Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth. Thomas Jefferson, the pen behind the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s third president, owned slaves for most of his adult life. Simultaneously, he was a man who supported gradual emancipation and eventually went on to ban the importation of slaves to the U.S. The Jefferson Memorial stands tall in front of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Almost 1600 high schoolers attend Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, NY. Should we change the name of this school? Should we take down his monuments?
I think the answer is no. Individuals must be judged on their collective contributions to society. Jefferson’s collective contributions are in the new positive, I think. A founding father, organizer of the Louisiana Purchase, highly regarded by presidental scholars – I look at these things, and I can reconcile his ownership of slaves. I think he is, and should remain, a revered president and leader of the United States.
Now, consider Robert E. Lee. Lee’s contributions are in the net negative. While he was deeply divided about his initial decision to lead the Confederate military, he still chose to lead them. He fought to maintain the practice of slavery. Had Lee acheived victory, life would have been much different for the African Americans in 1865. I look at these things, and I can NOT reconcile his choices to be the military leader of a rebel movement which believed “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
The ultimate test. Think of the people who would be most uncomfortable with the monument you so adore. Put yourselves in their shoes, and imagine walking before the monument. Could you, through their lens, their background, their values, their history, be OK with this statue? Could you look up and say, “their collective achievements and values as a person make up for any harm they have caused myself and others. I can let this statue stand.” If you can truly draw that conclusion while considering it through the eys of another, maybe you have a case. But I don’t think there is any way to make that case for Lee, and still consider yourself a believer in “liberty and justice for all.”
Consider the issue from another foundational viewpoint. The democratic vote. A system I think most Americans consider to be a “pretty solid idea.”
The Charlottesville Council voted to take this action, democratically. They heard a grievance, they debated, they voted in favor of removing the statue, 3-2. People can complain about the decision. That’s a protected right. But don’t complain about the democratic vote, or undermine its validity because of disagreements with the outcome.
I’m not writing off the historical significance of Lee, and I don’t think anyone should. The past should not be forgotten. George W. Bush once said, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.” Removing the Lee statue, and ones similar to it, is a step in the right direction. Move them to museums, where they can be viewed not as a symbol of reverence, but as a historical cautionary tale.
City parks are inclusive spaces. I go to the park to read and relax. I can imagine African Americans going to the former Lee Park to read and relax. And I think it would be difficult for them to do that, with a 26-foot-tall Confederate Army general on horseback looking down upon them. The statue-free Emancipation Park seems a more much welcoming place to ALL citizens.
Let’s work together to make this country a home for everyone. Looking at our nation’s past leaders critically and without bias is hard. But it still needs to be done. And we should do it an a way that encourages respectful debate and condemns ignorance-fueled hate speech. When we develop meaningful evaluations of leaders, with all perspectives and all facts considered (no selective memory allowed), we grow as a nation. We come closer to achieving the words written in the Declaration’s preamble:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Stand on the right side of history. Net positive.
P.S. I strongly recommend watching New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech on removing Confederate monuments.