The Uses and Misuses of History: On Jefferson Davis, Thomas More, Martin Luther, and Other Villains

Suddenly, a significant portion of the U.S. population has shown an interest in history, a subject heretofore usually greeted with scant enthusiasm. In the abstract, this new-found interest might be considered a welcome development. After all, knowledge is a good thing, right? But an interest in history can become an unhealthy preoccupation with historical grievances. It is not necessarily a good thing to be obsessed with the ghosts of the past.

The principal impetus for Americans' recent interest in history is the controversy over displays of the Confederate battle flag, which has now morphed into a discussion of the commemoration of leaders, political and military, of the Confederacy, which is common in many Southern states and far from unknown in other parts of the United States. For example, one of the main thoroughfares in my area of Northern Virginia is the Jefferson Davis Highway. There are several prominent federal military installations named after Confederate military figures, for example, Fort A. P. Hill and Fort Benning. And let's not bother to count all the schools, highways, government buildings, postage stamps and other assorted thingamabobs that honor Robert E Lee.

Many assert that commemorating these "heroes" of the Confederacy is just plain wrong because, all things considered, they were not admirable people. There is no doubt the primary reason for the secession of the Southern states was their desire to preserve the institution of slavery, so effectively individuals like Davis, Hill, Benning, and, yes, even the venerable Lee were fighting to defend a monstrous institution. One might concede that these individuals had some virtues, such as courage in battle and perhaps even kindness and generosity to those they considered part of their moral community, but the same might be said for some Wehrmacht generals, and although there are cemeteries for the German war dead throughout Europe, to my knowledge there is no Erwin Rommel Autobahn.

So let's rename the highways, forts, and schools and tear down any monuments that honor Confederate leaders? But as a matter of logic, where does one stop? If support for slavery is the touchstone for determining whether a historical figure is to be honored, what do we do with Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, slave owners all? Granted, Washington did provide for the manumission of his slaves in his will, but Jefferson freed only some of his slaves, and Madison none. So give Washington a pass, downgrade Jefferson (maybe by placing some explanatory plaques around the Jefferson Memorial), and rename anything dedicated to Madison?

One problem with such an approach is that although superficially it appeals to history, it also ignores much of the historical context that should inform our judgments about prominent figures from the past. With respect to slavery, almost all human societies up until the end of the 18th century of the Common Era took slavery for granted, a fact which is reflected in the holy texts of all the Abrahamic religions--the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Qur'an--none of which condemns slavery. If God disapproved of slavery, he kept very quiet about it. The movement to abolish slavery only got underway in the 1700s, and at first was very much a minority view. Toward the end of the 18th century, at the time of the American Revolution and then the French Revolution, the view that slavery is immoral finally began to gain traction, at least among the more enlightened segments of the population. This, of course, was the generation of the Founders, and many of the Founders, including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison did condemn slavery and in their official actions took some steps toward ending or curtailing the practice. It was during Jefferson's presidency, and at his urging, that Congress abolished the slave trade. But by the time this new attitude towards slavery appeared, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison already owned slaves and they had much of their personal wealth structured around the institution of slavery. Effectively, they lived in a transitional period and their mixed record on slavery reflects this context. From our distance, it is easy to see them as hypocrites, but none of us, thankfully, is now enmeshed in the situations in which they found themselves.

The difficulty of retrospective moral judgments is underscored the further we go back in history. Thomas More is a saint in the Catholic Church, and there are countless schools and churches named after him. He is revered as a man of principle because he refused, at the cost of his life, to give in to demands by Henry VIII that he recognize him as the head of the Church of England. But when More was in Henry's favor, and Henry was still Catholic, More was an enthusiastic and merciless persecutor of heretics, and he relished their torture. The "principles" which he defended with his life included the principle that the Catholic Church had the right to extirpate heresy at whatever cost. And this person is a Catholic saint?

Not that Protestants were any better. Good Queen Bess--widely commemorated and a beloved subject of books, plays, and film--had Catholic priests hanged, drawn, and quartered. Luther advocated persecution not only of Catholics but of Protestants of members of other sects, such as the Anabaptists. He was also one of the most vicious anti-Semites of all time, with his hatred nauseatingly expressed in his infamous work On the Jews and Their Lies wherein he recommend burning their schools, synagogues, and homes and condemning them to forced labor. Maybe the various Lutheran churches around the world should rethink their name?

But to project our post-Enlightenment values onto Europeans of the 1500s is anachronistic. The notion of religious toleration was as alien to them as the notions of gender equality or same-sex marriage. It is unrealistic to expect people not to reflect the culture of their time.

Historical knowledge is, all other things being equal, a good thing, but as with other sources of knowledge, it is best to drink it in deeply.

Moreover, historical knowledge is not put to good use if it is deployed merely to refight the battles of the past. Racial disparities in our economy and in our criminal justice system are critical present-day issues that need to be addressed. A proper understanding of history does help explain how these disparities arose and were sustained. In particular, history reveals that the end of slavery in the United States did not bring about equality but, rather, over a century of racial discrimination and subordination, in the South and the North. History that puts our present problems in the proper context is useful and necessary; history that results in arguments over how bad a person Jefferson Davis was is not very productive.

If the Jeff Davis Highway is renamed, I certainly will not shed a tear, but the symbolism of such a renaming is meaningless unless it is followed by concrete action tackling today's racial disparities. History should not be allowed to weigh us down and distract us from the issues and problems of our time.