Book Summary, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments

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Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments, by Erin L. Thompson (284 pg.; Hardcover)

Brief Overview

Over twenty years ago, Sandy Levinson wrote a book entitled Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies.  A white law professor, born in North Carolina in 1942, he provided his usual complex and challenging views on the issue.  

An updated version of the book was released a few years ago.  The book had ever more topical relevance in our society.  In the midst of much racially based protest, there has been a great demand for the removal of monuments deemed racist and sexist.  On the other hand, others argue that this would threaten to erase history and dishonor tradition.

Smashing Statues shows the power of monuments (honoring the past) and memorials (mourning tragedies) was always present in our country.  The very decision to put up a George III statue in colonial days was controversial, and once independence came, it was taken down.  The people of the time knew that the monument was powerful, not just a mere neutral work of art.

The book addresses various messages sent by public statues over the years from the power of white Americans over Native Americans to the multiple messages of Civil War monuments.  And, it again shows the pushback against them, from a Washington statue that looked too deistic for republican tastes to modern day battles over memorials deemed racist. 

Statues have important meanings. The author ends by arguing it is the people of today’s role in determining what meanings are right for them, including when they deem appropriate, to remove monuments.  She does not offer a list.  That is the responsibility of the community at large.  

Favorite Quote

The author quotes a black intellectual, journalist, and activist who in 1916 tracked down all the portrayals of blacks in public monuments he could find.  He had a set of questions:

What does it mean? What does it suggest?

What impression is it likely to make on those who view it?

What will be the effect on present-day problems, of its obvious and also of its insidious teachings?

Freeman H.M. Murray’s questions about monuments then hold true for today.  

Should I Read It?

The book is written for the educated lay person though those with special knowledge should not be bored since it touches upon a range of topics.  The writing is down-to-earth and not academic.

A person interested in American history, those who wish to obtain an in-depth background on the current controversies over monuments, and those interested in monuments’ influence on culture all will find reasons to enjoy this book.  

The book is not a comprehensive account, covering the breadth of United States history from independence to the present in about two hundred pages.  Nonetheless, the reader will obtain a range of snapshots that provide developments over the years. The book has more focus on Civil War monuments, but other types (including Native American related) are also addressed.   

“Smashing statues” suggests that the subject matter will be geared to monuments that turn out to be controversial.  Those who wish to read about “positive statues” (e.g., Statue of Liberty) and memorials (e.g., Vietnam Memorial) will not get much detail here. Also, some will be annoyed about certain choices..  For instance, Mount Rushmore is only mentioned in passing.  

The book has a few black and white pictures sprinkled throughout, which helps provide visuals of certain monuments and background information (such as a celebratory postcard).  

Comprehensive Summary


Philip Reed worked seven days a week for five months working on the twenty foot Freedom monument for the United States Capitol.  Reed was a slave.  

The federal government hired sculptor Charles Mills to build the statue.  Mills years earlier purchased Reed, sensing his “evident talent” for sculpture.  Philip Reed himself was emancipated in 1862, when D.C. slaves were freed.  Reed received $41.25 for his work, only paid for Sundays.

The casting of Freedom stopped when the Civil War began, but President Lincoln ordered the work on the Capitol resumed as a sign the Union itself “shall go on.” Lincoln realized that monuments reflect and shape how we see ourselves as a nation.  This book will provide examples.

All statues are not the same.  Monuments present specific versions of history that provide a role model to the population.  Memorials are meant for mourning, to send a message about what should not happen again.  A George Washington monument v. a Holocaust memorial.  

Part I: Rising

Chapter 1: Melted majesty

The very first equestrian (horse) monument in America was a statue of George III, which arrived in New York in 1770.  Some legislators wanted a statue of William Pitt, who opposed oppressive taxes on the colonists, but conservatives vetoed the idea.  

The statue was placed on the tip of Manhattan.  It was a steady reminder of the authority of the king, portrayed in the monument like a merciful emperor looking over his defeated foes.  

