Look back on the great men and women of history. Most of them fare poorly when subjected to modern scrutiny. They launched wars, murdered rivals, enslaved enemies, enriched allies and violated most every moral norm valued by people today.
Yet their tombs are venerated, their distinctions are celebrated and their successes are lauded. Their memories are enshrined through statues, paintings and photos. Their names are affixed to buildings, streets and universities. Should we adopt the old Soviet technique of airbrushing out those who fall from favor? If the Left has its way, few Americans of note would survive the resulting historical jihad.
Of course, the role of some significant figures should not be celebrated. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are among the monsters of history. These are not men of their time with mixed legacies. They epitomize evil, the very depths of human depravity.
But then you have the typical British king. Or German prince, Italian cleric, Prussian general, French knight, and even Roman emperor. Or American Founder, Confederate general and pro-slavery Unionist. None of these people would be invited to a Washington cocktail party, New York salon or Hollywood preview today. However, one shaped the modern world, while another helped make America the world’s greatest nation.
Of course, the focus of today’s hysteria are Southerners who led the Confederate States of America. Given the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, history has rightly judged the Confederacy harshly. Yet even its leading figures were complex. Robert E. Lee opposed slavery and secession before the Civil War and promoted reconciliation afterwards.
Moreover, when the City of Baltimore recently removed several Civil War-era statues, it took down one of Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He remained loyal to the United States. His earlier opinion in the Dred Scott case deserves to be reviled, but at the time seven other justices agreed with him. And his career was much more than one case.
Taney served almost 30 years as the nation’s most important jurist. He freed the slaves he inherited from his father and supported those too aged to work. During the Civil War, he defended civil liberties, including the Doctrine of Habeas Corpus, a bulwark against unjust imprisonment. Before joining the high court he served as Secretary of War, Secretary of the Treasury and Attorney General. But now, because of that one opinion, he is an historical persona non-grata.
One wonders if even Abraham Lincoln is safe from the Left. He spent much of his career favoring colonization, that is, sending freed slaves back to Africa. Worse, as he famously wrote Horace Greeley, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” Why honor a man who really didn’t want to free the slaves?
Perhaps America’s Founders also should be dumped into history’s wastebasket. Many were slave owners. Their attitudes toward women and Native Americans were unenlightened. After just a couple of generations, U.S. leaders conducted brutal campaigns against the continent’s original occupants and an aggressive war against America’s neighbor, Mexico.
More recently elected officials fail new tests centered around social liberalism too. Measured by the Left’s standards, even President Barack Obama was dilatory in backing same-sex marriage. So why build any monuments to him?
We need a statute of limitations on expecting historical figures to be perfect and prosecuting them for thought crimes.
Great Britain recognized slavery and indentured servitude in its American colonies. These practices continued to be widely accepted when the country was founded. Few who lived then recognized what we see clearly today – that human bondage is a great evil that contradicts America’s founding ideals.
Even those who understood the full implications of declaring all men to be equal, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw no political escape from the practice of African slavery, since no one, in the South or North, was willing to accept millions of freedmen as equals. This failure made the Civil War inevitable.
Yet most of those involved were decent people struggling with their natural imperfections, limited understanding, and deeply-established social constraints. Americans today make their own ugly moral compromises—with abortion, for instance.
It is appropriate to reassess history and address practices now recognized as unjust. So is changing how we recognize and commemorate figures and causes now understood more clearly.
However, that doesn’t mean eradicating the past, even those parts that most challenge us. Instead, we should seek to understand and place in context those who did great deeds while simultaneously tolerating and sometimes supporting what we now see as great evil. In the future, our descendants will likely judge us by the same standards we apply to those who came before us.
Or, perhaps even more harshly.
J. Kenneth Blackwell, a former mayor of Cincinnati and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, is a Policy Board member and Senior Fellow for the American Civil Rights Union.