In Past Eras, What’s Happened When Statues Are Toppled

Modern America is far from the only place where mobs have torn down statues. “During the French Revolution there were attacks on statues,” says Jarrett Stepman, author of The War on History.” “Of course, that devolved into attacks on people.” Stepman discusses France’s history of statue-toppling, Lincoln’s warnings on mob rule, and more. Listen to the interview on the podcast, or read the lightly edited transcript, pasted below.

We also cover these stories:

  • The D.C. Circuit Court orders the dismissal of the case against Michael Flynn.
  • New York and two other states put quarantine restrictions on visitors from states with a certain number of COVID-19 cases.
  • A Wisconsin state senator is attacked by a group by the state capitol.

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Kate Trinko: Joining us today is Jarrett Stepman, a columnist at The Daily Signal and the author of “The War on History,” which is a great book that you should all check out. Jarrett, thanks for joining me.

Jarrett Stepman: And thank you very much, Kate.

Trinko: So, there is so much to talk about today that relates to your knowledge of history, from mob rule to statues being torn down. But let’s start in the past. What are some past examples of historical time periods where statues were torn down?

Stepman: Yeah, frankly, there are a number of time periods. Most of them having to do with revolution very specifically.

One, I think maybe most famous, is during the French Revolution there were attacks on statues. Of course, that devolved into attacks on people. I think most Americans know about the Reign of Terror in which basically mobs went and killed various politicians and leaders in France.

But I think that the general statue toppling, as far as large groups of people, mobs, and whatnot doing this, generally tends to happen during violent revolution.

We also saw this in 1871, once again in France, during the Paris Commune, which was actually a period in time in French history where Communards, really precursors to communists, took over Paris and not only created mass violence, but also toppled numerous statues in the city of Paris.

Jarett Stepman:                So I think this situation where you have mass toppling of statues and attacks on statues generally tends to be a precursor to or follow up on a violent revolution. I think that’s what’s most common.

We see this also in Russia, when the Soviets took control thereafter the Revolution of 1917, of course there were general attacks on the historical past. I think those are the best comparisons. If you want to talk about historical statue toppling on a mass scale, I think those are the ones you have to point to.

Trinko: So, French history is not my strong point, to put it delicately. You mentioned that there was violence in regards to the statue toppling, and I’m wondering was the violence toward people something that happened before, during, or after the statues were toppled?

Stepman: Often during, when the statue’s being toppled and sometimes after as well. I think that that is a big part of this. And I think, unfortunately, we’re seeing that now, certainly something that we’re going to discuss here. But I think generally it ended up with attacks on other civilians in the population.

It didn’t just end with the statues. It was a period of general violence. You can say even in American history, during the American Revolution, a few statues of King George III were toppled during that time. Because, of course, it was a lead-up and that was right in the heart of the American Revolution, where one system of government was being toppled in favor of another.

The symbolic act of toppling King George III very much was a part of that revolution in which, essentially, you’re saying that the authorities are no longer respected or in control, that there has been a regime change, so to speak, and that there’s a new authority in the land.

In the American Revolution, the precursor was that, of course, as we all know, no taxation without representation, a British Parliament and king that were not respecting the rights of the people to affect their own laws. Something that’s very different in the United States.

Something that we have here, we do have the right to protest. We have the right to elections and to choose our own laws. The American revolutionaries of 1776 revolted because they didn’t have those rights very specifically.

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That’s something I wrote about recently in a piece for The Daily Signal on the Boston Tea Party, why some of these calls, especially now, for the violence is OK or destruction of property is OK because it’s like the Boston Tea Party.

I do remind people that America in 1773, when that happened, what they were complaining about was that they had no potential to even change the laws that were so odious whatsoever. The people were ultimately not in control. And I think that’s what led to acts of vandalism in those days.

Actually, even very circumscribed compared to what we’re seeing today, which is a much more widespread attacks, not just on statues or things very specifically, but destruction that’s happening in cities, looting of stores. These kinds of things I think to say that is some kind of orderly protest I think is very inaccurate. And I think definitely there needs to be a sharp distinction made between those things.

Trinko: In the past, you mentioned France and Russia, in addition to the United States, what types of statues did they attack? Was it indiscriminate? Was it specific targets? And I ask that because in the United States, of course, this began with discussing toppling Confederate statues.

I think there were some who thought we shouldn’t have mobs toppling them, but maybe a museum move would be appropriate. But it quickly spread to now a Lincoln statue is under danger.

