When I visited the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield a few years ago I was bothered by the clutter of memorials. There are so many scattered across the battlefield, all of different size, style, and theme, that it seemed to me that they littered what should be a pristine place.
I visited again this summer and have completely changed my mind. It was an authoritarian impulse to think that there should be one memorial with one style and one message. Instead, Gettysburg shows us what a market of memorials can do. Basically, anyone able to raise enough money could build a memorial honoring a state, division, regiment,or individual. As the Gettysburg Battlefield Wikipedia page describes the process:
The first monument to be placed on the battlefield was in the National Cemetery in 1867, a marble urn dedicated to the 1st Minnesota Infantry, the gallant regiment that was virtually annihilated on Cemetery Ridge, July 2. The first monument to be erected outside of the cemetery was on Little Round Top on August 1, 1878, when the Strong Vincent GAR Post of Erie, Pennsylvania, memorialized their namesake with a marble tablet on the spot where he was mortally wounded. As the 25th anniversary of the battle approached, veterans groups stepped up the pace of erecting monuments and many of the state governments got into the act as well. By the 1890s, Gettysburg had one of the largest outdoor collections of bronze and granite statues anywhere in the world. For the Union side, virtually every regiment, battery, brigade, division, and corps has a monument, generally placed in the portion of the battlefield where that unit made the greatest contribution (as judged by the veterans themselves)…. There are over 1,600 monuments and markers on the field.
Yes, having over a thousand monuments on a battlefield makes it look noisy and disorderly, but freedom is noisy and disorderly. By permitting a market of memorials, Gettysburg allowed groups of people to choose who should be honored and how that honor should be conveyed. If there had been a strong central authority controlling battlefield memorials, as is the norm, the central authority would have decided the subjects and manner of conveying honor. What if the central authority’s emphasis or style differed with yours? Too bad.
Just ask Vietnam vets and relatives what recourse they have if they oppose the controversial gash in the ground that the central authorities chose for the exclusive memorial on the DC Mall. They can’t, as Gettysburg veterans could, just add their own memorial with their dissenting perspectives.
And you really can see clashing perspectives among the Gettysburg memorials. There are multiple efforts to claim credit for who saved Little Round Top for the Union. There are different framings of the nature of the conflict. There are different architectural visions. It’s all there at Gettysburg in its wonderful disorderly freedom.
When I caught myself wishing for a neat and orderly battlefield memorial I could see the difficulty many of us have in really embracing liberty. In some ways we are all little authoritarians, wishing for perfectly structured, centrally-determined, solutions to problems. But of course, when we indulge these authoritarian fantasies, we all imagine that we will be the central authority or that the central authority will act in the way we prefer. That rarely happens in actuality. We need freedom, with all of its messiness and despite our desire for order and perfection, because we each differ on the nature of the desired order. Rather than having any one of us impose his or her vision on all others, a marketplace of those visions can allow competing visions to be expressed, with the best persuading others to voluntarily agree.