If Americans Grappled Honestly With Their History, Would Any Monuments Be Left Standing?
The furor over police abuse of Black communities is raising new questions about the original sin of America’s Founding Fathers.
The United States of America was born in a state of profound hypocrisy; freedom and oppression were twin bedfellows from the start, nursed in the very households of iconic Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. At the heart of this hypocrisy, of course, was race, and nothing—not Civil War, slavery’s abolition, constitutional amendments, or civil rights legislation—has made the issue go away. And 244 years later, with another July Fourth upon us, Americans are still struggling over this moral conundrum by protesting in large numbers in the streets—most recently in response to the flagrant killing of a helpless Black man under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer—with no obvious resolution in sight.
Despite fleeting hopes that Americans had finally transcended the issue after Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president, it remains central to America’s conflicted self-identity. Last week, Americans celebrated the Juneteenth holiday marking the news in 1865 that Black slavery had ended. And yet the uncomfortable truth is that many white Americans probably had never heard of Juneteenth (nearly half of the population wasn’t familiar with it, according to a new Harris poll), which is celebrated in many African American households as their own independence day—indicating that a segregation of mind and heart as well as community still persists in the country. A lot more Americans have heard of Juneteenth now: Race is once again reigniting tortured debates that date back to the earliest days of the republic, and no one seems immune, least of all the founders.
We now know that Jefferson, whose hallowed monument on the National Mall in Washington quotes his declaration of the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal”—and whose life example Ronald Reagan once said we should wear “on our soul forever”—was not the man most Americans are taught he was: a reluctant slaveholder who was trapped in his times. Jefferson did deplore slavery in principle, but his voluminous letters and writings also show that he was a blatant racist who turned his slaves into collateral for bank loans and believed them inferior human beings. He once wrote that Blacks compared to whites were as “the mule is to the horse”—though Jefferson fathered Black children whose paternity he never acknowledged even as they served him dinner at Monticello as his slaves, historians have documented. We are reminded that the putative father of this country, George Washington, was another slave owner who rebuffed efforts by some of his more enlightened comrades, including his trusted aide Alexander Hamilton, to free Black soldiers in exchange for their service during the Revolution.
Yet to a degree that remains little-known among most Americans, even the founders themselves were deeply conflicted over race. Washington had a much more progressive view of race than Jefferson did—and became the only founder to set yet another critical precedent for the young nation by freeing all his slaves in his will. Even among these two very consequential fellow Virginians, there were sharp differences of opinion over the treatment of Black Americans that might have caused American history to turn out very differently, according to the prominent presidential historian Joseph Ellis. He calls the early years of the republic a “Shakespearean tragedy” compounded of missed opportunities for early emancipation. Had Presidents Jefferson and Washington lived long enough to witness the Civil War, Ellis said in an interview, “Jefferson would have sided with the Confederacy, and Washington would have sided with the North.”
But all such nuances have been lost in the current furor. To a degree that perhaps hasn’t been seen since the tumultuous 1960s, Americans are reckoning, sometimes angrily, with a racist past for which the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal treatment under the law, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, and other legal remedies have proved to be mere emollients for a deeper malady. Many are now asking: Why pretend that our great and glorious American history was greater and more glorious than it really was? Perhaps it’s time to rewrite that history—from the beginning.
This, in turn, has become a practical debate about how many of America’s revered monuments to its past—the “prodigious” honorific structures that Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked Americans love to build—should all be torn down. Ironically, President Donald Trump himself helped to start this debate in 2017 following the murder of a protester by a white supremacist. After asserting there were “very fine people on both sides” of the rival white supremacist and anti-racist demonstrations centered around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump tweeted that if Americans started pulling down statues of Confederate generals, they were embarking down a slippery slope: “Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” Trump reiterated this position in recent weeks, adding that he would also refuse to rename famous U.S. military bases named after confederate generals, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which honors Braxton Bragg, a U.S. Army officer who later joined the Confederacy.
