We have previously discussed the destruction of statues and the refusal of mobs to allow society as a whole to decide what statues should be removed. That debate is now occurring though the destruction has continued often with little comment, let alone action from universities or local governments. This includes the Columbus statue in Little Italy in Baltimore which was torn down and thrown into the harbor with no action from the police. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times, Lucian K Truscott IV, has called for the tearing down of the Thomas Jefferson memorial. As a descendant of the former President, his call has attracted considerable attention. At the same time, leaders like Sen. Tammy Duckworth (R., IL.), a leading candidate to be the vice presidential candidate with former Vice President Joe Biden, has said that she is open to the idea of tearing down the statue to George Washington. There are also recent demands to remove the statues of Abraham Lincoln.
While this debate is welcomed, it is not clear that the full debate will be presented on the pages of the New York Times where editors publicly committed to barring opposing views like those recently of Sen. Tom Cotton. Others in the media, most recently CNN’s Don Lemon, have rationalized the destruction of these statutes. Lemon lashed out at American history as based on “propaganda” and dismissed criticism of the mob actions as an example of how “the chickens are coming home to roost.” As for the statues of opponents to slavery that have been destroyed, Lemon simply said “movements are often messy.” He further claimed that “nobody is erasing history . . . What people are trying to do is put it in context and these are conversations that we should be having.”
It is not much of a conversation after statues are torn down and thrown into harbors. Some of us have been engaged in this debate for years. I called for the removal of some statues over two decades ago. However, I have also opposed the removal of statues to leaders like Washington and Jefferson. We learn from history not by wiping it away but placing it into context. Washington and Jefferson are honored not because of their ownership of slaves but despite that terrible wrong. Indeed, the history of both leaders on slavery is complex, particularly for Jefferson who sought to include the following statement that was deleted by pro-slavery delegates as a condition for voting for independence:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Jefferson was a hypocrite on this issue and kept hundreds in bondage. As we discussed recently, this part of his legacy is not ignored but emphasized in tours at Monticello.
Truscott insists that Monticello “is enough.” He added: “And that is why his memorial in Washington should be taken down and replaced. Described by the National Park Service as ‘a shrine to freedom,’ it is anything but.”
While I respect Truscott’s view and appreciate his thoughtful column, I cannot disagree more with that premise. The memorial is a “shrine to freedom” because it celebrates Jefferson’s legacy in such acts as drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It is not a memorial to his legacy as a slave owner. That legacy should be part of the context in viewing Jefferson but not a reason to tear down this memorial.
Truscott joins others, including a CNN analyst for calling for tearing down the memorials, including the Washington monument. Often these calls are examples of rage overcoming reason. Historical legacies tend to be complex and include elements that many of us find deeply offensive or immoral. We can discuss all of these elements in considering the history, and historical figures, that creates this country.
Washington’s view on slavery has long been debated. He was without question of slavey owner and there are shocking accounts of the mistreatment of slaves under bondage at his estate. There is no act that erase that immorality. As I noted in a prior column, some of his friends however saw Washington as regretful over slavery and his failure to break from it. After the war, Washington continued to discuss ways to convert his plantation from slaves to tenants at the suggestion of his close aide (and outspoken opponent of slavery) Marquis de Lafayette. By 1786, Washington wrote his friend Robert Morris, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].” In the end, Washington was the only one of nine slaveholding presidents (and the only slaveholding founder) who freed his slaves upon his death. Washington freed as many of his 317 slaves as possible. Some 123 slaves were his to emancipate while neither he nor Martha could free the so-called “Custis Dower slaves” (who remained property of the heirs to the estate of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband). He further ordered that all of the elderly or sick slaves would be supported by his estate for the rest of their lives.
CNN Angela Rye stated Rye insists that all of these statues must come down because “We have to get to the heart of the problem here and the heart is the way many of us were taught American history. American history is not all glorious.” As we discussed earlier, it is not all glorious but it was a glorious experiment with a people committed to self-determination and individual liberties. The hypocrisy of stating such ideals in a nation with slavery was not lost on some of that generation like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay. However, the system that they created allowed for a nation to finally end this disgraceful practice. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of white and black soldiers would die together ridding the nation of this scourge. While aspects of our history are not glorious, we have had glorious and redemptive moments of a people struggling with our own failures. We can learn from that history, but not if we tear it down in a blind rage against our past.