The trend of discrediting historical figures based on their failure to live up to today’s moral standards reached a fevered pitch this week when the New York City Council voted to remove a statute of Thomas Jefferson, which has stood in the council chambers for over a century. One council member declared, “Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history.”
Really? The man that almost single-handedly wrote the Declaration of Independence, the greatest statement of rights of individuals in the history of the world, embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history?
Fredrick Douglas, the giant of the American abolition movement, came to the opposite judgment on Jefferson after reading his Notes on the State of Virginia. In those notes, Jefferson said, “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest (issue of slavery). I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Some have cited Jefferson’s thoughts on slavery as evidence of hypocrisy since he clearly understood slavery was wrong. But where some have seen hypocrisy, Douglas saw humility and a moral struggle, one in which few of Jefferson’s contemporaries engaged.
After reading those notes, Douglas said, “How can I claim to love Jesus Christ and still reserve for myself the right to continue to hate Thomas Jefferson?” Douglas went on to base his argument for the abolition of slavery on the very document Jefferson wrote. “I, therefore, leave…with hope…drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.”
In George Will’s most recent book, The Conservative Sensibility, he attributes the current statue removing mania to presentism, a philosophical construct that holds that things only exist in the present. Will describes the judging of historical figures by today’s moral standards as an “amalgam of ignorance and arrogance invariably leads the complacent people doing the judging to flatter themselves as much more discerning, sensitive, and generally better than, say, George Washington, who did not free his slaves.”
It is an attitude that is incredibly hypocritical and presumptuous. Such an attitude implies that the person passing such a judgment would have, in that time, made a different moral choice. The New York council members are suggesting that had they been born into the Virginia planter class in the 18th century on an estate that depended on slaves, where slavery had been an institution for over a century and where almost none of Jefferson’s Virginia contemporaries questioned the morality of slavery, would have had the moral clarity and fortitude to have fought openly for abolition. Not to mention that they would have had the courage to risk their lives to engage in a revolution against the most powerful empire in the world at that time. In short, they presume that they are morally superior to Thomas Jefferson.
The attitude also depreciates the inexorable evolution of our humanity. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker chronicles the long, slow improvement in humans’ moral character and sensibilities. He shows how we have consciously decided that not only is slavery a horrid thing but also that torture, infanticide, animal cruelty, beating children and wives, and generally the wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans is as well. But as Pinker points out, we have recognized the immorality of these practices in the relatively recent past on the scale of human history.
I do not object to the re-examination of commemorative displays. For example, many of the statues of Confederate war heroes were erected by the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers in the early 1900s and many of those honored had little in their lives to commend such recognition. Personally, I have always had a problem with the FBI building in DC being named for J. Edgar Hoover, given what we now know about how he ran that organization.
But suggesting that “Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history” goes too far. Are we to now demolish the Jefferson Memorial? What about the Washington Monument? After all, George Washington was a slave holder as well. We now know that John Kennedy was a serial womanizer. Should we extinguish the internal flame at his gravesite and raze it?
Like so many other issues in today’s political discourse, the extreme voices are dominating the discussion on these re-examinations of historical monuments. The American people are a great reservoir of common sense. Unfortunately, our current political institutions are not.