Fallen Columbus

Executive Order on Constructing and Preserving Monuments to True and False American Heroes

WASHINGTON — Early this morning, the president of the United States issued an executive order that protects for posterity many of the nation’s monuments, memorials, and statues that suffered mob anger over America’s racist history.

 

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Executive Order on Constructing and Preserving Monuments to True and False American Heroes

The previous Executive Order, “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes,” issued on July 3, 2020, is hereby revoked. By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I instead order the following:

Section 1. Purpose. America owes its future greatness to current sacrifices and the acknowledgment of past mistakes. Because collective memory expressed through monuments is always inexact, new and revised monuments will always be needed to set historical records straight. 

Since the time of our founding, Americans have raised monuments to its citizens. One of the first was a statue of George Washington commissioned by the Virginia legislature and erected in 1794. The inscription described a man, “uniting the endowments of the hero, the virtues of the patriot, and exerting both in establishing the liberties of his country.” But here’s the deal: not carved in stone was that George Washington actively held slaves for 56 years, a behavior at odds with any notion of liberty. 

In our public parks and plazas, we have erected statues of Americans who, through acts of daring, built and preserved for us the story of a republic. Through ages of institutionalized intolerance, neglect, and abuse, however, the credibility of our story became questionable.

Statues are silent teachers in stone and metal. They preserve the memory of what we consider the American narrative, a tale that stirs in us a spirit of responsibility for chapters yet unwritten. In a perfect world, these works of art call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, talents, and lives in the service of our Nation. 

Monuments should express our noblest ideals: the love of freedom, the striving for a more perfect union. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, a fact underscored by American monuments and symbols honoring Confederate soldiers and other individuals who embraced slavery and advocated disunion. So it is, too, with statues of explorers and settlers who decimated a continent’s population.

Monuments are works of beauty created as enduring tributes. In preserving them, we show reverence for our past. But not all memorials represent a dignified past. Statues that honor false heroes inspire those who hold similarly flawed beliefs. Without context, a monumental mistake propagates the error and ratifies for public consumption that wrong is right.

That’s not hyperbole, folks.

Anyway, art is emotional. That is why destroying a monument can be a cathartic, even patriotic act. Twelve months ago, in the midst of protests across America, many monuments were vandalized or felled. Some local governments responded by taking monuments down and putting them in storage. Among others, statues of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, and Ulysses S. Grant—all of whom owned slaves or forced others into slavery—were attacked.

Last July’s fireworks of civil unrest were shocking but unsurprising. Public monuments belong to the public. They are theirs to interpret, to hold dear, or to discard. As icons, they are subject to political passions. When a memorial’s message rubs off to reveal a different meaning or rubs people the wrong way, it assaults our nation’s character. In doing so, the monument becomes a target of assault itself.

In the face of discontent and destruction, it is our responsibility as Americans to understand the feelings that drive the violence and peacefully react in ways that more accurately describe the American story for future generations to appreciate.

Section 2. National Reflectance Garden. It should be the policy of the United States to establish a statuary park named the National Reflectance Garden of American Heroes and Those Formerly Known as Heroes (National Reflectance Garden).

  1. The National Reflectance Garden should be composed of two areas:
    1. Area 1: Statuary representing historically significant Americans who embraced, tolerated, or abetted slavery, racism, intolerance, or sexism, including Christopher Columbus, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jefferson Davis, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Houston, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Junipero Serra, and George Washington.
    2. Area 2: Statuary representing historically significant Americans who argued or fought against slavery, racism, intolerance, and sexism, such as John Quincy Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Amelia Earhart, Marquis de Lafayette, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Sally Ride, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington.
  2. Sculpture in the National Reflectance Garden need not be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict. Abstract or modernist representations are encouraged. As well, stored or damaged statues previously on public display may be adapted for viewing in the National Reflectance Garden. 
  3. The National Reflectance Garden should be proximate to a major population center and located in a depressed urban environment to enable visitors to understand the impact that hundreds of years of white supremacy, nativism, and intolerance had on our urban structure and social fabric. Visitors should walk among the monuments and be inspired to learn about the figures of America’s history that shaped our society, for good and ill.

Section 3. Educational Programming. The Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities shall prioritize funding to programs and projects that educate Americans about the founding documents and founding ideals of the United States. These should be compared to the reality of the American experience, which is often at odds with these ideals. The founding documents include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers. The founding ideals include equality under the law, respect for inalienable individual rights, and representative self-government.

Section 4. Definition. The term “historically significant American” means an individual who was, or became, an American citizen and was a public figure who made substantive contributions to America’s public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America’s history. The phrase also includes public figures such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who lived before or during the American Revolution and were not American citizens, but who made substantive historical contributions to the development of the future United States.

Section 5. Look, here’s the thing: this is America. We have the power to be better than what we’ve been. So let’s get to work.

JOSEPH R. BIDEN

THE WHITE HOUSE

July 4, 2021

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This is a fictional critique of President Trump’s Executive Order #13934, “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes, issued on July 3, 2020.

Featured image: The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol after a group led by American Indian Movement members tore it down in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 10, 2020. Copyright Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped.

 

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