government’s “responsibility to protect” the statues and memorials of non-Confederates, e.g., Christopher Columbus, America’s Founding Fathers, etc.
Like his son, President Donald J. Trump, not unexpectedly, recently characterized the MRR as unpatriotic and the undoing of American history while alluding to those demonstrators who destroyed and/or defaced such “sacred memorials” as terrorists. During an earlier counter-demonstration in opposition to the removal of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Trump offered an argument that was untypically coherent and interestingly on point.
“This week it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know you really have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
The answer to Trump’s questions regarding the fate of all memorials honoring historical personages will depend upon three factors. The first is whether the MRR is truly a sincere and long overdue acknowledgment and expression of outrage regarding racism, slavery and genocide. Second, has this nation at long last garnered the courage to go beyond the myth and rhetoric and call to task all who are complicit, whether they be Confederate Generals, deified Founding Fathers, Spanish Missionaries, or even the “discoverer” of the New World? Having personally witnessed several demonstrations and having spoken with many members of the movement, I am impressed by their motivation and enthusiasm and convinced of their altruism and sincerity. Consequently, I have no reason to doubt the movement’s adherence to these first two criteria. What remains, therefore, and what I will attempt in this essay, is an analysis and exploration of the character, behavior, and where relevant, the accomplishments of several often memorialized American icons to determine whether they are worthy of honor and respect or of condemnation and sanction?
The Case Against Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus
As is widely known, I think, though perhaps less frequently spoken about, George and Martha Washington owned and profited from the labor of over 200 slaves before, during, and after his Presidency. Thomas Jefferson’s reality was even more abhorrent. Despite having penned the celebrated decree that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and publicly decrying slavery as a “moral depravity,” Jefferson owned over 600 slaves, profited from their labor, and believed blacks to be inferior to whites, according to the Foundation that bears his name. While an outspoken critic of “mixing” the races, Jefferson fathered at least six children with one of his slaves Sally Hemings, the first when she was just sixteen. Consequently, Thomas Jefferson, in addition to being a Founding Father and a principle author of the Declaration of Independence was also a racist, slave owner, rapist, and pedophile.
Christopher Columbus’s voyage of “discovery” was motivated not by scientific curiosity or altruism, but by covetousness and insatiable greed. According to his own writings, his goal was to expropriate, by any and all means necessary, huge caches of wealth from those he encountered, in order to enrich himself and his sponsors. When he returned to Espanola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1493, he was installed as Viceroy, promptly enslaving and systematically instituting policies that entailed the extermination of millions of the indigenous Taino inhabitants. Upon Columbus’s departure seven years later, of the eight million Taino that populated Espanola at the onset of Columbus’s regime, less than 100,000 remained alive.
When the character and behavior of Washington, Jefferson, Columbus (and quite a few others) are demythologized and accurately reported, Trump’s concerns about whether their statues and memorials should suffer a similar fate prove more insightful and morally consistent than those of Pelosi, Biden, and many others who single out only the statues and memorials of those personages who participated in one particular historical event, the Civil War, as awful as it was.
Why Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus May be Different
Bracketing. While recognizing the flawed character of Washington and Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for her The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, believed there are profound differences between members of the Confederacy and America’s Founding Fathers, differences that may influence how they should be remembered.
“Members of the founding generation should occupy a different place in our minds than the Confederates. There is a big difference between being a person who helped create the United States and being a person who worked to destroy the United States.”
Noted historian Stephen Ambrose, also impressed by the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers is more specific.
"The Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials remind us that greatness comes in different forms and at a price. Jefferson, by his words, gave us aspirations. Washington, through his actions, showed us what was possible . . . That the masters should be judged as lacking in the scope of their minds and hearts is fair, indeed must be insisted upon, but that doesn’t mean we should judge the whole of them only by this part."
