“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy welcomed a group of Nobel Laureates to a dinner in their honor at the White House. To provide the requisite historical context and to underscore the accomplishments of those in attendance, he observed that “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House —with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Nearly six decades later, there is a troubling chorus among select Democrat presidential candidates and their legions to diminish Thomas Jefferson’s place in history. There are calls to topple statues erected in his honor and “scrub” buildings that bear his name. When candidate Pete Buttigieg observes that “Over time, you develop and evolve on the things you choose to honor,” he is not respecting the choices of past generations, but demonstrating utter contempt for them.
What is arguably more concerning and even less defensible because of its intellectual dishonesty is that some of the country’s most prestigious universities (including Harvard, Princeton, Vanderbilt, University of Virginia, William amd Mary, and Yale) are engaged in “cleansing” exercises of their own. This is the no-less-evil twin of banning free speech on college campuses to engender a predominantly liberal ideology. History should be taught and scrutinized, but should never be sanitized, at least not in a country that aspires to learn from its imperfect past.
The irony is that Thomas Jefferson considered the founding of the University of Virginia to be one of his greatest achievements, which is why it is inscribed on his grave marker at Monticello (along with his authorship of The Declaration of Independence). The question to address concerns the genesis of the ominous clouds that have gathered to precipitate this sea change in historical perspective and whether the consequent moral outrage is sufficient to turn it back.
The Great and the Flawed
It is important to understand at the outset that we do not erect statues of Jefferson and George Washington to celebrate their role in the barbaric institution of slavery, but to recognize their prominent role in establishing a unique system of government—the freest and most enduring in history—one that is capable of deep introspection and self-correction. This system of government would eventually come to realize that slavery was fundamentally at odds with the principles and values on which the country was founded. We can lament that this day was slow in coming, but that is purely a reflection of the inertia inherent to our institutions.
Less than a century later, President Abraham Lincoln waged a bloody civil war that divided the nation, leaving it with fractures that have yet to fully heal but ultimately ending the institution of slavery. Nonetheless, in recognizing that the man often casts a shadow on his own legend, Lincoln did not view black people as being equal to white people, did not believe they should have the right to vote, and may even have contemplated their recolonization in Africa or Central America.
Another century passed before President Dwight Eisenhower, a champion of desegregation in the military, struggled mightily in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education over how rapidly the country should move forward to embrace the principle that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.” America is and always has been a work in progress and the utopian state will forever serve as an asymptote on the horizon—a continual reminder that we can always do better.
Democratic presidential candidates may find fault with the pace of progress, but the path forward and the speed with which the nation should move along it has always been observed with far greater clarity retrospectively from the “cheap seats.” Perspective should not be mistaken for enlightenment.
Performing Cosmetic Surgery on our Nation’s History
The statues that honor these founders should not be toppled nor should their names be erased from buildings because doing so is nothing short of “cosmetic surgery” on our nation’s history. Even the statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s military commander, serve as a testament to the uncomfortable truth that even honorable men can be drawn into ignoble causes. These monuments can present valuable teaching moments, but only when they are an accurate recounting of history as opposed to an ex post glorification of that history.
Jefferson and Washington were great men, but also flawed men; they were human. Both detested slavery, but neither was able to summon the moral courage nor bear the economic cost to end it. That all of Washington’s slaves were freed upon his death was less a compassionate act than one of contrition. Jefferson’s contrition, such as it was, was far more measured. On balance, the honors that we confer upon Washington and Jefferson rest on the calculus that the human value of their best deeds exceeds the social cost of their worst sins.
There are other sound reasons to remember these individuals with the monuments and buildings that bear their names. The first and most obvious is that they should serve as trail markers for future generations—to inform them not only where the country has been, but where it should never go again. To paraphrase George Santayana, “those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.”
To their credit, the Germans did not attempt to remove all evidence of their concentration camps and the countless, unspeakable atrocities committed by the Third Reich, although the temptation to do so must have been a powerful one. Germany recognized that the mistakes of the country’s past could not be “erased” and, in fact, went to great pains to memorialize them. Auschwitz would always be Auschwitz, and to pretend it could be otherwise would not make it so.
These failings of the human spirit, unrivaled insofar as man’s inhumanity to man, are far more likely to be repeated if trail markers are not left behind for future generations to ensure that they do not fall into the abyss. It can be argued that the toppling of statues and the changing of names is the intellectual equivalent of burning books. This practice served Germany poorly; it would serve this country no better.
The physicist Albert Einstein published virtually all of his unsuccessful attempts to find the holy grail of scientific achievements, the Unified Field Theory, which is sometimes referred to as “The Theory of Everything.” This theory initially sought to explain electromagnetism and gravity; nuclear force was added in the 1930s, and by the 1950s it was discovered that there were both strong and weak nuclear forces, so four forces needed to be explained in all.
Einstein did not undertake this exercise to celebrate his failings. The yellow tape that he wrapped around his fruitless forays warned future scientists of where they should not travel. In the academic community, selfless acts of this genre are among the rarest of intersections—intelligence and humility. Einstein is not remembered for his failure to find the Unified Field Theory, nor should Washington and Jefferson be remembered primarily for their errant participation in the institution of slavery.
We Should Tell and Contemplate Our History
President Kennedy remains a revered and tragic figure in this country and throughout the world. We accord him this honor not so much for what he accomplished, but for the great promise he left unfulfilled. The torch had indeed “been passed to a new generation,” but its light was barely visible through the darkness that shrouded the nation in the aftermath of that November day in Dallas.
A student of history, Kennedy possessed a keen understanding of the nation’s past, warts and all, as well as a clear vision and unbridled optimism for what it was capable of achieving—there was no greater champion of American Exceptionalism. Yet the 35th president engaged in reckless behavior that would draw near-universal condemnation by the mores and standards of the present day.
Unlike Alexander Hamilton, who publicly confessed the intimate details of his infidelity to ensure that he could not be compromised, Kennedy engaged in no such mea culpa. The assassin perched on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository that fateful day was not the only threat to the continuation of his presidency. Still, there have been no serious calls to topple statues erected in Kennedy’s memory or otherwise “cleanse” the countless buildings that bear his name, nor should there be.
Any attempt to judge previous generations by the standards of the modern day is a fool’s errand because it fails to recognize that while man is fundamentally flawed, he is also engaged in a great and perpetual struggle, a virtuous dynamic to improve upon himself. Kennedy understood this, and so should the current slate of Democratic presidential candidates (including the Rhodes Scholar among them) who deign to occupy the same high office that Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Kennedy occupied before them.
What distinguishes these men is not their flaws, but their ability to propel the country forward on a trajectory of greatness by confronting the flaws of generations past. With the passing of time, the statues of these former presidents have developed fissures and chinks and carry the tell-tale scars of the storms they have endured. It is only now that they bear a true likeness to the historical figures they are supposed to memorialize.