After the recent removal of statues by protesters around the world, London has called for a review while British activists have proposed the removal of statues of people such as Gladstone for "his family’s slave-owning past".

Given that many of the early American Presidents were slave-owners, are similar moves advocated by interest groups—especially interest groups that are form powerful lobbies? Conversely, has any politician said that the toppling of such figures (Washington and Jefferson topped this 2012 popularity poll) is a red-line that would 'legitimize' the use of further (military) force against protesters?

From recent news:

At the same time, some of these presidents are also represented in the monetary system on different bills (and I don't see how one could remove the statue but keep the note intact). Further, this article notes Trump's tweets about the removal of statues, and Washington & Jefferson possibly coming under fire (though it sounds like hyperbole in his messages, quite possibly intended to galvanize his supporters).


2 Answers 2


In 2017, Al Sharpton suggested defunding the Jefferson Memorial

Charlie Rose: Should they take down the Jefferson memorial?

Al Sharpton: I think that people need to understand when people that were enslaved and robbed of even the right to marry, and had forced sex with their slave masters, that this is personal to us. My great grandfather was a slave in South Carolina owned by the family that ended up, Strom Thurmond was one of them, a newspaper discovered it. So, this is personal. This is not some kind of removed discussion from us. Our families were victims of this, certainly it ought to --

Charlie Rose: Therefore, everybody associated with slavery in terms of any public monument to them --

Al Sharpton: When you look at the fact that public monuments are supported by public funds, you are asking me to subsidize the insult of my family.

Charlie Rose: Then I repeat Thomas Jefferson had slaves.

Al Sharpton: And I would repeat that the public should not be paying to uphold somebody who had that kind of background. You have private museums. You have other things that you may want to do, but that's not even the issue here, Charlie. We're talking about here, an open display of bigotry announced and over and over again

There's no contemporaneous mentions of this, and the memorial recently got a large donation to aid repairs.

The problem with trying to excise their images and names is that you have a tremendous number of things related to them. Including

  • Washington, D.C. and the State of Washington
  • Numerous D.C. memorials
  • Imagery on currency (both of the men themselves, as well as their memorials)

among others.

It's important to note that nobody has shied away from dealing with either Washington or Jefferson and their ownership of slaves.

  • Very interesting answer! On another note, it's remarkable (for me) that the dollar notes haven't changed in a while (seemingly; need to read it) whilst the euro and the pound go through regular re-drawings.
    – gktscrk
    Jun 10, 2020 at 17:52
  • 1
    @gktscrk The $100 bill was redesigned in 2013: "Many of these changes are intended not only to thwart counterfeiting but to also make it easier to quickly check authenticity and help vision-impaired people." The $20 bill was also redesigned. The $1 bill likely hasn't been redesigned as it's not really an attractive counterfeiting object. Removing Washington and Jefferson from US currency would probably anger more US people than it would please.
    – Just Me
    Jun 10, 2020 at 17:59

To my knowledge, no significant activist group or political leader has advocated for the removal of representations of slave-owning presidents or political leaders. People like Washington and Jefferson are notable for many reasons unrelated to the fact that they owned slaves; we'd have to erase significant positive aspects of US history if we tried to remove such representations from the public realm. The problem with confederate monuments is that they are — with a few exceptions — people who are only notable because they rebelled against the US in order to preserve the institution of slavery. Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis, for instance, would likely be minor figures in US history except for their relationship to the Civil War and Confederate states.

If we have a statue of George Washington, we can recall all of the valuable contributions he made to this nation, and bemoan the fact that he also owned slaves. If we put up a statue of Jefferson Davis, we can only recall that he was dedicated to to the institution of slavery to the point of secession and warfare. Honoring Washington honors the US; honoring Davis only honors slavery. That is the litmus test.

Of course, certain Right-wing pundits and extremists equate pulling down Confederate icons with pulling down American historical icons more generally. Then manage this by refusing to talk about slavery at all; insisting that this is merely a question of 'history'. But the red-line for such people is taking down any iconography. They would not make the distinction between Confederate and Presidential statues, and would be inclined towards violence in all cases. They may even be more inclined to use force to protect Confederate statues than to protect more conventional ones, because Confederate statues symbolically represent the segregated society they prefer. No one draws a line of governmental force at the point of removing Presidential icons, because the idea that Presidential icons will be systematically expunged is merely a straw-man argument raised by people trying to preserve Confederate iconography. No one outside that group takes that argument seriously.

  • I've chosen to accept this as the general answer here though I also recommend reading the other answer.
    – gktscrk
    Jun 26, 2020 at 13:48

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