Gordon-Reed and Ambrose, while certainly not proponents of racism and slavery, offer a utilitarian perspective. So enthralled were they by the importance of this American Experiment and its at least theoretical insistence upon equality and freedom, that they were predisposed to bracket off and for all intents and purposes excuse Washington’s and Jefferson’s racism and their ownership and treatment of slaves as a “lack in the scope of their minds and hearts,” presumably a lesser evil. By focusing instead upon and celebrating what they allege is the Master’s significant contributions to the founding and defending of this nation, a greater good, they find reasons to differentiate the Founding Fathers from their Confederate counterparts, sparing them from accountability and excusing them for their grievous transgressions.
Treason. Gordon-Reed also argued that another important difference between Washington and Jefferson and the Confederates was that the latter unlike the former “were engaged in treasonous insurrection to overthrow the government.”
Historical Relativism. Clearly, the relativist argues, moral standards and societal norms do change and evolve over time. Consequently, since these historical figures did not have the same standards of equality and multiculturalism as we do today, it is ethically unsound to judge their behavior by today’s understanding of what is moral and just. Are we prepared, for example, to dismiss the wisdom of John Stuart Mill, the author of the liberal doctrine, which makes our inclusive and multicultural environment possible, because of his attitudes towards Indians and the East India Company?
Logical and Moral Consistency
On the wall of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office were photos of four men he considered to be the greatest Americans. Included with Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington was a photo of General Robert E. Lee, arguably one of the most polarizing figures of the Civil War and perhaps the premiere memorialized Confederate General. Eisenhower was not alone in his praise for Lee. Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were admirers as well, with the latter praising Lee “ . . . as one of our greatest Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” When pressed for clarification about how he could regard a “person who worked to destroy the United States as a great American,” Eisenhower‘s response was similar to the defense of Washington and Jefferson offered by Gordon-Reed and Ambrose. That is, to bracket off Lee’s treason and to focus instead upon his superlative character. According to Eisenhower, Lee was,
“ . . . one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history . . . a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we in our own time of danger in this divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”
Like Washington, Jefferson, and some fourteen other Founding Fathers including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, John Jay, etc., General Lee did own slaves. But as attested to by President Eisenhower, the Roosevelts, and many others, Lee, possessed qualities of character so noteworthy, admirable, and rare as to warrant “praise as one of America’s greatest Christians.” By parity of reasoning, therefore, following the precedent of Gordon-Reed and Ambrose, it is perfectly reasonable and consistent to argue that Lee’s and perhaps other “Southern Gentlemen’s” lack in the scope of his mind and heart may be bracketed off and excused as a lesser evil, in deference to their outstanding character, selflessness, and nobility, qualities, if emulated by present-day American youth, would, according to Eisenhower, strengthen and sustain this nation’s love of freedom, the greater good.
"Whatever his (Columbus’) defects and offenses, they are surpassed by the luster of his achievements; however “tragic” and unfortunate” certain dimensions of his legacy may be, they are more than offset by the benefits even for the victims of the resulting blossoming of a “superior civilization” in the Americas . . . Hitler caused the Volkswagen to be created, after all, and the autobahn. His leadership of Germany led to jet propulsion, significant advances in rocket telemetry, laid the foundation for genetic engineering. Why not celebrate his bona fide accomplishments on behalf of humanity rather than "dwelling" so persistently on the genocidal by-products of his policies?"
Response to the treason argument. Gordon-Reed’s argument that the Confederates, unlike Washington and Jefferson, are guilty of engaging “in treasonous insurrection to overthrow the government” fares no better. Now I realize that history is often forgiving of and reflects the perspective of the victor, but even Franklin acknowledged that by signing the Declaration of Independence, he and his cohorts were committing treason a crime punishable by death. He wrote, “We must indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
I do not deny, though some have tried, that the primary goal of the Confederacy in the Civil War was a defense of slavery. Unlike Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus, however, the vast majority of Confederate soldiers were uneducated, dirt poor, and owned no slaves. Despite the fact that as in every war, the vast majority of Civil War soldiers were misled, lied to, and/or coerced, into believing it their patriotic, even moral, duty to fight and if need be die for a cause they were conditioned and/or coerced into believing just and necessary, their efforts and sacrifices were neither heroic nor noble. Though there are, perhaps, important differences between the Founding Fathers and the Confederate soldiers, none, in my view, warrant the condemnation of the latter and exoneration of the former. Consequently, the superlative character of General Lee and the positive contributions to this nation of the Founding Fathers neither excuse nor absolve them of moral culpability and personal responsibility for their grievous transgressions.
