If We Shouldn’t Judge the Founders by Our Values, Should We Live by Theirs?
Philadelphia Union honors those killed by police.Our recent protests, sparked mainly by the Minneapolis PD’s nonchalant murder of George Floyd – with the cameras rolling, even – are roiling American society. Institutions are challenged. Assumptions are ravaged. The whole of the American metanarrative is seemingly up for review.
The rhetorical and ideological upheaval takes physical form as streets outside the White House in DC and Trump Tower in New York City (and closer to home, along Broadway by the Capitol here in Denver) are painted to assert, in boldface, that “Black Lives Matter.”
Athletes in the US and Europe kneel before matches with their fists in the air. Their uniforms bear the slogans of social justice campaigns (and, in one case, the names of black citizens killed by the police). In a move straight out of the Book of Revelation, NASCAR bans the Confederate battle jack from its events, and Mississippi, a state as congenitally steeped in racial hatred as any in the country, finally vows to remove that same emblem from its flag.*
In perhaps the most symbolic acts of all, statues of Confederate leaders, slavers, and harbingers of genocide like Columbus are hauled down from their places of honor.
Strange times, and from the perspective of those whose souls are sick from centuries of oppression and exploitation, it’s about damned time. Upward and onward.
Some of us have thought a few minutes into the future and wondered what comes next. Going after the statue of a traitorous Southern general who fought to preserve slavery seems obvious enough, but … George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and a number of other founders also owned slaves. They acceded to the demands of slave-owners from the South in constructing the documents on which our country was built. Do we reconsider their statues? The cities, streets, parks, public schools and other monuments to their legacies, as well?
Ripping down the iconography of racism – both literally and symbolically – is a good thing, and it’s also fair that we engage in a critical conversation about the legacies of founders whose actions were inconsistent with enlightened modern values. In doing so, it’s important to acknowledge those who fear a new “tyranny of the woke.”
And no, these concerns aren’t unique to conservatives.
The demand for posthumous perfection.
My friend Matt Boggs offered up a detailed critique of the current moment the other day, drawing some interesting parallels to China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao. His analysis articulates the concerns many people have about the fairness (and wisdom) of judging the past by contemporary standards and is well worth a few minutes of your time.
With respect to the slave-owning founders argument specifically, he says:
It is not only the sweeping away of racism per se that now sweeps the country; it is something more. It is the demand for posthumous perfection. If any American figure ever failed morally, then no nuanced evaluation of this figure’s role in history is to be countenanced. Down with George Washington. Down with Thomas Jefferson. As if, within any given person or historical period, anyone can entirely escape his time and place.
Imagine this scenario: Thomas Jefferson presents the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. With heated words and in a sarcastic tone, a member of the Congress stand up and says: “Very nice, Jefferson. Beautiful words. Yeah, created equal. But you own slaves. Tear your document up until you clean up your own house. Go home! Save us your hypocritical musings!” To that there is an eruption of mass applause and Jefferson goes home, the Declaration of Independence relegated to the trash, never published.
That, in essence, is what the cultural revolution of today in America demands. In a revision of Murphy’s law, no good idea goes unpunished. If its author is imperfect, his idea is dispensable.
Jefferson specifically strikes me a troublesome example. It’s one thing to argue that people were a “product of their time,” but it’s more difficult to excuse someone who knew better.
But the overarching question Matt asks and the principle it implies are important and obviously relevant. Culturally we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Each generation draws on the wisdom of its ancestors and hopefully moves the needle ahead a tick or two. No era is as enlightened as the one that came after it, but that generation wouldn’t have progressed at all without its predecessors. Perfection, if it exists, arises from millennia of imperfection. The perfecting impulse, the aggregated exercise of good faith, must be central to the formula by which we evaluate historical figures.
It’s the height of arrogance and naïvete to think we have reached the pinnacle or moral actualization. In 100 years, or 300, or 500 our descendants will hopefully look back on 2020 and think yes, that was a big step forward, but … we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we?
Do we want to be judged by them the same way many of us are now judging our founders? A complex issue, to be sure, and not one with a simple answer.
There’s one conclusion we can draw, though.
The argument that we can’t judge the actions of historical figures by current standards is an explicit affirmation that their values are of another era and are not applicable in the 21st century.
Further, it renders an inescapable verdict on our Constitution. This document, their document, which reserved the franchise exclusively to wealthy white men, which afforded no official voice to the poor or working classes, which treated women as second-class citizens and blacks as livestock, is by definition antithetical to the values of contemporary America. No system that codifies slavery and reserves de jure all power to wealthy white men has any use whatsoever in a society that values fairness and justice. This is especially true when its vaunted process for amending itself can’t be brought to acknowledge that women ought to be equal under the law.
We shouldn’t judge them by our values? Fine. But neither should we live by theirs.
In other words, the US needs a new Constitution. The old one is obsolete. We need not throw everything in it out – some of the core principles are regarded as fundamental statements of human rights for good reason, as Matt makes clear above.
But other elements need updating. A few years back I took on just this task, and while I can be critical of what our founders gave us, I can also testify that composing a bill of rights is harder than it looks. Some of it I feel like I got right. Other pieces need work.
And yeah, I get that what I’m proposing is mostly an academic exercise. However, this is perhaps the greatest time for academic exercises in centuries, because our socio-political history and identity are under very public revision.
To many, 2020 feels like chaos unbound, but in truth it represents an opportunity for dramatic transformation unlike anything in our lifetimes. When weighty, unfamiliar arguments find us – as they surely will – it’s important to be as thoughtful and prepared as possible, because our ideas have a better chance than ever of encountering agents of actual change.