Rather than condemn historic figures because they fail to meet current moral standards, let’s pause this July 4th to appreciate how far our society and the people who shaped it over the last 244 years have progressed — despite being human.
There’s no question that our ideas about liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness are not what they were in 1776.
Consider, for example, that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, not only owned slaves but fathered children with one of the slaves he owned.
Personally, I find Jefferson the most fascinating of presidents. He was a visionary held captive by his desire to maintain his economic and social status. He was a populist — and an elitist who embraced the use of reason, science and education to improve society. His Louisiana Purchase, which changed not only the nation’s geography but its very character, was daring and strategic.
He abhorred slavery and owned slaves.
He deserves a place of honor in our country, but he doesn’t deserve worship.
As the nation angrily debates statues of Confederate leaders and such U.S. patriots as Jefferson, it’s worth considering why we choose to honor the people we do. It’s also worth asking if we’re able to appreciate their achievements and our history as the work of flawed humans, rather than view past leaders as cartoon-like superheroes or villains.
No historic figure was perfect. And neither were their documents and laws. When the Constitution was written in 1787, it considered most Black people as property. Let’s remember, too, that for decades women were denied such basic rights as the right to vote and own property.
The men who wrote and approved the Constitution were products of their time. We honor them not because they were without faults, but because of what they achieved despite their flaws.
That stands in contrast to Confederate leaders.
People such as Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant are honored because of the work they did on behalf of the nation and its citizens. Confederate officers and leaders are honored because they tried to destroy the nation to save slavery.
Many of their defenders might disagree with that synopsis. But it’s clear that our ideas of justice and freedom have evolved substantially, and that the Confederacy and those who honor it are on the wrong side of history.
Some historians have noted that the current toppling of statues is not new. Nations have frequently done the same, as different leaders — religious and political — took control.
But in a democratic society, that seems a sorry excuse for mobs to destroy public art.
Certainly, not every statue and memorial deserve places of public honor. Some do nothing more than pay homage to white supremacists and their ideology. But we shouldn’t judge too harshly every historic figure who fails to meet current moral standards. When appropriate, we could add context and understanding to public displays that fail to reflect today’s standards. This can be done with plaques and other artwork.
It’s time we all understood that there was no halcyon America — no era when we all prospered, lived peacefully and extended freedom and justice to all.
Building America has always been a struggle, not only against outside forces but against inner demons and our own worst natures.
Our founders understood that.
And still persevered.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.