I believe in Wisconsin, they just tore down an abolitionist statue. Ulysses S. Grant was torn down in San Francisco. And I could go [on], George Washington has been torn down. So it’s way past just Confederate.

So, yeah. Talk about, historically, was it a specific group of statues that were targeted or was it just random violence?

Stepman: It was a combination of both those things. Of course, many of those who topple statues knew exactly what they were targeting, many others did not. And I think what happens generally is there’s a general attack on the regime, so to speak. The laws and the institutions that were there before are what’s under assault.

So often these mobs in the past, whether it be the French Revolution or otherwise, yes, they target very specific statues that depict things that they don’t like, the French monarchy, things like that.

But they generally turn to violence against what they see as all symbols of oppression, which is really the society that they belong in, that the laws that they think are odious, they no longer respect any of them.

I think you certainly see that when you have, especially, a violent revolutionary movement. And I think we’re seeing that today.

I mean, it is quite incredible to see these scenes of abolitionist statues being attacked. We’re seeing Union heroes, not just the Confederate ones. And we’re really seeing a general attack on, you could say, American and Western civilization.

I think there’s no real thread between a Confederate statue and Winston Churchill other than … just simply people want to attack Western civilization and history.

And I think that’s what we’re seeing now, not just in the United States, but across the globe, which is why I think this thing is really escalating. The violence is actually getting worse on a daily basis and why it’s so disconcerting as Americans are watching this around the country.

Trinko: So, Jarrett, you wrote a great column for The Daily Signal on mob rule and how Abraham Lincoln warned us about this in a speech that I think was a couple of decades before the Civil War occurred. So what did Lincoln see? What did he anticipate about the dangers of mob rule in America?

Stepman: Well, what Abraham Lincoln saw in his own day was a disturbing uptick in mob violence and mob order where mobs had targeted for violence people and property.

People have been targeted for the color of their skin, for their race. Black men in this country and women had been targeted by violent mobs and vigilantes.

And really, I think there was a general disorder in many American cities that was not being prosecuted, not being dealt with by the legal authorities.

And I think this was the key point of this, is that not only were these mobs out of control, but people weren’t being prosecuted for the crimes that had been committed. And Lincoln saw this general breakdown of the rule of law in America as not just an attack on law and order, you could say, but also on free society.

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I mean, free society, we have laws that are duly brought forth and carried out by the American people. This is the government of the people, by the people, for the people, something that Lincoln would state two decades later. And he saw that crumbling before his eyes.

This was really a warning shot, a real precursor to the Civil War, which you did have general secession. You did have a breakup of the Union into violence and was only saved as a close run thing because we had incredible political leadership at that time.

I do recommend that everybody read through Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address because he warns, he explains in, I think, a quote that’s often repeated that the United States as an entity cannot be really threatened by enemies without—it will never be conquered by a foreign foe. Our only real threat truly is ourselves, is if we commit national suicide, so to speak. Which [is] … what [Lincoln] was talking about.

And the destruction of law and order of the Constitution, of this idea that we are a nation of laws and not men, that will be the end of America, if that becomes a general rule in principle in this country.

I think it has very much to do with what we are seeing now in our own time. We are seeing a real violation of the rule of law in this country on a widespread scale—not just with the attacks on statues, but the attacks on property and people as well.

We need to have our laws vigorously enforced. Because not only does it encourage people who are lawless to commit more crimes, to do more destruction, to use force to get their way to dictate to the majority what laws should be carried out, what should be done, but it also creates a chilling effect for the law-abiding people who still uphold that Constitution, still uphold those laws. …

They feel that they are powerless, that there’s no reason to respect a government that can no longer protect their lives and property.

That is a fundamental aspect of our system that is being challenged, I think, right now.

So, I think that’s what Abraham Lincoln was warning in his own time is so important for ours because this is what we are seeing. And it’s important for leaders, for politicians, for intellectual leaders to stand up right now for the rule of law and to carry that out and to stop these acts of lawlessness, of destruction, of, really, an undermining of the laws in this country.

Trinko: Yeah. I agree. It’s incredible that we have all this police force and yet no one can seem to keep a statue standing or prosecute those who tore it down.

So, speaking of mobs, I wanted to talk about the fact that you brought this to my attention, actually. A Democrat state senator in Wisconsin claims he did nothing but take a photo and he was attacked by a mob at the Wisconsin State Capitol, where they were just tearing down some statues, whatever.

