How to Remember the FoundersRoundup
tags: monuments, public history, founders
Eli Merritt is a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt completing a history of the founding period entitled Disunion Among Ourselves.
Over the past several decades, the Founding Fathers have fallen severely out of favor. Once revered as the trailblazers of American liberty and equality, they are now often denounced as the nation’s patriarchal and racist architects of white male supremacy. Statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are under attack, sometimes literally.
Especially for the original sin of slavery, whether as practitioners of it themselves or as willing conspirators in its perpetuation in the Constitution, the Founders are held up as objects of censure, not honorary celebration, including on the Fourth of July.
To take an example, professor of law Paul Finkelman published an op-ed in the New York Times in 2012 called “The Monster of Monticello.” In this piece, Finkelman characterizes Thomas Jefferson as “a creepy, brutal hypocrite.” Contrary to American historical tradition, which depicts Jefferson as a reluctant slaveowner trapped in hidebound Southern society, Finkelman says, “Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery...His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.”
The validity of Finkelman’s argument is all too self-evident; Jefferson owned many slaves and fathered children with one of them. But where does the reality of the Founders’ racism and barbaric practice of slavery leave a history-conscious nation? After all, American slavery ranks with the Holocaust as one of the greatest crimes of humanity ever inflicted by one race of people upon another. Can the Founding Fathers ever be redeemed?
After grappling with this question for years, I find only one way out of the grievous moral morass of our founding history. It is dialectical thinking. This method of analyzing historical questions contrasts with dichotomous or all-or-nothing thinking, in which the thinker makes binary judgments based on formulas of “right or wrong” and “good or bad.”
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