How Removing Public Monuments Works

By: Dave Roos

What Public Monuments Represent

Lincoln Memorial
Visitors are dwarfed by the 189.7-foot (57.8-meter) high Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument, on which construction began in 1915, was built to resemble a Greek temple and to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln's towering legacy. EMILIE SOMMER/AFP/Getty Images

Public monuments don't emerge out of thin air. They are the products of collective human efforts — often expensive and time-consuming — to honor a person, a group of people or a historical event. Throughout history, public monuments have been erected by ruthless dictators, private historical societies, wealthy philanthropists and city park planners. In each case, the monuments were erected with specific intentions and designed to convey a clear message to all who see them.

At some levels, all public monuments are statements of power. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs erected pyramids and obelisks as permanent symbols of their immense power and eternal influence. In communist regimes, colossal statues of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung are towering reminders of the central government's unquestionable authority.


But you can also argue that public monuments to dedicated to women, civil rights leaders, victims of genocide and martyrs to valiant causes are also statements of power. By acknowledging the achievements and sacrifices of historically less powerful groups, these monuments are ways of taking power from their oppressors and (literally) carving their rightful place in history.

Public monuments also are often public memorials. These serve to venerate and mourn a fallen hero, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. portrays a larger-than-life President Abraham Lincoln carved in stone, seated within a large, Greek temple. It's meant to memorialize the grandeur of the man and his towering legacy as the preserver of the Union.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on the other hand, is an entirely different kind of public monument. It uses stark simplicity — a black, semi-reflective wall etched with names — to honor and mourn the sacrifice of the nearly 60,000 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War.

In the United States, monument-making didn't become a widespread activity until after the Civil War, when cities established the first committees to beautify public spaces and commission works of art that would venerate historical figures and convey universal values [source: Farber].

However, many of the country's public monuments were dreamed up and funded by private citizens. Wealthy individuals have typically enjoyed close relationships with local politicians, making it far easier to exert their influence on matters like public works of art. In Charlottesville, Va., for example, the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the center of that city's monument controversy was commissioned by wealthy philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire in 1917. He also bought the surrounding land and donated it to the city as a (whites-only) park [source: Schragger].

Because individuals have traditionally exerted so much control over the commissioning of monuments — whether those individuals are powerful political leaders or wealthy private citizens — it's important to recognize that the monuments they create represent a very narrow historical record. Even in cases where monuments are approved by city commissions, that doesn't mean that they reflect the history and values of the entire community. They simply reflect the history and values of the people who were in charge at the time. History, as the old adage goes, is written by the winners.