The senator, Tim Carpenter tweeted, “I took this pic, it got me assaulted and beat up. Punched, kicked in the head, neck, ribs. Maybe concussion. Socked in left eye is a little blurry. Sore neck and ribs. 8 to 10 people attacked me. Innocent people are going to get killed.”

And then, this is a little bit ironic, Carpenter told The Washington Post, “Sad thing, I’m on their side for peaceful demonstrations, am a gay progressive Dem senator. Served 36 years in the Legislature.”

Jarrett, what the heck is going on here?

Stepman: Unfortunately, that’s the consequences of unthinking mobs. Mobs will act as mobs.

What’s incredible, especially the lead-up to this thing, that, really, this mob had basically attacked a statue of an abolitionist who was an immigrant from Norway, who had served in the Union Army and who had died in a war fighting, really, to end slavery and [was] part of saving the Union of this country.

It’s amazing that that is the statue that was one of the many that was under attack there. But then the mob just simply turns on even its own supporters.

It’s no surprise that even those who support these sort of things end up being the victims as well. When you do have a radical movement where people have been stoked up to violent passions and there’s no longer respect to the law, these are the kinds of things that happen.

I was quite certain, as I see now statues around the country being attacked wantonly, that it was not much of a jump away to see these attacks actually happen on civilians, on innocent bystanders, on people who support and are against the protests. It’s not a surprise at all. And that’s why it is so dangerous.

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I do think that for those who have encouraged these kinds of things, we’ve seen many publications, many left-leaning ones, basically saying that the violence maybe isn’t so bad. I do think they should have second thoughts about that as we see now attacks that are happening on people that are awful and abysmal.

It doesn’t surprise me one bit that it’s moved to this point, but it’s why I think law and order does need to be restored. And I think this is only going to get worse if there isn’t aggressive enforcement of the laws, that people aren’t seriously both stopped by legal authorities and also punished for taking out these actions. That’s why this is so important.

Trinko: As I mentioned earlier, the name of your book is “The War on History.” You have been—at least the whole time you’ve been at The Daily Signal—thinking about this very seriously and thoughtfully, about what is the war in history? Why is it occurring? Would you say the statue toppling is part of that? And why or why not?

Stepman: Yeah, … the statue toppling, I think, is just an escalation of some of the rhetoric that, frankly, we’ve seen for a few years.

I think a friend of mine who’s a professor at the Claremont Institute called [them] the 1619 riots. And the 1619 Project, for those of them who don’t know, is a project of The New York Times that claimed to reframe American history based on the idea that America is basically built on slavery and racism, things like that instead of the principles of 1776.

And when you hear a lot of the rhetoric, especially of those who are rioting right now, it’s that, essentially, America is a malignant force in this world, that Western civilization is inherently bad and evil, that it needs to be brought down. And it’s funny that even the creator of that project has basically proudly said, “Yes, these are the 1619 riots.”

She deleted that tweet on Twitter, but that shows how that idea has become so common. And frankly, it perpetuates this idea that American laws are not something to be respected.

The American institutions, all these things that we’ve created, certainly imperfect at the time of their creation, which have in many cases been made much better, that these things are things that are inherently bad and need to be brought down.

And in many cases now, people are saying [that] by force. That you can’t really get equal justice in this country. It’s not possible until that system is brought down and laid low.

I think this has been bubbling up for years. I think that defense of America and what this country stands for, the good things, with an acknowledgement of the imperfections that have been a part of this country’s history and are a part of humanity, period. I think there need to be people right now who stand up for the good things that this country has brought the world for its citizens and be unafraid to be fearless right now.

Because this is a time that, look, as we see many statues coming down and many leaders, it’s a time to be brave like they were. Really, I think that America has survived because there were courageous leaders in times of great crisis in turmoil.

And it’s time, to quote Andrew Jackson, who’s one of the many statues that’s been under attack, one in front of the White House. What it says on the statue, “Our federal union, it must be preserved.” I think that idea has to be pervasive.

I think Americans right now have to stand up for their civilization. They have to stand up for the laws that have been created by a free people. And I think that they need to look to their leaders right now who need to stand up and say, “We are going to defend America as it is. If you want to remove a statue, you have to go through legal channels. You can’t take the law into your own hands. And this is not going to be tolerated by free people.” That needs to be the message to Americans across this country.

Trinko: So important. Well, Jarrett, thank you so much for joining us today.

Stepman: Thank you very much, Kate.

Trinko: And again, his book is “The War on History.” It’s a great read. Check it out.

Source material can be found at this site.

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