Smashing Statues

The Rise and Fall of America's Public Monuments

Why This Book?

Contemporary debates over the role and meaning of monuments are not new. Smashing Statues, written by Erin L. Thompson, provides a history of public monuments that both reflect and shape how we see ourselves as a nation. The book shows how monuments elevate, memorialize, and, in many cases, eventually discredit prominent historical figures as part of our ongoing, often contested narrative of United States history.

Smashing Statues recounts controversies surrounding the conception, building, and ultimate removal of notable US monuments. It investigates how colonists removed statues of King George III during and after the American Revolution; how debates over Confederate monuments revived the Ku Klux Klan in the twentieth century; and how historical figures like Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln are reconsidered today. The book shows that Indigenous people and enslaved Africans were often the artists and designers of the very monuments that symbolized their own oppression.

Events in our own recent history demonstrate how public imagery remains a site of contention, such as the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with its Nazi symbols and Confederate flags, and the removal of statues after the murder of George Floyd.

Smashing Statues also provides a historical context for understanding recent decisions at the University of Maryland, such as honoring the Piscataway people with the naming of the new dining hall, recognizing Civil Rights pioneers in the naming of residence halls, and removing the name from the football stadium.

Monuments can be powerful sources of inspiration, but they can also perpetuate harm. Smashing Statues challenges us to reflect on whom we choose to honor, when it is appropriate to take down statues, and what we should do with public art that no longer serves the public.

– Jennifer King Rice, Senior Vice President and Provost, and
William A. Cohen, Associate Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Studies
Erin Thompson visited the University of Maryland on November 7, 2023. You can read more about Erin on her biography page.

Erin Thompson gives a presentation about the history of Stone Mountain in Georgia during her campus visit.


An urgent and fractious national debate over public monuments has erupted in America. Some people risk imprisonment to tear down long-ignored hunks of marble; others form armed patrols to defend them. Why do we care so much about statues? Which ones should stay up and which should come down? Who should make these decisions, and how?

Erin Thompson, the country’s leading expert in the tangled aesthetic, legal, political, and social issues involved in such battles, brings much-needed clarity in Smashing Statues. She lays bare the turbulent history of American monuments and its abundant ironies, from the enslaved man who helped make the statue of Freedom that tops the United States Capitol, to the fervent Klansman fired from sculpting the world’s largest Confederate monument—who went on to carve Mount Rushmore. And she explores the surprising motivations behind contemporary flashpoints, including the toppling of a statue of Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol, the question of who should be represented on the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument in Central Park, and the decision by a museum of African American culture to display a Confederate monument removed from a public park.

Written with great verve and informed by a keen sense of American history, Smashing Statues gives readers the context they need to consider the fundamental questions for rebuilding not only our public landscape but our nation as a whole: Whose voices must be heard, and whose pain must remain private?

- W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Selected Praise and Reviews
  • "Offers a probing examination of the meaning of public monuments… A well-informed, often surprising, history of public veneration."
    - Kirkus Reviews
  • "A compelling historical account…[Thompson's] examination of 'art crime' as central to understanding our shameful United States history is captivating."
    - Los Angeles Review of Books
  • "A crisply written book encompassing law, art, history and politics that contextualizes the American debate over monuments."
    - Library Journal (starred review)