure I understand this comment.

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  • I stopped reading the quote at “secession and treason.” I get so tired of angry rhetoric, from both sides. That’s such a gross oversimplification, and it reads more like Northern newspaper screed from the time instead of legitimate history. And in fairness, I feel the same way any southern sympathizer starts moaning about “the war of northern aggression” … it’s just polarizing and annoying.

    Now, I do agree with the core concept here. In Norfolk, we have a gorgeous monument to the USCT troops in Cedar Grove cemetery, hidden behind trees and a wall. It’s invisible from the street, blocked by a bus depot, Chick Fil’A and a ratty 7-Eleven. It’s sinful that such a fine monument should be hidden in the same city where Fort Monroe resides.

    I’ve never heard anyone actually propose moving it to a more prominent place, but if they did, I would be a major supporter.

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    • “Angry rhetoric”?

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      • Rhetoric, as I learned in high school, is speech intended to persuade or influence. “Secession and treason” are loaded words after all these years, and a phrase like that certainly reads as a diatribe (whether intended or not). It opens the door for a debate about whether the Confederates were traitors, which is irrelevant to the discussion of monuments. I hate loaded language because it’s so damn distracting.

        I’m surprised you haven’t already received a comment from some keyboard warrior, with a Bud in one hand and “The South was Right” in the other, listing a dozen bullet-point reasons why the south did not commit treason.

        It’s bound to happen. 😛

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        • Apart from “The South Was Right Crowd” how is the claim that Robert E. Lee committed treason controversial in 2017? For many it is not “irrelevant” but central to the discussion.

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          • Not to butt in on your conversation, but the claim that Lee and other Confederate leaders committed treason is indeed still controversial in 2017. Maybe not in the academic circles where you travel, but certainly in the larger community.

            Most people do not use the term ‘treason’ in its legal sense (there can be no doubt Lee committed treason in a strictly legal construction) but more as a perjorative to denote dishonor or nefarious intent. There are many million of Americans, including some in the academy, who will stoutly deny that Lee ever did anything dishonorable or with bad motives.

            Of course, I may be influenced by the fact that I was once a student at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., where Lee is treated as a saint, of sorts.

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            • Maybe not in the academic circles where you travel…

              I don’t know what this means. I am not a professor.

            • Quote:Most people do not use the term ‘treason’ in its legal sense (there can be no doubt Lee committed treason in a strictly legal construction) but more as a perjorative to denote dishonor or nefarious intent
              ————————————————
              I would be inclined to say that “most people” have probably not read the Constitution in depth, nor do they realize that the actions of the CSA fit the act of Treason as defined in Article III.
              —————————————————–
              Quote: There are many million of Americans, including some in the academy, who will stoutly deny that Lee ever did anything dishonorable or with bad motives.
              —————————————————–
              No doubt, but public opinion is not the metric by which we measure facts.

            • “There are many million of Americans, including some in the academy, who will stoutly deny that Lee ever did anything dishonorable or with bad motives.”

              How many of those Americans proudly own something adorned with the CBF?

              Lee’s motives in siding with Virginia and the Confederacy over the Union may have been well intended and not usual for their time period, but they were still wrong.

    • “Secession and treason” is not angry rhetoric, it’s the shoe fitting.

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      • It is strange the people don’t see the actions of the Confederates as treason. It meets the definition of treason as it was and still is stated in the US Constitution. It was treason, pure and simple.

        The causation of the Civil War has been explained multiple times over the years. It was explained as it took place by the very people who were alive in that time period. It’s pretty odd how some people can ignore the facts in order to support their beliefs.

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        • “It’s pretty odd how some people can ignore the facts in order to support their beliefs.”

          Can something so commonplace be considered odd? Illogical perhaps.

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        • It’s an emotional reaction, really. Truth hurts. No one wants to see their country criticized even when (ESPECIALLY when) it’s true. Even if it’s just the ghost of a country that hasn’t existed for 150 years …. it’s emotion, not logic. For whatever reason, Southerners have a certain tendency to react emotionally in the heat of the moment.

          On a side note, I think one of the biggest differences between the Revolutionary Patriots and the Confederates is that the Patriots were fully aware of their treason and didn’t try to legally justify it: “we must hang together or we shall hang separately.”

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          • Not to mention that the Patriots were committing treason against an empire, rather than against their own country.

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  • Quote “I stopped reading the quote at “secession and treason.” I get so tired of angry rhetoric, from both sides. That’s such a gross oversimplification, and it reads more like Northern newspaper screed from the time instead of legitimate history.”
    ———————————————————————————————————-

    *scratching head* I guess that I have bumped up against the limitations of the one-dimensional nature of the printed word. I read the quote as someone musing in a matter-of-fact tone inspired by creative supposition. Perhaps it was the mere mention of *gasp* “secession & treason” — pretty straight-forward content — (Treason as defined by actions and Article III of the Constitution). that provokes anger in select readers? *Shrug* I like that this public historian is thinking outside the box. I find it refreshing. I have not met this person, but I have a feeling that I would like him/her 🙂

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    • I think it’s only fair to give Lee the benefit of the doubt. I agree that Lee’s actions meet the modern* constitutional description of treason, but that was not how he personally viewed the matter. He made his perspective clear in a testimony to Congress:

      “I think it is very probable that [a Virginia jury] would not consider that [Jefferson Davis] had committed treason. So far as I know, they look upon the action of the State, in withdrawing itself from the government of the United States, as carrying the individuals of the State along with it; that the State was responsible for the act, not the individual.”

