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Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

American man of letters Henry Adams once remarked of his contemporary Robert E. Lee that it was always good men who did the most harm.

Adams was a master of ambiguity and the current debate over Confederate monuments could use some. It would be a shame if this discussion never rose above a shouting match, which, unfortunately, is what both sides seem to want. You need not be a "white nationalist" (an asinine term, since there's no white nation) to defend such monuments, nor do liberal proclivities require you to take your axe to them.

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Opinion: Don't stop at Confederate statues. U.S. Army bases also need to be renamed

Symbols in the South: A turning point for Confederate monuments

Like all countries, the United States is what it is, historical warts and all. Charlottesville, Va., is a Southern city whose townscape – like those of the others – is dotted with Confederate monuments. These are faithful reflections of its past, both during the Civil War itself and in the generations after when Southern civic culture revolved around commemoration of the war. This was not only understandable but inevitable, given the price the South had paid for its heroic devotion to its unjust ways. (Consider the parallel proliferation of Canadian monuments to the First World War.) The Civil War had claimed an estimated 25 per cent of the Southern white-male population of military age. It was a bloodletting beside which all previous American war losses paled – as would all subsequent ones – and the grief of the bereaved families fuelled the myth of the Lost Cause.

Besides which these monuments were, paradoxically, a necessary aspect of national reconciliation. The North was required to respect the dignity of the defeated Southern cause and permit the South to commemorate it. Reconciliation was a national obsession (both Lincoln and Lee himself had shared it), again understandable after so bloody an internecine war.

To uproot these monuments would therefore be not just to rewrite Southern history, but to obliterate it. It would leave a vacuum that could not be filled by replacing the statues of Lee with others deemed more politically correct. To make any such substitutions would be to take an airbrush to Southern history, leaving only an inane and sanitized and therefore utterly misleading version. Such was in fact the complaint of local black activists in Charlottesville who supported Mayor Michael Signer on the issue: that the monuments had to stay to testify to what the city had been. Removing them would be a cover-up.

What then to do with these controversial images still respected by some while resented by others? Museumize them. Contextualize them. Rescue them from being political footballs. Retain them, but recast them as historical exhibits. Recount how they came to be and explain their complicity in Jim Crow. Offer a variety of perspectives on them, drawn both from different eras and from different segments of the community.

Simplest would be to do as Notre Dame has done with its Christopher Columbus murals and the University of Mississippi with its Confederate memorial: leave them in situ, but add a demurrer explaining their historical context. Or you could do what Mr. Signer and his black allies originally suggested for Charlottesville: commission artists to erect new monuments alongside the old ones.

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Whichever of these methods a city chose, it would convey that Confederate monuments no longer enjoyed civic authority. At the same time, it would acknowledge that suppressing them would be alike a crime against history and an invitation to just that moral myopia that Adams deplored in Lee.

Mr. Signer has recently recanted this suggestion, for reasons of public order. Fearing the now proven attractiveness of such monuments to white-supremacist groups (which make of them, as he puts it, "twisted totems,") he now favours taking the statue down. (He doesn't preclude resiting it elsewhere, away from the public square.)

Yet, there's a powerful objection to this position. It amounts to surrender to the mob. To remove any image that they might choose for their totem would be to grant them effective control of the United States' public spaces. Their actions would determine which monuments would stay and which would go.

Nor would such a policy curb racist rallies or reduce the likelihood of violence. If not Confederate monuments, racists will find other flashpoints at which to gather (including images that offend rather than captivate them). In fact, the mob also rampaged past the local synagogue, hurling insults and threats, and there can be no proposing closing it. What occurred in Charlottesville was a breakdown of public order and an obvious failure of policing. This is the immediate problem that Mr. Signer and other Virginia officials must address.

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