Commentary: A Utah tale of two monuments

It’s time for someone else to have the spotlight

“I think he’s been sufficiently honored and I think it’s time for someone else to have the spotlight.”

So said Republican state legislator Adam Gardiner in early August concerning his plan to remove a statue of Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the television, from the U.S. Capitol and replace it with one of another prominent Utahn, Martha Hughes Cannon. Gardiner does not believe replacing the likeness of the little-known Farnsworth will be particularly controversial; in fact, he expects only Farnsworth’s family will care.

To me, as a historian, the most interesting aspect of this debate is what Gardiner did not say. He did not argue that statues such as Farnsworth’s are permanent and unchangeable, that removing them means erasing history for the sake of political correctness. We hear this argument constantly in defense of statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders. So why do few people seem to care about erasing poor Philo Farnsworth?

No one is offended by the famously mild-mannered Farnsworth, but the same cannot be said for Lee. As a general, Lee led armies in defense of slavery and committed treason against the nation he had sworn to serve. Lee’s Union counterparts were so angered by his betrayal that they turned his plantation, Arlington, into a soldiers’ cemetery so he could never live there again. As a slavemaster, Lee was both a true believer in slavery and a cruel practitioner of it. He was notorious for breaking up slave families by selling members to other plantations, and he once had a slave whipped bloody, then ordered that his wounds be washed with brine. Ask a young African American child whether she would rather walk by a statue of Lee or of Farnsworth; she would doubtless choose the latter. Yet we feel comfortable removing the Farnsworth statue, threatened by the loss of monuments to Lee. Why?

It is not because Lee is a more important historical figure; in fact, Farnsworth, whose invention sits in nearly every American home, arguably has a greater influence on our lives today. It is not because Lee was a better person or a better patriot; clearly he was neither of those things. Instead, it is because we want to convince ourselves that Lee and the system he represents were less bad than they actually were. We’re reluctant to face the fact that our nation, forged  in liberty, was forged in bondage too – and that our history has been a perpetual struggle between slavery and freedom. By obscuring this reality, the monuments to Lee do not preserve history, they erase it.

Ultimately, what stands out about Rep. Gardiner’s approach is how refreshing it is. If a statue fails to represent effectively what we value about our state, he argues, we should simply replace it with a statue that does. Exactly right. What a community decides to display on public grounds is a civic decision, and one that should be revisited with regularity.

Removing Farnsworth’s statue will not erase him from history; the global reach of his invention is testament enough to what he accomplished. Monuments are not about preserving history, anyway. They are a statement of contemporary values, a symbol of who we are as a people. Since our collective identity changes over time, our monuments should change, too.

If we understand this about Philo Farnsworth, we should recognize it about Robert E. Lee and other Confederates: they’ve been sufficiently honored, and it’s time for someone else to have the spotlight.

Jeremy C. Young, St. George, is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).