| Holding them accountable: A conversation about problematic historical figures
Raphael Semmes, Jefferson Davis, Christopher Columbus: All over America, statues of infamous historical figures have been torn down, painted, or destroyed by those protesting the death of George Floyd.
These protests are not without good reason. All of these men with a statue in their name have supported and upheld racism. They have fought to uphold an oppressive institution that caused millions to suffer. Yes, even your precious Columbus.
But how do we determine which figures to condemn and which to memorialize? To which standards should we be holding certain historical figures?
Protesters have taken it upon themselves to tear down these memorials, disgusted by the values they uphold.
And of course, there has been significant backlash to protesters who have vandalized these monuments. Most notably, from U.S. President Donald Trump, who has recently signed an executive order directing law enforcement to prosecute those who destroy monuments. He’s gone as far as to call white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in defense of these statues “very fine people.”
While I can’t see where Trump got the adjective “fine” from a group of white supremacists, I think this debate allows us to reflect on some interesting conversations. Across American history, we should examine historical and modern figures through a holistic lens. That is, although many have done actions we see as bad in modern-day times, we should still keep the good in mind. Our judgments of our current leaders and the way we choose to memorialize them should reflect that complexity.
As an example, let’s take a look at Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the 2nd president of the United States, the first secretary of state, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. He’s famous for writing the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration.
We can now acknowledge that this phrase is a blatant contradiction. The institution of slavery continued on throughout the next 89 years after the statement was written, segregation is present even still today. To rub salt into the wound, Jefferson, the dear writer of this phrase, was a slave owner himself.
Some have argued that he was a “good” slave owner. Unfortunately, calling someone “good slave owner” is like calling someone a “nice Nazi”: it’s a complete oxymoron. Good slave owners do not exist; the practice of owning another person is inherently wrong, even if you treat them fairly.
When we take a deeper dive into Jefferson’s rhetoric, though, we see that he is against slavery. Jefferson has called the institution a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.”
How can Jefferson be against slavery while being apart of the problem? We can attribute this behavior to one main factor: self-preservation.
While Jefferson was against slavery, those around him were not. Many of the very people he sat in office with were slave owners themselves. To oppose the institution would be to gain the resentment of his supporters.
In order to enact other changes, says Annette Gordon-Reed in Hidden’s Brain episode on Jefferson, “The Founding Contradiction,” Jefferson had to keep silent about the slavery issue.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t hold those historical figures accountable. Instead, we should acknowledge why Jefferson was unable to speak out.
We should be appreciative of the actions of figures like Jefferson while acknowledging their inability to speak up. Holding them accountable while appreciating the change they made outside of these issues.
Many today are so quick to base their perceptions of a person based on what they failed to do. We should be examining people holistically; one can appreciate the good a person did while also recognizing what they should have done.
This can be said about modern figures, too. We’re so quick to judge Kamala Harris on her history with policing, how she failed to hold police and prosecutors accountable for misconduct. However, many overlook her historic work with the LGBT community that led to the SCOTUS decision in favor of marriage equality. Or the historic mortgage case she won that helped over 84,000 people.
We can and should hold Harris accountable for her failure as a public prosecutor, but we shouldn’t focus on just that. There are no perfect candidates. Joe Biden isn’t perfect, Bernie Sanders isn’t perfect, not even Barack Obama is perfect.
I do think statues of people who have done profound bad — and not much good — should fall. But let’s save our energy when famous people exist outside this binary, and instead take the time that would have been spent tearing them down and use it to have those tough conversations about who we memorialize.