Across the country, the expression of outrage over the perception of racial discrimination in America’s police departments has evolved into a more far-reaching vehemence. An overdue reckoning with the monuments to traitors against the Union threatens to become an all-out attack on the Founders. At least, those who are perceived to have countenanced the institution of slavery.
In Portland, Oregon, a statue venerating Thomas Jefferson has been defaced, marred with graffiti labeling him a “slave owner,” and torn from its pedestal. Elsewhere in the city, demonstrators assaulted a statue dedicated to George Washington. America’s first president was labeled a “genocidal colonist” and summarily ripped from his foundations with the same enthusiasm Moscovites displayed while removing Felix Dzerzhinsky from his ignominious post outside the Lubyanka. In Illinois, another Washington statue was defaced and barely withstood a crowd’s effort to bring it down.
This is not merely some inchoate expression of mob psychology. Institutions ostensibly dedicated to racial reconciliation and historical accuracy have been waging a campaign against these particular Founders for some time.
In 2015, Democratic Party officials across the country began renaming or abandoning annual “Jefferson-Jackson” dinners. The target of this correction was ostensibly Andrew Jackson; and Jefferson was just collateral damage. But that Jefferson could be sacrificed so easily was an ominous portent. In 2017, a Virginia-based church voted to mothball a memorial to Washington under the assumption that his visage rendered that house of worship hostile to minority congregants. This week, the City Council of New York City voted to remove a statue of Jefferson from City Hall. “I believe the New York City Council should neither ignore nor glorify this dark side of American history,” said Councilwoman Debi Rose.
Conservatives saw all this coming, and they were relentlessly mocked for it. But they were right, and their foresight was based on the fullest understanding of the arguments that America’s historical revisionists tacitly endorsed but never scrutinized.
America’s reckoning with its history of racial discrimination progresses in fits and starts, and this present period of active introspection arguably began after the 2015 massacre of black churchgoers in South Carolina by a proudly anachronistic Confederate sympathizer. All at once, many parts of the country that once celebrated their more ignoble histories took a more critical look at the monuments that glossed over that shame.
There were many who resisted the removal of Confederate statuary, but those who advocated for the relegation of these landmarks to less hallowed locations made the better case: These tributes, they argued, were entirely negationist. Many of these attractions were erected in the 20th century, some in places far beyond the borders of the Confederacy. Indeed, the Confederate battle flag found its way onto state flags and capital grounds primarily as a response to the civil-rights movement. These were the products of an effort to burnish the rebellion’s reputation in service to a contemporary (and loathsome) political cause, not to provide a fuller understanding of American history.
In 2017, only 39 percent of Quinnipiac University survey respondents backed the removal of monuments to the Confederacy from the public square. Today, 52 percent of respondents agree with that notion. Americans are split down the middle, 47 to 47 percent, over whether U.S. Army bases named for Confederate generals should be renamed. But that, too, is a cultural milestone in a country in which Forts Benning, Bragg, and Rucker evoke feelings of patriotic pride whereas the Confederate generals after which they are named are historical footnotes.
But lurking behind this compelling argument was one that lacked any limiting principle. Those most committed to correcting a pervasive and revisionist understanding of American history had adopted a form of revisionism themselves. They argued that the sin of slavery and all those involved in the practice at any level had committed a grave offense—one that outweighed any positive contribution to the country’s founding. Only a handful of activists took this assertion to its logical conclusion, but it was left mostly to the American right to articulate the consequences of such advocacy.
When Donald Trump wondered whether it would be “George Washington next week” and “Thomas Jefferson the week after,” he was treated to haughty and dismissive dispatches in the mainstream press explaining why these Founders were more than just their proximity to slavery. These were valuable missives, but Trump wasn’t the right audience. They should have been directed at the activists who have taken their campus-based maximalism with them into the workforce.
The failure on the part of polite liberal opinion makers to anticipate this attack on America’s foundations is a failure of imagination and an act of hubris. They assumed they spoke for the mob when it was the mob that spoke for them. But their revisionism was only ever as myopic as the South’s hidebound dead-enders.
Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with slavery is condemnable, but his tolerance of it was conflicted. He was not just the author of one of the most expansive definitions of what constitutes human liberty up to that point in history—a radical document that paved a paradigmatic road to Emancipation—he practiced this philosophy. Jefferson was the author of a law that served as the basis for the first anti-slavery legislation in America: the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. In a message to Congress as president, he wrote that “the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe” slavery. Like men of his time and many generations after, Jefferson regarded blacks as inferior. And yet, he resented the “unremitting despotism” and “degrading submissions” American slaves endured.
Washington—the American Cincinnatus who established the customs that preserved the presidency’s diminutive constitutional status—is equally undeserving of the crowd’s unmitigated scorn. He was a slave owner and a brutal one at that. But he, like all his successors in the White House until Lincoln, subordinated the issue of slavery to the imperative of maintaining the Union. Those who regard any compromise in service to the preservation of the Constitution as unacceptable must also reconcile how that document enabled the abolition of the international slave trade, involuntary servitude, and the equal protection clause upon which almost all modern anti-discrimination law is based. To square these competing facts is to muddy a simpler narrative preferred by our enlightened betters in which history’s actors are rendered one-dimensional stick figures. But that isn’t sophistication, and it boils down the complicated conduct of human events to a childish morality play.
To judge our forebearers by the standards that prevail today is vanity. We do so not to seek a fuller understanding of their conditions but our own aggrandizement. We would replace the Founders’ edifices with monuments to ourselves. Only the most self-indulgent could fail to see the folly in this pursuit. Look around you? Do you think for one moment that the generations that follow ours won’t perceive us to be monsters deserving of infamy? Surely, no one who sees this vandalism as a virtue has given a second thought to how history will judge them. And posterity’s verdict may not be as kind as they imagine.