Weighty symbols: Erected in era of Gilded Age, Jim Crow

This statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan stands in front of the old courthouse in downtown Lexington.
This statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan stands in front of the old courthouse in downtown Lexington.

Worthy arguments exist on both sides of the question of whether to remove the statues of Confederate generals John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge from the grounds of the old Fayette County Courthouse.

While I fully respect the viewpoint of those who want them removed, I do not believe this is the right course to take. But we need to move promptly toward creating statues or equivalent memorials that will recognize others from the past — civil rights leaders, champions of progressive causes — and balance the Confederate presence in our downtown.

Part of the problem with removing the Confederate statues is that doing so would be a form of turning away from the full range of historical reality they represent. Yes, they were erected in honor of Lexingtonians who conspicuously served the Confederate cause. But these statues are multi-dimensional symbols that have meaning within a wider framework of American history.

As such, they connect with notable elements of contradiction, paradox and tragedy that are part of the nation's larger story. The meaning of these statues is ultimately rooted in the great contradiction of this nation's birth: founding principles of liberty and equality combined with large-scale human slavery. Over time, this contradiction became unsustainable. The ties between North and South frayed, then broke, launching a devastating and fratricidal civil war.

So, while our courthouse statues are typically spoken of in connection with their Confederate identity, they are also important as symbols of the sheer enormity of that great war — by far the deadliest of all this nation's wars, and remarkable, too, for the ironies and paradoxes it would bring in its wake.

The war's outcome saved the union and achieved the high moral purpose of ending slavery. But then came the swift, ironic onset of a troubled new era — the Gilded Age, as Mark Twain sardonically called it.

During this period the nation's affairs fell increasingly under the sway of financial and industrial interests centered in the Northeast.

It was a time marked by huge, unprecedented concentrations of private wealth and corporate power, combined with far-reaching political corruption.

The Gilded Age also produced a striking, paradoxical twist in the realm of American literature. Dismayed by the era's ugly realities, some of the greatest writers of the North — literary giants Herman Melville, Henry Adams and Henry James — created impressive Southern characters in poetry and novels.

These were ex-Confederates, veterans of the war whose virtues amounted to a severe critique of the crass materialism, degraded politics and hard-fisted capitalism of Gilded Age America.

Among the postwar era's most tragic ironies were the dashed hopes of advancing racial justice in the former Confederacy. This outcome was due not only to Southern recalcitrance but also to the victorious North's increasing disengagement from the issue.

After the turbulent Reconstruction years, a new system of racial subordination, often called Jim Crow, steadily took hold across the South, consisting of legally enforced segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement and other forms of racial injustice.

It was during this period, as the Gilded Age overlapped with the onset of Jim Crow, that the statues of Morgan and Breckinridge went up in downtown Lexington. There they now stand, inherently vested with an array of symbolic meanings: the shocking fracture of the union, the Civil War's huge importance, the dramatic rise and anguished fall of the Confederacy, the perplexities of the Gilded Age, Reconstruction's failure and the long decades of Jim Crow — until the civil rights revolution arrived in mid-20th century.

Seen in all, the symbolic content of these statues is weighty, somber, instructive. It encompasses a range of important events, tough struggles, deep challenges and profound issues of the American experience. The case for keeping the statues of Morgan and Breckinridge in place is thus a strong one, and deserves to carry the day against arguments for their removal.

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