Monuments and the laws that protect them divide Americans today as never before. American attitudes toward monuments have always been a blend of affection, insecurity, and suspicion. But Americans are now more invested in the built and natural monuments that surround us: to be for, or against, protecting certain monuments has now become a shorthand for one’s stance on a host of cultural and political issues. These changing attitudes have thrown American monument-protection laws into sharp relief. And many local, state, and federal legislators and executive officials have taken advantage of this opportunity to exploit America’s patchwork of monument-protection laws, exacerbating already-fraught monument conflicts for short-term political gain.
Contemporary conflicts over American monuments are particularly difficult to resolve for a number of reasons. Part of the problem is a lack of agreement about what does or should count as a monument, which is compounded by both the extreme diversity of American monument-protection laws and a persistent rural-urban divide that helps fuel many contemporary American monument conflicts. In addition, American monument-protection laws too often are considered in isolation, which undermines the possibility for achieving any kind of consensus or settled outcome after individual monument conflicts.
These factors complicate public discourse about monuments, monument-protection laws, and the conflicts that inevitably arise from both. They also complicate every effort to study American monuments and the laws that protect them. The absence of any meaningful shared discourse, let alone consensus, makes American monument conflicts particularly difficult to resolve, as the losing side tends to find the application of American monument-protection laws to be profoundly arbitrary. But in fact, many recent conflicts arising from America’s diverse monument-protection laws follow similar patterns—even though the political coalitions shift dramatically, depending on what sort of monuments are at stake. This Article reframes the debate over American monument-protection laws by considering Confederate statue statutes, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 together. It analyzes recurring patterns of conflict that arise out of each statutory and regulatory system and proposes repeal of the statue statutes and reforms to the Antiquities Act.