More than a month after the coldblooded murder of African-American churchgoers in South Carolina by an overt racist prompted an intense and grief-stricken national discussion about racism in the United States, it is now possible to apply some perspective to the events that followed. Across the South, in public and private spaces, the Confederate battle flag was furled for the last time. Few responsible commentators saw this as anything less than a public good. Some even suggested that further steps were necessary; monuments to Confederate leaders should be torn down, roads and bridges named for Confederate generals retitled, and municipalities with Confederate roots renamed. What followed this catharsis was, however, a full-scale national moral panic. Perhaps the most ludicrous example of this overcompensation came when television networks cancelled re-airings of the Dukes of Hazard and the owner of the program’s original prop car, the General Lee, revealed that the vehicle’s famous rebel flag roof art was to be painted over. It was then that some cautiously began to wonder if the well-meaning decision to remove this historical artifact with all its negative baggage had gone too far. There was clearly no limiting principle to this national effort to address historical grievances. Where would it all end? Today, it is clear that, for some, the fight to make history conform to today’s moral standards has only just begun.
The impulse to sanitize American history to force it to conform to modern moral benchmarks has taken a bizarre twist in Connecticut. There, the state’s Democratic Party has, under pressure from the NAACP, dropped the names of both Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from its annual fundraising dinner. The two towering figures, both fathers of the modern Democratic Party, have been labeled persona non grata because of their ties to American slavery.
“Democrats cited Jefferson and Jackson’s ownership of slaves as a key factor in the decision, as well as Jackson’s role in the removal of Native Americans from the southeastern U.S. in what was known as the Trail of Tears,” the CT Post reported. This is surely just the first such effort; it is likely to be replicated by Democratic Parties across the country and perhaps nationally.
It is not a commentary on the value of their presidencies (like all commanders-in-chief, both of their presidential legacies are checkered) to note that, as members of the nation’s founding generations, to criticize them for violating of today’s moral standards is deeply unfair and revisionist. Yes, both men owned African slaves. Slavery and anti-black prejudice is fundamentally immoral, as the United States has acknowledged over the course of a bloody civil war, the passage of two constitutional amendments affirming equal rights, Reconstruction, desegregation, and the present debate over the dark symbolism of that period in history presided over by a black president. America struggles to atone for its original sin, and it probably always will. To attack the legacies of Jefferson and Jackson is, however, misguided. Removing their names from the pantheon of American icons is not the pursuit of historical accuracy; it is a declaration of historical ignorance.
For modern Democrats to abandon Jefferson, among the most literate and forward-thinking men to ever occupy the office of president, over slavery of all things is a bizarre exercise in self-flagellation. Jefferson was a populist, a pacifist, and one of the most successful advocates for the natural rights of all men to have ever lived. The figure that first wrote, “all men are created equal,” and then through the sheer force of principle and political acumen managed to convince his colleagues in the Continental Congress to unanimously ratify it, changed the world forever. The first anti-slave law in the United States, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which paved the way for the admittance of the Upper Midwest into the Union but outlawed slave labor in those territories, was based on a law drafted by Jefferson in 1784. Jefferson always considered the practice of slavery an “abominable crime,” and, as governor of Virginia, successfully outlawed the importation human chattel from abroad. In an 1806 message to Congress, then President Jefferson called for the importation of slaves to be outlawed permanently in the whole of the United States. He wrote that slavery was an institution that “the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe.” This is not a man who had much affinity for human bondage, and he spent a substantial amount of energy delegitimizing that custom.
Andrew Jackson was, from a conservative perspective, one of the worst presidents to ever occupy the White House. Jackson’s unique fear of centralized power (both public and private) gave meaning to the very definition of activist government. For 150 years, Democrats admiringly dubbed it Jacksonian democracy. But while the hero of New Orleans is properly reviled by the left today for the brutal treatment of Native Americans in the South and in the Western territories into which Americans were expanding, liberals fail to appreciate his mistrust of corporate interests, his fear of central banks, and his radical expansion of voting rights. What Jackson called the era of the “common man,” his critics derided as “the reign of King Mob.” Jackson, too, owned slaves. And while he was certainly less egalitarian than his Democratic-Republican predecessor, Jackson’s commitment to populist democracy set a tone that generations of his Democratic successors strove to emulate.
Again, where is the limiting principle? Will Washington D.C. or Washington state be forced to consider a change of name because the founder of this country, a man who could have followed in Caesar’s footsteps but chose those of Cincinnatus instead, owned slaves? Are we to qualify the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, because he was by any reasonable modern standard a white supremacist? Will the bronze statues of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt be melted down because he approved of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II?
Democrats are not merely purging their own history from the records. A Democratic administration is busily whitewashing the nation’s currency of at least one founder in order to comport with the evolving standards of conduct demanded by the social justice doyens on the nation’s college campuses. Following a brief, exclusively liberal campaign to banish Jackson’s portrait from the $20 note, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew decided to compromise. Instead, Alexander Hamilton, the father of the modern banking system, will be removed from the $10 bill – his likeness to be consigned only to the museums. And who will replace him? Lew revealed that, to satisfy insatiable demagogues who populate liberal blogs with content, it would be a woman. What woman? Who knows? The Department of the Treasury is taking your suggestions now. The only prerequisite is that they have the necessary chromosomal makeup in order to serve as some modest compensation for the ills endured by earlier generations of women.
Those who engage in this form whitewashing do not revere history; they despise it. Imposing the standards of their generation upon the long dead is the ultimate expression of condescension. It represents the rejection of context and is a contemptuous effort to shun understanding and tolerance – an exercise the left is forever lecturing others to perform. It’s a failure of intellectual curiosity; a denial of intellectualism itself. This is an Orwellian labor to enforce conformity; behaviors demanded of us by the parlor totalitarians who dare not tolerate divergence, much less dissent. Those societies that have tried to cleanse their histories in order to appeal to current tastes are not models worthy of emulation. Nations that re-write their history books soon turn their attentions to eliminating more contemporary sources of frustration. This is radical revisionism, and it must be discredited. If it is not stopped, it may soon become unstoppable.