What is the measure of a man or woman? Is he or she measured by the total of a lifetime’s worth of actions both good and bad? Or measured by the most important or consequential action, whether good or bad? Over the last several weeks these questions have further divided a nation already torn apart by political loyalties. However, and especially locally, this isn’t the first time such considerations have been tossed about in the public forum.
I’m thinking about the termination of Coach Joe Paterno and his subsequent death. Almost immediately a division developed concerning his legacy. Alumni remembered the great football teams, outstanding record on graduation of players, and his contribution back to Penn State of a significant portion of his salary. The university dedicated one of its libraries in Paterno’s name. Some students at the time of his dismissal, as well as people outside the state and not connected to PSU, had less favorable views and condemned him for “not doing more.”
So the movement today to defame historical figures and destroy monuments to their memory is certainly born of several centuries of oppression of black Americans. I totally agree that all memorials to figures who played a significant role against the United States in the Civil War should be consigned to museums and removed from public display, along with all versions of the Confederate flag. It’s about time and a no brainer. However, as with Joe Paterno, other historical figures deserve more consideration and less condemnation ... Washington and Jefferson to name a couple.
Both men were slaveholders during the infancy of this nation, “Conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Neither Washington nor Jefferson were perfect men, nor did they act with morality in all cases. Both men however, were instrumental in the formation of a country that gave power to the citizens to make and remake this nation as they saw fit. Washington historically turned down an invitation by his soldiers and other patriots of the day to become king or monarch of the new United States. By doing so he established forever the notion that leaders should be chosen by giving the vote to everyday citizens. In doing so he prevented a monarchy in which slavery would not only have survived but thrived much later than 1865.
Jefferson infamously “kept” one of his female slaves as his concubine. In any age that would be considered a grave injustice to the Sally Hemings and all females. Yet, Jefferson was most responsible for the Declaration of Independence. His words inspired many a patriot and helped throw off the heavy weight of England through the Revolution. Both he and Washington were instrumental in overseeing the development of the Constitution. And yes, Articles I and V of the Constitution solidified slavery and the importation of slaves until 1808. On Jan. 1, 1808 Congress enacted a law that banned the importation of slaves. Thus set in motion the case against slavery resulting in the Civil War and subsequent end of slavery.
So both of these Founding Fathers were flawed individuals. I would argue that their sins should be forgiven in light of the role each played in building a nation and a people with the tools to change what was established. If there is blame and condemnation to be attributed to anyone, it should be attributed to all white citizens for not speaking, acting, demanding and legislating for the complete equality of all citizens of the United States. Black Lives Matter is so right to demand the removal of all public memorials to anyone furthering the cause of slavery or racism in this nation. Finally, I submit that on balance men like Washington and Jefferson though flawed, did more to further the cause of freedom and democracy than that of racism and slavery. Had they not acted to build such a nation, the current protests may well have ended in a massacre at the hands of a military commanded by a despot (maybe we came too close to just that situation).
Let’s keep our memorials to like men and women who may not have been perfect, but were definitely essential to a free and democratic society.