Skirmishes over how to interpret a shared cultural past are nothing new — but lately, the history wars have been raging nonstop.
Charlottesville, Virginia, has dropped Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a city holiday. The San Francisco Board of Education has voted to destroy a high school mural depicting George Washington that includes images of a black slave and a dead American Indian. And much of the Fourth of July weekend was spent in polemics about whether the holiday celebrating our nation’s independence means anything for members of groups that were denied liberty and equality for too long.
An honest conversation about our history is essential to a free society. But when does that conversation become self-defeating?
A few years ago, when the push to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces was underway, critics asked whether Washington and Jefferson were next. Others said there was no comparison: Confederate leaders rebelled against the American Republic to preserve slavery; Washington and Jefferson may have been slave owners, but they founded that Republic on principles that eventually led to slavery’s abolition.
Yet today, progressive narratives increasingly treat Washington and Jefferson, too, as villains in the American story — or see the American story itself as a tale of racist, sexist, oppressive villainy.
Jefferson exemplifies the American paradox. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence was a passionate champion of individual freedom who often expressed an abhorrence of slavery. Yet he not only agreed to protect the interests of slaveholders as the price of creating the Republic but was himself a slaveholder who showed little interest in freeing the humans he owned as property.
To stop honoring Jefferson as a key figure in our political tradition is unthinkable. And yet for Americans who are descendants of the enslaved, celebrations of Jefferson have to be tinged with bitterness.
How to celebrate the best of our history while acknowledging the worst? Memorials to victims of slavery and to their liberation can to complement public monuments to the founders. Far less constructive is the San Francisco school board’s decision to have the high school mural painted over to avoid giving offense — all the more ironic since the artist who painted it was a Communist making a statement about American history’s cruel underside.
Perhaps we can take a cue from the great African American intellectual Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and former slave. Douglass’ 1852 speech, “What is to the slave the Fourth of July?”, was an indictment of the monstrous hypocrisy of celebrating freedom while enslaving people. Yet Douglass also defended the Constitution and its framers and argued that “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions” would bring about the downfall of slavery.
Today, we can honor both the founders and Douglass. Let’s reckon with the past, not reject it.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.