Condemning individual Founding Fathers ignores the systemic problems in their society. Liam Glen writes on the moral ambiguity of early America.
On July 2, Thomas Jefferson’s home town of Charlottesville, Virginia voted to stop recognizing his birthday as a public holiday.
The vote is part of a larger cultural movement against the United States’ third president. When people talk about Jefferson today, they rarely emphasize on his political ideas and achievements. Rather, the conversation focuses on slavery. Over the course of his life, Jefferson held around six hundred people captive and forced them into hard labor.
Most infamously, he fathered at least six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. While this has long been interpreted as a forbidden romance, it is somehow only recently that a majority of people have realized that a relationship in which one party is the legal chattel of the other can never be consensual.
It is easy to see why America does not want to honor such a man. But it is inconsistent to excise Jefferson from the national pantheon while continuing to honor the rest of the Founding Fathers.
George Washington was barely any better than Jefferson, yet America still regards him as more god than man. The San Francisco Board of Education recently voted to destroy one of the few monuments that accurately depicts the first president’s actions towards slaves and Native Americans. Meanwhile, Americans have celebrated Jefferson’s archrival Alexander Hamilton ever since the release of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical. But the real Hamilton was a deeply unpleasant figure who personally bought and sold slaves.
Ironically, Jefferson may be the closest thing to a “good guy” out of the lot. Along with his support for causes like religious liberty, he actually did more politically than almost any other Founder to try to prevent the spread of slavery.
The modern strain of anti-Jefferson revisionism seeks to hold him singularly accountable for early America’s sins. In reality, however, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and other injustices were institutional rather than individual problems. Nearly every one of the figures who we revere as revolutionary heroes was either an active participant or a complicit accomplice.
Products of Their Time
When talking about the flaws of respected historical figures, we often say that they simply did not know any better. How could we expect people who dedicated their lives to liberty and equality figure out that owning other people is wrong?
This massively insults the Founding Fathers’ intelligence. Nearly everyone in the North and South at the time acknowledged that slavery was, at the very least, a less-than-ideal institution.
One of the slaveowners among the Founding Fathers, John Dickinson, cared enough about the issue to free all of his slaves within his lifetime. Jefferson and Washington could have done the same, but they decided that it would be more trouble than it was worth.
But the “products of their time” argument does have a point. Today we look back on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and quite rightfully focus on the fact that the nation did not even regard 18 percent of its population as people in 1790. Or that the entire country’s existence was only possible through the murder and ethnic cleansing of native peoples.
To most people at the time (or, at least, to most white people at the time), however, this was normal. Some might have gathered around for a cup of tea and discussed how bad it was, but anyone who wanted to seriously do something about it was considered a bleeding-heart loon.
There is an enduring conception of American history as a battle between Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveowners. From 1789 to 1865, the former tirelessly fought against the latter in the pursuit of liberty and justice.
But the vast majority of whites who did not own slaves were in fact far more focused on bread-and-butter issues like tariff rates. And they were perfectly willing to ally with slaveowners if it suited their interests.
Even the much-celebrated Free Soil Party, operating from 1848 to 1854, had no interest in abolition. Rather, it opposed the spread of slavery into new territories as it feared that slaves would take jobs which would otherwise go to white men.
Again, we like to tell stories of good versus evil so we can celebrate certain early Americans as heroes while dismissing the rest as villains. But, in reality, the evil was implanted within American society itself, and none but an ostracized minority seriously opposed it.
It is best to view history objectively without making moral judgements. But we also have to be realistic. It is human nature to interpret past events as a narrative with clear heroes and villains.
It is perfectly fair to portray the Founding Fathers as monsters sitting atop a pyramid of thieves, traitors, murders, and whip-crackers. While they might have seen themselves as Enlightened gentlemen, they did little to improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans.
Such a view was once the heresy of all heresies. Now, it is gaining traction. Nike cited it as its reason to withdraw plans for a shoe featuring the thirteen-star American flag.
Despite what some might say, it is possible to acknowledge history without honoring disagreeable figures. Those who protest the removal of Confederate monuments in the US probably have different opinions of statues of Stalin in Eastern Europe.
France maintains Versailles as a tourist attraction without glorifying the Ancien Régime. The same could be done for Monticello and Mount Vernon.
But this viewpoint is also controversial. Americans have spent so long honoring their early leaders that many cannot comprehend an alternative narrative wherein they are villains.
Instead, it is more common to say that the Founders were flawed heroes. They built lasting, democratic institutions that were originally intended for the sole benefit of white men, yet have been expanded and reformed to apply to all Americans in pursuit of a more perfect Union.
Neither of these narratives are objectively correct or incorrect. They simply take the facts of history and interpret them in different ways. While there are countless arguments over which is more valid, it mostly comes down to personal preference.
But it is important for us to give thought to the moral complexity of the past. If nothing else, it gives us cause to look for nuance in modern political debates. And to have some humility before assuming that our cause is one that future generations will smile upon.