Another monument to a country’s founder up for re-examination. This time, it’s George Washington


Here’s a vivid illustration of the axiom that, on any given day, any political controversy in Canada has an equivalent in the United States that just happens to be bigger.

In this case, much, much bigger. And taller. And a few dozen tonnes heavier.

This latest example comes just as Canadians are reacting to protesters in Montreal toppling a statue of the country’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, over his treatment and policies toward Indigenous people.

A working group in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday recommended renaming, removing or recontextualizing a variety of monuments in the city, including one gargantuan one destined to grab attention: the Washington Monument.

That’s the 74,000-tonne obelisk, 169 metres tall, that towers over the skyline of a world capital — a world capital, it so happens, named for George Washington.

Fireworks explode behind the Washington Monument at the end of the Republican National Convention last week. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The first American president was not just a revolutionary hero who later established a centuries-long tradition of peacefully relinquishing democratic power.

He also owned slaves. He even paid slaves for their teeth.

Group asked to consider city’s modern values

Tuesday’s report came weeks after Mayor Muriel Bowser asked the working group to study government-owned facilities and determine whether their names reflected the city’s modern values.

“Public buildings, monuments and spaces must reflect D.C.’s current values, not those from centuries ago,” said the mayor’s adviser, Beverly Perry, when the group was announced in July.

“As our values and cultural understandings change over time, our commemorative symbols must change to portray our values.”

The head of a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald is shown on the ground in Montreal after the monument was toppled at the end of a protest on Saturday calling for the defunding of police. In recent years, the statue of the first prime minister of Canada has been vandalized over his policies toward Indigenous people. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A major difference with what occurred in Montreal is this development is happening through a democratic process.

The working group in Washington held a virtual town hall with 275 participants and received online feedback from more than 2,300 people, during which 63 per cent of respondents expressed a desire for some changes to the names of public monuments.

Not happening soon

Its report concluded that of 3,050 properties in the U.S. capital, 153 had problematic names.

It recommended that a number of local properties such as schools be renamed — including those named after presidents Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and also a slave-owner, and Woodrow Wilson; telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell; Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner; and founding father Benjamin Franklin. 

Franklin actually denounced slavery later in life, but earlier on he owned slaves and ran slavery ads in his newspaper.

The Jefferson Memorial, shown during the cherry blossom festival in 2010, is also on the working group’s target list. Former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was also a slave owner. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Changing federal properties is far more difficult than renaming schools. So don’t count on the Washington Monument being toppled, renamed or rebranded any time soon. 

Campaign issue for Trump

The paper urged the mayor to use her seat on the U.S. National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, a mostly federal body, to convince the federal government to rename, relocate or add new context to several federal assets.

Those assets include a Christopher Columbus fountain, a famous statue of ex-president Andrew Jackson near the White House and monuments to Jefferson and Washington.

The Washington Post reported that the recontextualizing likely means a plaque or other marker at federal monuments.

Protesters have already targeted the statue in front of the White House of ex-president Andrew Jackson, who slaughtered Indigenous people. Here, a U.S. Park Police officer is seen removing ropes and chains from the statue in June. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

The mayor said she would study the document.

“They have delivered the report, and I look forward to reviewing and advancing their recommendations,” Bowser tweeted.

Heated debates over statues have escalated in the U.S. in recent years, triggered primarily by the growing opposition to Confederate monuments. 

The deadly 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Va. was sparked by white supremacists and defenders of Confederate general Robert E. Lee protesting plans to remove Lee’s statue in Virginia.

U.S. President Donald Trump has brushed off demands to removes Confederate monuments and called it a slippery slope. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” he said in 2017. 

The debate about historical commemoration has spread to other figures and grown in other countries.

The Washington working group paper noted that more than 70 per cent of assets named in the District of Columbia are named after white men, many of whom were not local residents.

The current demographics of the U.S. capital are far more diverse — with an even split of 46 per cent white and 46 per cent Black. 

Woodrow Wilson is commonly viewed today as a racist. His legacy as president, however, includes the creation of the League of Nations. (U.S. National Archives)

In its report, the group recommended that future memorials include more women, people of colour, LGBTQ people and Washingtonians.

The Trump campaign and conservative voices seized on Tuesday’s news as an example of left-wing radicalism, which has become a central tent of the president’s re-election message.

By the end of the day Tuesday, the White House issued a statement blasting the city for even considering removing the monuments.

“The radically liberal mayor of Washington, D.C., is repeating the same left-wing narrative used to incite dangerous riots: demolishing our history and destroying our great heritage,” it said.

“As long as President Trump is in the White House, the mayor’s irresponsible recommendations will go absolutely nowhere, and as the mayor of our nation’s capital city — a city that belongs to the American people — she ought to be ashamed for even suggesting them for consideration.”



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