We have a shared heritage that we memorialize and in some cases that causes pain to particular groups. It is proper for us to occasionally look at who and what we hold up as worthy examples of our history and even change some. But this should be done in an orderly fashion as voted on by the people or determined by their elected representatives. Not by a mob engaged in violent protest.
The attempt last night to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park directly across from the White House shows a real problem. There is a powerful effort underway as part of the Black Lives Matter and related protests to remove people and references seen as problematic on the issue of race from our collective history.
President Trump announced that he has authorized the full force of federal power to protect national monuments against destruction and vandalism.
“I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent”
Along with Jackson, a statue Theodore Roosevelt has been deemed offensive and will be removed from the Museum of Natural History in New York. But at least this was done by a decision of its governing body, not by protesters dragging it down with chains as has happened in a number of other places.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, should not be a difficult case, and yet this is where we are. His birthday was removed as a holiday in Charlottesville, VA and efforts are underway to push him out of the revered position he holds as a Founder of this nation due to the fact he was a slave holder.
Here is where I think we can make a meaningful distinction and find a way to move the country forward without erasing its past. We have already begun judging people in the relatively distant past by the moral and cultural standards of today. I don’t believe that is wise or fair, but as a way to forge a compromise. I suggest we separate the public and private lives of historical figures so we can retain the tremendous value to our country done by some people who did not live personally in ways that are acceptable today.
Jefferson is the perfect example of this dichotomy. Yes, he was a slave holder and he had children with at least one slave and he failed to live the beliefs he spoke publicly
“Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was publicly a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation”
But he also wrote the most important and powerful document in modern history that began the process of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. And even though he stated “all men are created equal” while literally owning other men, his words and the brave stand of all the Founders made possible the gains in humanity and justice we have achieved every day since.
America was not born a perfect Union as the words of the Constitution note:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union”
It was an improvement over the Articles of Confederation and designed to be amended as we moved closer to the ideals of the Declaration’s statement that all men are equal. We could not have made that step toward a “more perfect Union” if there was an insistence on a perfect union, which would have required the abolition of slavery. The great experiment of a country could not outstrip the cultural growth needed for that step.
But even Jefferson aided in ensuring we stayed on that path signing the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 which abolished the international slave trade on the very first day this was permitted by the Constitution
Jefferson advanced the cause of liberty for all as much as any modern man, so it makes little sense to abolish him from our history because he was a flawed human being who did not live up to even his own standards.
Few if any major historical figures can and that makes it an unhealthy standard. Mother Theresa is a canonized saint who did wonders for the poor and oppressed people of India, but she also kept at least one of her hospitals in perpetual squalor and its patients largely untreated to have it available to shock donors into contributing.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher but also committed acts of adultery and transcripts from FBI surveillance have him witnessing a rape by another religious man while not only failing to intervene, but laughing. Yet we can all agree he was likely the most important figure of the modern civil rights era.
A public/private separation makes it possible to judge those whose public acts were unmistakably positive steps in our nation’s growth even though their personal values fall short of ideal. And it might be good to go ahead and allow some historical perspective on all of this rather than acting as if we somehow invented a perfect moral code today.
This would allow us to say that statues of Confederate leaders no longer have a place and the military bases could find better names than member of the losing side in the Civil War. But without the legitimate fear that this was a slippery slope to the activist’s demands that anything they find objectionable, however historic and helpful to progress it was, must be removed.
And most importantly these decisions must be made based on the expressed will of the people involved. Not as the result of an aggrieved group acting unlawfully.
We can call it the Jefferson/King Compromise of 2020 and use the motto “All men are created equal and should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Wait a minute, that last bit is a little problematic, Good thing we can apply the Jefferson/King Compromise.