The symbolism was clear: monuments are about power, which is why when the colonists rebelled, they tore down the monument.  And, melted it for lead.  The British did save the head.  

Chapter 2: Chain of Being

The debate over building a monument for George Washington went on for decades after his death in 1799.  The plan was to have a tomb in the center of the nation’s capital with a statue outside.  But, then, Washington asked to be buried at his home instead.  

A separate Washington statue in D.C. became a matter of much debate.  Was it worth the money? Would it be too aristocratic?  Would it give too much attention to the federal government when the states (especially a concern for the South) were more important?  

In the 1830s, a statue was approved, and the first great American monument sculptor (Horatio Greenough) received the commission.  Unfortunately, Greenough’s Washington looked more like a Greek god than a republican president fit for the United States.  It was a failure.  

Greenough had better luck with his second statue for the U.S. Capitol, Rescue, which showed a settler family triumphing over a Native warrior. It symbolized the success of the white American settlement of the continent over the “savages.”  Manifest destiny in action.   


Chapter 3: Shafts

The end of the Civil War brought many questions regarding how the country should be governed and how society should play out with the end of slavery. The proper role of Black Americans was a central question.  Civil War monuments played a large role in these debates.  

The first Confederate statues were largely placed in cemetaries, and served a memorial function.  Their imagery spoke of loss and mourning. The 1880s began a decades-long process of Confederate monuments in public places.  These monuments honored the Confederates. 

The monuments were public messages to black citizens that the public sphere was not their own.   Few Union monuments had black soldiers.  One monument that became controversial is the Freedmen’s Memorial (1876) in D.C., which has a freed slave kneeling in front of Lincoln.

The monuments also served an anti-labor and anti-populist purpose.  The standard statue (called “shafts”) for both Union and Confederate versions had soldiers at “parade rest,” which symbolizes obedience.  This in part was a lesson against labor unrest, especially when white and black citizens tried to work together.   

Chapter 4: A Shrine for the South

Stone Mountain Park (Georgia) is a popular attraction, obtaining about four million visitors a year. At the center of the park is the largest confederate symbol in the country: a nine-story etched carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.  

It was open to the public in 1965. Years earlier, Gutzon Borglum tried to build a large Confederate monument there, but it was an epic failure mixed with some fraud.  The sculptor first became successful for Union memorials, including for General Grant and Philip Sheridan.  

But, that did not stop Borglum (quite a character) from being a racist and working with the Klan to get a commission to build a gigantic Confederate statue.  It failed, even with Congress getting into the act and sponsoring commentative Stone Mountain half-dollars to help fund the effort.  Nonetheless, Borglum later was more successful with Mount Rushmore.  

Part II: Falling

Chapter 5: Bring Your Drums

This chapter suggests the possibility that tearing down statues can be done relatively calmly if done with the proper degree of care.

In the early 20th Century, Italian-Americans were discriminated against, including limits on their immigration to the United States.  A new Minnesota Columbus statue was a symbol that Italians were not only true Americans but “white Americans.”   

The other side of the story regarding praising Columbus as someone who “opened to our ancestors” a new land is that there were already people here.  And, there is a long troubled history there, including suppressing Native American history and culture.  

Mike Forcia, a long term Native American activist, has long tried to promote the interests of Native Americans.  One way he did this was to stage toppling of the Columbus statue.  The authorities did not try to recklessly fight back the crowd. 

The prosecutors worked with him to have “talking circles” with the community at large to address the event.  He was not convicted of a felony, a more restorative justice model used.  

Robert E. Lee

Chapter 6: Hideous Spectre

A Confederate monument began in the 1890s Birmingham, Alabama was part of an anti-union campaign.  Industrialists and city officials were concerned by an interracial effort to deal with a national depression and the needs of workers.  Messages of duty to the Confederacy, against racial equality, and sacrifice over attempts at industrial unrest were promoted.  

