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UB law professor: Learn from history, don't whitewash it

A brief glance at the barely known racial attitudes of the presidents we celebrated earlier this week would surely cause the current crop of historical revisionists to blanch and hyperventilate. Those seeking to cleanse the culture of politically incorrect views might find that the outrage they feel about blackface scandals would pale in comparison to the way the founding fathers actually treated people they deemed inferior.

No fewer than a dozen American presidents owned slaves. George Washington kept over 300; although he preferred to call them “servants” and conceded that human bondage was “a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade,” by today’s standards his attitudes were decidedly racist. He recognized that slaves were integral to the early American economy and fully approved of whipping a servant when the occasion warranted. “There are few Negroes who will work unless there be a constant eye on them,” Washington advised one of his overseers, warning of their “idleness and deceit” unless treated sternly.

Thomas Jefferson, who authored the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime. He once confided to a friend that he envisaged eventual emancipation as “exporting to a distance the whole black race.”

In Federalist No. 54, James Madison, who kept around 100 slaves, defended the famous Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted black people as only three-fifths of a person when allotting southern states electoral votes and seats in Congress.

As historian Joseph Ellis astutely noted, while all of these great men could imagine a nation-sized republic with a system of checks and balances that would prohibit any form of dictatorship and enact a Bill of Rights that ensured basic individual liberties — none of them could conceive of a biracial society.

Nor, in fact, would the presidents who followed: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant all owned slaves. Even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was tainted by his early attitudes toward black people, which would have raised eyebrows today. So was Lyndon Johnson, the prime mover behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In today’s era of supersensitive political correctness, we are being subjected to a kind of cultural cleansing — most visibly with calls for the removal of monuments perceived to be historically toxic, such as the statues of Washington at the University of Texas and of Jefferson at the University of Missouri. Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., has already removed memorials to Washington and former Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which stood on either side of the altar.

In Baltimore, once known as “Monumental City” because it had more public statues per capita than any other town in America, Mayor Catherine Pugh took it upon herself to dismantle statues of Lee and Roger Taney, the latter of which had long stood in Mount Vernon Square, a half-block north of the nation’s first monument to Washington. Taney is now known primarily for his Supreme Court opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which declared that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (In fact Taney was personally opposed to slavery and freed his own slaves early in his career.)

Over the past few years have come similar demands to remove sculptures of luminaries with shady pasts who have become currently controversial. In Washington, D.C., they include Simon Bolivar (at 18th and C), Albert Pike (3rd and D) and Confederate President Jefferson Davis (National Statuary Hall).

The costs of removal are far from merely nominal. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spent over $2 million to take down four Confederate monuments in 2017.

It all appears part of a concerted campaign by self-appointed protectors of our collective moral conscience to decontaminate the culture. In truth, though, removing statues of once iconic figures is imposing a set of narrow political values on those of us deemed blind to the racist and sexist society in which we live.

The new ethos is that if something offends contemporary community tastes, get rid of it. One wonders how PC revisionists might handle the huge stone sculptures of Washington and Jefferson at Mount Rushmore or view the uncomfortable realities of the Gettysburg Battlefield’s 1,300-plus monuments both Confederate and Union. Would they disagree with Dwight Eisenhower’s reference to the Civil War as “a demonstration of heroism and sacrifice [on] both sides who valued principle above life itself and whose devotion to duty is a part of our nation’s noblest tradition”?

To expunge the inherent contradictions in historical figures is to engage in a form of self-deception that inevitably exists in all of us. Revisionists have a way of ignoring inconvenient facts — trying to erase the past merely because it doesn’t fit the present. But ceding memory to political progressives is to tamper with reality, to lose context and perspective.

We should learn from history, not whitewash it.

Kenneth Lasson (klasson@ubalt.edu ) is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, where he specializes in civil liberties and international human rights.

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