Yet some Americans say that’s just what should happen. Last week, a group of New York City Council members formally petitioned Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from City Hall. At the University of Missouri, thousands of students have signed a petition demanding that a statue of Jefferson be removed from the quad. In Portland, Oregon, demonstrators earlier this month pulled down a large bronze statue of Washington, wrapped its head in an American flag, and lit the flag on fire. Last weekend, another Washington statue in Baltimore was defaced with red paint, with the words “Destroy Racists” scrawled on the base. And, on Sunday, New York’s American Museum of Natural History decided to remove a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt—another Mount Rushmore giant who helped define the American character—that shows him on horseback flanked by a Native American and an African American on foot. The reason was that the statue “explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,” de Blasio said in a statement.
But if today’s so-called cancel culture eventually extends its way to presidents like Roosevelt and the Founding Fathers, new problems crop up. If you cancel out the good history with the bad—if you cancel out Thomas Jefferson—what kind of country are you left with? As John Charles Thomas, the first African American appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court, once remarked, “Although Jefferson was imperfect, he had a perfect idea.” Even Martin Luther King Jr. invoked Jefferson’s declaration of equal rights as a “sacred obligation” in in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, calling it “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”—but which the country, to date, had “defaulted on” for Black Americans. President James Madison kept slaves in the White House, but he was also one of the chief fathers of the Constitution, whose First Amendment affords Black Americans the very freedoms they are now exercising to speak their minds and assert their rights.
Issac J. Bailey, a journalist and scholar and the author of the forthcoming Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland, said he believes “we have to do a lot more grappling with the legacies of men like Washington and Jefferson,” but he doesn’t advocate the removal of their statues. “They are different from the Confederate statues, because Confederate monuments and memorials went up largely in the early 20th century and later as a clear pushback to civil rights gains by Black people. They are specifically about explicit white supremacy and the honoring of men who were literal traitors to the U.S.”
“That’s the easy part, though,” Bailey wrote in an email. The issue is more complex when it comes to Washington and Jefferson. “I’ve heard the argument that they are being honored for the great things they’ve done, not for the evil they perpetuated. I get that. But why do they get that kind of treatment when we’d never do the same for architects and participants of the Holocaust who went on to do great things, including helping the U.S. put a man on the moon and unleashing the kinds of technologies that we take for granted today, technologies that have made it possible for things like the smart phone, GPS and the like? We would never say let’s honor them despite the evils they wrought during the Holocaust. Why do we so easily do the same for wealthy white men who profited and participated directly in this country’s original sin?”
It is a debate that has gone global. In the United Kingdom, statues of Prime Minister Winston Churchill have been defaced, in response to his racist and imperialist attitudes (among other things, Churchill fiercely opposed Indian independence and once called Mahatma Gandhi a “half-naked fakir”). Protests in Europe, Africa, and Asia have suggested that many people who admire the United States or view it as an example are aligning with the Black Lives Matter movement—and using it to highlight racism in their own societies. Such international attention has a long lineage: Since the birth of the United States, racism in America has deeply dismayed those in other countries who were eager to endorse the founders’ attempt to create history’s first republic built on “laws, and not men.” The founders themselves were regularly criticized from abroad for their hypocrisy. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” the English writer Samuel Johnson observed mordantly in 1775, as American complaints against the tyranny of the British crown gained momentum. Great friends and allies of the founders, like the Marquis de Lafayette, pleaded with them to end slavery. The Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish military engineer whose command of English was uncertain, actually had Jefferson draft his will donating his wealth to the emancipation and education of slaves. (Jefferson failed to execute it.)
All of this has only underscored how raw this two-and-a-half-century-old wound remains. George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May at the hands of a white officer who has since been charged with second-degree murder, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign, have exposed the degree to which police departments have turned into the symbol of a white America that still seeks to oppress minority Americans. The recent police killings of African Americans in cities from Atlanta to Minneapolis also bitterly tainted the celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the day a Union major general, Gordon Granger, formally announced the end of slavery in the state of Texas, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the beginning of “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” That promise, along with President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of a “new birth of freedom” out of the Civil War, didn’t quite pan out either.