Response to the historical relativist. Finally, the historical relativist’s argument that it is ethically unsound to judge the behavior of historical personages by today’s standard of morality, equality, and multiculturalism is also misguided. That the oppression and subjugation of blacks may have been a common practice in America from the 14th through the 20th century does not exculpate slave owners and racists, certainly not rapists and pedophiles. Commonplace or not, slavery was as egregious a wrong then as it is now. Further, many, perhaps even most, including Washington and Jefferson, knew quite well that slavery was “repugnant” (Washington) and a “moral depravity” (Jefferson) and both had said as much on numerous occasions. Others, such as Thomas Paine, the author of the critically important Common Sense, John Adams, and Samuel Adams clearly understood the repugnancy and moral depravity of the institution of slavery and refused to own and profit from the subjugation of other human beings. Further, if there was any doubt regarding the awareness of slavery’s repugnancy and unacceptability, its condemnation was affirmed by the Confederation Congress on July 13, 1787, when it passed the Northwest Ordinance banning slavery from the Northwest Territories.
What is, or should be, clear to all rational human beings is that the practice, tolerance of, and/or support for racism, slavery, and genocide are grievous violations of morality and the values and ideals for which this nation stands. Contra Gordon-Reed and Ambrose, the seriousness of these crimes must be acknowledged and have repercussions and cannot merely be bracketed off, trivialized, and excused as a lack in the scope of the perpetrator’s mind and heart. Consequently, all who committed such crimes must be held accountable for their transgressions.
Since, as I noted earlier, the primary purpose of the Civil War was a defense of slavery, many if not most statesmen and soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, especially those in leadership positions, are worthy not of honor and respect, but of condemnation and sanction. Further, from behind John Rawl’s “veil of Ignorance,” we must re-examine the character and behavior of all memorialized personages to ensure that history accurately and fairly records their achievements and transgressions. Finally, all guilty parties, whether they are mythologized Founding Fathers or Confederate Generals must be held to account and, if warranted, no longer celebrated and memorialized by having statues or military bases named in their honor.
To President Trump’s concern that the MRR has already gone too far, and to his question “where does it stop,” I would respond that the movement has not yet gone far enough. That it must continue until this nation garners the courage to be true to its stated values and acknowledges the extent of its racist and genocidal history. It must continue until we demythologize false heroes, hold them accountable for their crimes, and accept that they are worthy not of honor and respect, but of condemnation and sanction. It must continue until stops the statues and memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Christopher Columbus, George Armstrong Custer, etc., are taken down and deposited in museums properly contextualized acknowledging both their accomplishments and their crimes. It must continue until the statues of these racists, slaveholders, and perpetrators of genocide are replaced with statues memorializing men and women worthy of this nation’s respect – Thomas Paine, Ella Baker, Sojourner Truth, Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin, Eugene Debs, Rosa Parks, Crazy Horse, Black Cloud, and Sitting Bull. It must continue until members of the military are stationed in Fort Mohammed Ali and Camp Dorothy Day.
Finally, what Trump and others who accuse memorial reformers of conducting “ . . . a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children," fail to realize is that to tell the truth about, to demythologize, the behavior of our forbearers and to replace statues, rename forts, where warranted, does not wipe out history, it corrects it. Nor does it defame heroes or erase our values. Rather it clarifies and asserts what we stand for as a people and as a nation. It reiterates and demonstrates our commitment to Jefferson’s proclamation, according to which he failed to live, that all men (and women) are created equal, that justice is blind, and that everyone is equally accountable under morality and the law.
Copyright © Camillo Mac Bica • All Rights Reserved