Recently, the Democratic Party in Connecticut, Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia have been in the news for dropping Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as the namesakes for the state party’s annual fundraiser, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. The two party fathers have been ousted for not being considered in line with the party’s progressive-minded modern platform—namely their history for slaveholding and Indian removal.
The decision comes in the wake of Democrats also pushing for the suppression and removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol building and other governmental edifices, as well as the proposal to remove Jackson’s face from the twenty dollar bill.
The problems with this appropriation, or lack thereof, is that historical figures discredit people for their faults and dark sides without cherishing their achievements by grappling with those failings that we all face as human beings.
The vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, Dr. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, was recently interviewed by the Atlantic on this very subject. He mentioned to the interviewer that it was “inevitable and appropriate that historians adopted a more critical perspective towards Thomas Jefferson, but it is possible to appreciate his contribution to the advancement of democracy while acknowledging his involvement in slavery, which he himself denounced as an ‘abominable crime.’”
This is a better approach to interpreting history; rather than whitewashing the good with the bad, we need to appreciate the achievements of great men, while simultaneously acknowledging, with fair condemnation, their faults, and in Jefferson’s case, faults that he, himself, was aware of and commented on.
He once compared slavery to having a wolf by the ears, saying, “We can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.
Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jackson proves a bit more complex with his lack of self-criticism over the institution of slavery and his role in Indian removal, which is seen in modern times as a great American genocide.
However, people often overlook the inherent racism that pervaded American society in the 18th and 19th century, as well as the prejudices against Native Americans as enemies of frontier progress.
Support for the policy of Indian removal was overwhelming, despite the now retrospectively celebrated decisions of Chief Justice John Marshall in favor of the Cherokee’s property rights in Georgia. Of course, Jackson ignored Marshall’s decision due to the overwhelming popular support of his removal policy.
Jackson should be both celebrated and criticized for his many actions impacting early American society. His vast expansion of democratic rights, for instance, allowed all freemen, not just property holders, to vote in elections. Yet, he followed up this action by violating Indians’ human rights, which showed the painful excesses of democracy that all too often leads to tyranny of the majority.
The problem with scrubbing historical figures from the public eye is that, as Dr. O’Shaughnessy said, “In the end we dissociate ourselves from our own past.” But, more importantly, where do we draw the line? Perhaps this heightened awareness of history should provoke a teaching moment “that the origins of our country are intertwined with slavery, whether we like it or not. It’s not just confined to a few founding fathers.” In fact, the entire capitol of Washington DC was built by slaves and named for a man who held slaves. Should it be torn down and a new capital of a different name be rebuilt?
If the Democratic Party abandons the legacies of Jefferson and Jackson it leaves open the question of whether the more flattering sides of their public personas will be adopted by another party or movement.
The minimal government credentials and debt reduction under both Jefferson and Jackson are two aspects of their policies that have been consistently ignored by modern politicians. The last time that the general government had zero national debt was under Jackson, and given our current $18 trillion debt it only seems right that a movement or organization will try to revive that legacy.
The credited historian Joyce Appleby, writing to The New York Times, highlighted the purpose of remembering our history by claiming that it is “better to study our past in order to learn how and why we ended slavery than to engage in some kind of historical amnesia.”
If the Democratic Party abandons these two figures for others, who then will they adopt as their perfect humans that completely embody the values of equality and justice that they wish to espouse in these modern times? What person will they find to live up to their ideals who history has not left with some stain or besmirchment on their reputation?
This is the problem with our presentism as a country. We have high-minded idealism and creeds placed in glittering language, but if we expect our leaders to live up to those timeless words perfectly, then we are expecting something perfect from imperfect humans.
In all honesty, it is the good, the bad, the noble and the dishonorable in the people we esteem that truly teach us something about ourselves and how best to strive for the better angels of our nature.
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