“I’m just shocked it keeps going on, that we haven’t gotten over it yet,” said another historian, Henry Wiencek, the author An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America and Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. “One of the most shocking things is white people are doing these things [shooting and killing blacks] in full view of the cameras.”
Trump’s presidency has plainly helped to reignite these passions, as he rose to power in part by openly exploiting white racist fears of the so-called browning of America. “In some ways he ripped the band-aid off,” said Sharon Murphy, a historian at Providence College, who argues that Trump’s racially and ethnically divisive presidency helps explain why the recent Black Lives Matter protests drew many more white Americans than those that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, six years ago. “In his time, Martin Luther King mainly criticized the moderate [whites], not the hardcore racists, for not speaking out. In some ways, the last three years have made those moderates take a stand,” she said. As Eduardo Porter argues in his recent book, American Poison, the country’s entire social welfare contract since the New Deal has been fatally undermined by white animosity toward minority beneficiaries.
“What Trump has exposed in his presidency is there’s a significant portion of the American populace that has never accepted the full implications of the civil rights movement,” Ellis, the presidential historian, told Foreign Policy. “When they watch protesters they only see rioters.”
Even so, Wiencek and other historians suggest the recent tumult in the streets could help promote a healthy debate that should cast a new light on who the founders were and what they really believed—and, by extension, what America really stands for. You don’t have to tear all the statues down, they say—but you should at least change the inscriptions on them to better reflect who these people really were. And Americans should consider erecting new statues to long-forgotten heroes like Lt. Col. John Laurens, a young white South Carolinian aristocrat who repeatedly and passionately urged Washington to move toward emancipation before being killed in the Revolutionary War.
“At the very least, we have to be willing to tell the full story of what those men did—making it clear on those massive monuments and memorials we’ve dedicated to them,” said Bailey, himself a South Carolinian. “It should no longer simply be a treat to visit such sites. More Americans need to understand [these men’s] role in the systemic rape and murder and enslavement of Black people even as they got rich off slavery.”
Defenders of the Founding Fathers have argued it is unfair to project today’s racial norms on men who lived in another time. But some historians point out that in many other respects, the Jeffersons and Madisons managed to brilliantly transcend their times; otherwise, Americans might still be living under a monarchy today. “The founders were geniuses in many respects,” Ellis said. “They could imagine before anybody else a large republic. They could imagine the separation of church and state. Nobody thought you could do that then. But they could not imagine a racially equal society.”
But human progress can’t be measured in lifetimes; it comes in fits and starts, and right now Americans are caught up in another major fit about who they are and want to be. All in all, said Thomas Sugrue, a New York University historian and the author of Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, the George Floyd protests, coming amid a pandemic that has hurt Black and minority communities the most, have proved the rudest of awakenings from the briefest of national dreams that began with Obama’s inauguration. “There was a moment around the election of Barack Obama that the country finally felt it overcame its history, that finally we’re in a post-civil rights era. It wasn’t true,” Sugrue said. Instead came what the pundit Van Jones called a “whitelash,” ushering in the Trump era of deeper division.
“While I don’t want to diminish the changes that have happened since the 1960s, that period left a lot of problems unaddressed,” Sugrue said. “The most persistent are all the issues that have come to the surface, racial inequity in policing … but an even deeper racial inequality and segregation in the housing market—as well as the steady resegregation of American schools and cities. There’s not going to be any single answer. Policing is intertwined with the system of racial segregation. You can’t address the police problem only in terms of internal reforms.”
And there is still, Ellis said, a kind of tragic if tacit conversation occurring every day on the Mall in Washington—among the monuments themselves. “If you go to the Mall and stand in a place where you can see the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Memorial, imagine an ongoing dialogue among those three giants,” he said. “Jefferson believed slavery was wrong, but he didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. Lincoln did, but he never could imagine that the races could live together in the same society on an equal basis. Then there’s King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial giving his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, saying, ‘I have come to collect on a promissory note written by Thomas Jefferson.’”
The full debt has not yet been paid, and the dialogue goes on.