It’s only been seven years since the late Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller was immortalized with a bronze statue outside the Kennebec County Courthouse and now it’s coming down, which may set a record for the shortest immortalization in history.

Last week, the Kennebec County commissioners voted unanimously that a depiction of Fuller, who helped lay the legal foundation for a half-century of racial segregation with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, did not send the right message about the county’s commitment to equal justice under law.

Good for them. The issue was brought up by Black Lives Matter protesters last spring and the statue’s removal was the subject of a well-attended public hearing in December. The state’s supreme court weighed in, with a letter from acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead, who wrote that Fuller’s association with segregation is “indelible and widely known.” After a thorough investigation and a robust discussion, county officials did the right thing and voted to remove it.

What happens now to the statue of Fuller, who was born in Augusta and died in Sorrento, is unclear, but there was the usual suggestion in cases like this that it should be sent to a museum where it his life could be put in context.

It’s a nice sentiment, but I always wonder: What kind of museum are these people talking about? Are there galleries of disgraced historical figures? Do you separate them by their crimes – racists in one wing, dictators in another, advocates of once-popular scientific theories somewhere else?

Some are going to call this “cancel culture” or a growing intolerance by liberals of opposing views, but it is really nothing new.

People are complicated and fame is not. Once you get famous for one thing, every other aspect of your character is obscured.

Even in the course of a lifetime someone can be famous for one thing, and then suddenly become even more famous for something else – just ask Pete Rose or O.J. Simpson.

The pendulum swing in historical reputations is even more pronounced when stretched out over decades.

In his day, Fuller was known for a lot of things that had nothing to do with racial discrimination. He is said to have organized the way the Supreme Court does its work, establishing norms still in use today. He regularly played poker with Mark Twain, who he resembled so much that autograph hounds would mistake them for each other on the street.

He wrote poetry as a young man, and his legal opinions are said to contain poetic flourishes.

But, so what? Once you abstract a human life into an object, it stops being complicated. And the simple message it conveys is not always the one the artist intended.

The Fuller statue was donated by Fuller’s descendants, who wanted to make sure that a forebear would not be forgotten. The county accepted the gift because it told the story of a local boy who made good.

But Fuller is most famous for Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision that created the doctrine of “separate but equal.” You can’t honor him without honoring segregation, or, at least, you can’t honor him without treating segregation as something that’s not very important.

You don’t always get to choose the message you are sending with an abstract image, and the message can change over time.

The Biden administration says that President Andrew Jackson is about to lose his place on the $20 bill, to be replaced by an image of the hero abolitionist and underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

To the extent he’s talked about today, Jackson is remembered as a slave owner who signed the Indian Removal Act, seizing land from Native tribes and giving it to white settlers.

But if you could travel back in time to the New Deal, you would find some of the most progressive politicians in the country saw Jackson as a hero because he stood up for common people in their fight against the entrenched institutions of financial power.

Fighting the same Wall Street banks a century later when he was president, Franklin D. Roosevelt told his speech writers to “give me a fighting Jackson speech” and “the more I learn about Andy Jackson, the more I love him.”

Roosevelt wasn’t thinking about genocide when he said that, and Jackson’s critics are not hoping for a world run by big banks. It’s just that Jackson’s full legacy won’t fit on the face of a $20 bill.

Immortality lasts a long time. Maybe we should make our statues out of something less durable than bronze.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.