To borrow a line from Rush Limbaugh, “See, I Told You So.”
When people, including President Trump, warned that toppling Confederate statues would eventually lead to toppling statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they were dismissed as making ridiculous slippery slope arguments. But now, those predictions are becoming reality.
In Portland, protesters wrapped an American flag around the head of a George Washington statue, lit it on fire, and then tore the statue down with rope. The statue was defaced with graffiti that read: “Genocidal colonists,” “You’re on native land,” “F— cops,” “Big Floyd,” and “1619.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, the speaker of the City Council, with the support of several members, has written a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio urging him to remove a statue of Jefferson from the chambers. “The statue of Thomas Jefferson in the City Council Chambers is inappropriate and serves as a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country. It must be removed,” the council members wrote.
To be clear, I’m all for removing Confederate statues and flags from public spaces because the Confederacy was an evil regime that fought against the United States not only to preserve but also to expand the brutal institution of slavery. Memorializing the Confederacy was also part of a post-war project to romanticize the Old South, which played a role in sustaining the Jim Crow system.
But there is an important distinction between celebrating acts of treason and celebrating flawed people for heroic acts — despite the fact that they also committed egregious sins.
In 2020, we do not celebrate Washington or Jefferson as slaveholders. We celebrate Washington as a general who led our struggle for independence and who was the first president. Somebody who had the clout and support to seize power for life but instead set the extraordinary example of giving up power after two terms in office and peacefully transferring it to a successor.
Jefferson articulated one of the most eloquent cases for liberty ever written, words that inspired abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and freedom fighters throughout the world ever since. Despite his fierce political rivalries and populist tendencies, when he became president, he never pursued the sort of violent reprisals that became a trademark of other revolutions.
Indeed, having people like Washington and Jefferson in place at the time, who brought different skills to the table, who stood up to power in defense of liberty, but who also recognized the dangers of descending into mob rule, was crucial to ensuring that the U.S. has been able to pull off the most successful experiment in self-government in human history.
We should not ignore their flaws. It’s all part of the complicated way that history works and, in particular, the contradictory nature of America’s founding. But if the standard becomes that we cannot honor those who did good because they also had flaws, then there’s no way to establish any sort of shared history, especially as standards keep changing: Every few years, we’ll have to start purging the past.