      “That was my view, that the act of Virginia in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her law and her acts were binding on me.” — Robert E. Lee, February 17, 1866, in Washington, D.C

      *I specify “modern” because the matter of secession had not been settled by the Supreme Court when the Confederacy seceded. The final ruling wouldn’t come until 1869. Before that, many people believed secession was legal under the Tenth Amendment.

      I view Lee’s “treason” as a matter of personal interpretation, and I take an ambivalent stance on the matter.

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      • I will never understand the contortions to get to Lee and the Confederate Army not being traitors. It just does not make practical sense. Even allowing for secession being somehow legally defensible ’cause they said so’, making war was making war, even then. I believe that answer like I believe he had heard no one speak on several subjects when they inquired. Honorable man indeed!

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      • The assumption about secession being thought legal prior to 1860 is incorrect. It was known to be unconstitutional from the very beginning. It was brought up at the ratification debates, specifically by Patrick Henry in Virginia that once a state joined the nation under the Constitution that they could now leave. He was not the only one to state this.

        Fast Forward to 1799 with the Virginia and Kentucky resolves. Secession was flat out rejected by the other states. Using military force was mentioned by other states.

        Skip to the Essex Junto a few years later. Alexander Hamilton attacked the members of the Junto who brought up secession. He rejected it on the grounds of being unconstitutional.

        Jump to the Nullification Crisis. The issue was there. The outcome was pretty final.

        The only ones who thought it was legal in 1861 were the ones who were upset about losing control of the nation along with the many people they lied to about it being legal. Fortunately, more people opposed the treason of the slave owners and the Union was preserved.

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      • The Constitution is very direct in its definition of treason: The constitution of the United States, art. 3, s. 3, defines treason against the United States to consist only in levying war (q.v.) against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort.

        Did Lee contribute to 1. levying war against the US? 2. adhering to their enemies? 3. giving them aid or comfort?

        “Yes” to any or all of the above gets you treason — no interpretation required.

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        • @Jimmy Dick: words. words. words. You’ve only proven that secession was hotly debated over the years. That actually proves my point — that the legality of secession was still legally questionable before the Civil War.

          Was there a line in the Constitution forbidding secession? Nope. Was there an amendment forbidding it? Nope. Was there a Supreme Court Ruling forbidding it? Not until 1869. This is a fact.

          @Shoshanna: That’s a very harsh, legalistic interpretation. On paper it sounds fine, but it’s much murkier when applied to individual people. What do you think a person should do when their state secedes? Which country do they owe loyalty to? It’s a tricky call. Both countries were called “America” and each viewed their government as the true continuation of the Founding Father’s vision.

          I’m not defending the Confederacy. Slavery was abominable and I’m not going to defend that. Rather, I’m arguing for a less-judgmental, morally gray interpretation of the individual men like Lee: an interpretation that doesn’t jump to demonize men caught in a sticky situation.

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          • Words that were facts, facts, facts. People can leave the nation any time they want to leave. They could back then as well. States on the other hand could not.

            It was only questionable because the slave owners kept demanding secession and worked pretty hard to make the concept acceptable. They were wrong. What they wanted was wrong. The Supreme Court had ruled that the Constitution was not a compact several times. The slave owners rejected the facts. They insisted on their version. That version got over 700,000 people killed and changed the course of the US.

            You can make your claim, but the facts are that the people knew in 1788 that secession was not permitted under the Constitution. The facts are that the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were rejected by the people in 1798. Stating the opposite over and over again like a child demanding to get their way is all the slave owners were doing.

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          • Quote: @Shoshanna: That’s a very harsh, legalistic interpretation. On paper it sounds fine, but it’s much murkier when applied to individual people. What do you think a person should do when their state secedes? Which country do they owe loyalty to?
            ———————————————————

            I have often said that I was born jaded, with narrow, suspicious eyes to cast upon the world 🙂

            I have always admired George Henry Thomas for the decision he made.

            I aim to demonize no one. I try not to let emotion interfere with my judgment when I analyze/research.

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  • I think it’s important to remember that the bull and the girl are purely artistic statues. They are at best symbolic of an idea. They do not refer to any particular animal, person, or event. Capitalism is not a person.

    A statue of Lincoln, Davis, or Lee may be rendered artistically, but is ultimately a statue of a real person who had real beliefs, uttered and wrote real statements, and committed real actions.

    Likewise, a monument to Confederate veterans, even if it depicts a generic soldier or even includes no depiction of people, is honoring real soldiers who fought a real war.

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    • I think it’s important to remember that the bull and the girl are purely artistic statues.

      I don’t think even the sculptor for both pieces would agree with this assessment.

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      • I think this comment is trying to say that the bull and girl represent concepts rather than people: for example. the Liberty Bell represents a concept while a statue of George Washington represents a man.

        This is somewhat flawed thinking, however. Figures like Washington and Lee become heavily mythologized and their visage takes on a symbolic meaning separate from the flesh-and-blood man.

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  • I became the very thing I complained about. By getting hung up on the word “treason,” I completely derailed the conversation away from monuments. >_<

    At the risk of increasing my hypocrisy, I respectfully refrain from further remarks on the subject.

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