Judging America’s past by 21st century standards

I am going to get a little political today. So bear with me.

We are living at a time when it is fashionable to vilify the founders of our nation because a handful of myopic and narrow-minded chuckleheads have resolved to apply 21st-century values to the 18th and 19th centuries.

I contend, however, that we need to take a step back and scrutinize people like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson through lenses that are not tainted by today’s intolerant and narcissistic rhetoric. To view Jefferson as anything less than an intellectual titan is ridiculous.

As John Kennedy remarked during a White House dinner for an elite gathering of the brightest minds in the nation, “This is perhaps an assembly of the greatest intelligence ever to gather at one time in the White House, with the exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

It is manifestly ludicrous for gaggles of ignorant, history-challenged dunderheads—some of whom hold public office or who appear on today’s pervasive cable television shows —to set themselves up as omniscient judges of appropriate comportment when looking back at more than 250 years of American history.

Did Thomas Jefferson own slaves? Yes. Did he have an affair with one of them and father a child with her? Yes.

Does that mean that the extraordinarily brilliant man who wrote the Declaration of Independence; who was our first Secretary of State; who founded the University of Virginia; who served as our third President; and who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and doubled the size of our country, should have his name and likeness scrubbed from history in an intolerant political purge more appropriate to totalitarian regimes like North Korea, China, or the former Soviet Union?

Thomas Jefferson 

I grant you that by any measure the very existence of slavery in an era when Americans were engaged in a revolution and fighting for freedom from oppression remains a paradox. Most of us understand that. Does that mean that in the 21st century we condone it? Hardly.

Yet Democratic parties in four states have recently removed the names of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their annual fundraising dinners. Democratic parties in five other states are considering a similar step.

Critics of these two men argue that any party that seeks to identify itself with equality and diversity should not be yoked to the slave-holding Jefferson or the Native American-persecuting Jackson.

Those who seek to expel Jefferson and Jackson from the public discourse believe historical figures should be held to the same standards of conduct we employ today. How myopic and imprudent is that?

They regard slavery and the forced relocation of indigenous peoples as so monstrous and odious that anyone responsible for them, regardless of the era in which they lived, should be scorned and condemned and have their statues and other memorials ripped down from public spaces.

Here is a little lesson for today’s faultless arbiters of bygone appositeness: Like it or not, slavery was as much a part of the flawed fabric of early America as the horrendous exploitation of child labor or the frenzied and foolhardy persecution and murder of “witches” in New England.

I suggest, therefore, that there is much to be gained from maintaining a balanced sense of respect and gratitude for the accomplishments of our imperfect ancestors. Despite their shortcomings, men such as Jefferson and Jackson deserve our unremitting respect. Their achievements are impossible for any rational person to ignore.

Jackson, for instance, founded the precursor of today’s Democratic Party. He was a military hero who served two terms as the nation’s seventh president. He dismantled the national bank, overcame an effort by South Carolina to nullify federal law, secured Florida from the Spanish, and paid off the national debt.

Andrew Jackson

Yes, Jackson was also a slave owner, and he forced Indian tribes from their lands, thereby precipitating the pitiless “trail of tears.”

But like all of us, Jefferson, Jackson, and our other forefathers were human beings infused with the faults, imperfections, and deficiencies that all human beings possess. It is simple for the holier than thou crowd of today to look back and scorn the behavior and standards of conduct that were commonplace in our imperfect history. They are our nation’s most vociferous Monday-morning quarterbacks, and they are adept at second-guessing every indiscretion, every blunder in our history.

What we are witnessing today is an implicit and undeniable public stoning of men and women from the past who are not here to defend themselves or their actions. They have been dragged into the public square and condemned by sycophants of the PC thought police who have taken it upon themselves to cleanse American history of its imperfections.

Of course, there is danger in a methodology that says we must wipe away the sins of our past. As the philosopher and novelist George Santayana once said:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I would also remind those pretentious paragons of righteousness of this rebuke by Jesus Christ: “Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to cast a stone.”

 

 

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