West Virginia was forged from the fires of the Civil War. It sided with President Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause but, practically, the state was divided among northern and southern sympathizers.
Incredibly, 158 years later, the West Virginia Legislature is still debating the Civil War. The reason is HB 2174, the Monument Protection Act.
The bill prohibits the removal, relocation or alteration of statues, monuments or memorials on public property unless an entity, such as a county commission, petitions the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office for a permit to remove. That office will decide whether to protect the monument or remove it.
The bill includes broad categories of monuments and memorials, but really this is about Confederate statues, more specifically the statues of Clarksburg native and Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
But the bill has become a metaphor for the ongoing debate of the cancel culture versus racism, a polarizing and emotional debate that dominated the House floor session on Friday. It is the same debate that goes on across the country.
The answers are not easy, and they are not found in extreme elements of the arguments.
The late conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote the following in an opinion piece in 2015:
“Not every statue has to be smashed, not every memory banished. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Arlington National Cemetery, founded by the victorious Union to bury its dead. There you will find Section 16. It contains the remains of hundreds of Confederate soldiers grouped around a modest, moving monument to their devotion to ‘duty as they understood it’—a gesture by the Union of soldierly respect, without any concession regarding the taintedness of their cause.”
There is a significant difference between soldierly respect and veneration. That distinction can be determined through professional evaluation, just as Arlington has done. For example, the U.S. Department of the Interior requires a professional and independent review of nominations for the National Historic Landmarks list and a period of public comment.
Perhaps the state Office of Historic Preservation can do that, though it is uncertain whether those men and women want the responsibility. That office normally flies under the radar, and a decision whether to remove a statue of Stonewall Jackson will attract statewide and possibly national attention.
West Virginia does not have the resources of the federal government, but surely the state can recruit and empower a panel of experts, including historians and archaeologists, to evaluate statues and memorials. One important factor would be why the statue was erected in the first place.
This panel should not have the final say, but rather it should make an informed recommendation to the petitioning body—a county commission or city council—to make the decision. (Unfortunately, the current bill leaves the final decision to the Office of Historic Preservation.)
That decision does not have to be either destruction or protection. There are other options and potential compromises. A statue could be moved to a museum, a Civil War graveyard or perhaps a marker could be added to protect historical context.
West Virginia does not need to relitigate the Civil War, especially by way of the passions of the moment. It needs a rational and credible way to arrive at what will be difficult decisions. The guidance to achieve that end comes from the second inaugural address by Abraham Lincoln, whose statue stands outside our State Capitol.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all.”