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped a major change in local political control, leading to a line of black mayors.  The increase of black voting strength and the changing times also led to pressure to remove Confederate monuments and Confederate flags from public buildings.  

There were also counteractions in various states to protect monuments, including an Alabama state law against removing monuments over forty years old.  This made it impossible, even when local citizens wanted them to do so, for local officials to remove monuments like the one in Birmingham.  An attempt to surround it with a plywood box was deemed illegal as well.

The Birmingham mayor, pursuant to local demand, did knock the statue down. This was illegal as well, but he deemed the $25,000 fine worth it to promote the needs of the community.  

Chapter 7: Too Damn Beautiful

The first monument to honor a woman (Hannah Duston) was dedicated in 1874.  

The monument is in an isolated place in New Hampshire, and Duston appears to be holding a bouquet of flowers.  Duston is actually holding the scalps of four Native Americans killed while she escaped captivity during one of the many wars between whites and Native Americans.  

The monument was created to send a celebratory message of white dominance over Native Americans.  The message stands even if new signage is placed to add context.  One attempt to address this was to give the Spirit of the Confederacy to an African American museum. A lot of effort was made to suppress the power of the statue, but some of its power remains.  

Another effort to provide a modern “reply” to monuments is to add new statues with contemporary meanings.  For instance, a monument of women’s rights leaders in New York.  

Chapter 8: The Great Reshuffling.

New monuments are appropriate, but as with the destruction of George III’s monument in 1776, it is appropriate (says the author) to also remove monuments.  Some are concerned with removal of monuments “erasing history.”  The author argues it removes honoring bad things.

Monuments are not neutral statues. They are celebratory and teach a message.  Racist monuments celebrate racism. And, plaques or the like will not erase that.  

As a whole, however, very few statues were actually taken down.  Protective laws were often the reason, allowing only perhaps a “reshuffling” to new locations.  

General J.E.B. Stuart


Two snapshots at Stone Mountain: a yearly egg hunt and a nearby prison camp, largely black, providing much of the labor to provide much of the building of upkeep of the landmark.

The (limited) illegal taking down or doing things like painting graffiti on statues often is a result of no real means in place to have Confederate statues and the like taken down even if a majority of the locals want that.  The author supports a clear process to allow locals to “move on.”

Public statues are an important cultural device that sends many messages. They have been particularly controversial in recent years.  The author welcomes a full public accounting, the public at large having the right to decide these questions themselves.  

Points to Ponder

The book discusses debates about public monuments from even before United States’ independence.  One thing the book does not spend much time on is discussing what an ideal monument and memorial would entail.  What are good statues?  Why were they not discussed more?   I think a discussion of statues that did not “fall” would provide a good counterpoint.   

Ms. Thompson supports a democratic handling of statutes, leaving open what ones, in particular, should stay and go.  What sort of process should be in place to determine how public monuments should be handled, including when they should be removed?  What processes in place today do you find inappropriate?  Is “self-help” such as protests taking down statues ever appropriate? 

About the Author

Erin L. Thompson, who holds a Ph.D. and JD, is a professor of art crime at the City University of New York.  On her website, she notes that she studies “the black market for looted antiquities, art forgery, museum theft, the ethics of digital reproductions of cultural heritage, art made by detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and a variety of other overlaps between art and crime.”

She is also the author of Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present.  

Is Smashing Statues a Reliable Source?

A look at various articles she wrote does help show why one review labeled Erin Thomson a “leading expert on the past, present, and future of public monuments in America.” 

I see no reason why the book should not be deemed a reliable source in that regard, especially since it is well-sourced with extensive endnotes and an extended bibliography.  
The book also covers a lot of American history, and her academic pedigree seems to make her less expert-worthy.  Overall, however, I did not see any problems in that regard either.  As always, never take any book as gospel.  But, overall, I found this a reliable source.