Sometimes, when people discuss removing Confederate statues from places of public honor, they ask where the removals will end. They wonder if we should remove public honors from anyone who owned slaves, assisted the Confederacy. Simply put, the answer is “Yes.” America needs to dive into its history with honesty and decide to stop honoring anyone who enjoyed or supported slavery. It’s simple.
It’s also necessary. If you lived in the 17th or 18th centuries and you benefited from slavery, you did not understand the heart of the American ideal. This includes American presidents who owned enslaved people, all the way back to George Washington. He certainly understood some of what America could be but he was blinded by his own family’s wealth and reliance on slavery to see into the heart of what American freedom could mean. Washington could imagine being independent of England but he couldn’t imagine being independent of enslaved people working for his benefit. The same is true of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote as beautifully as anyone about human freedom. But he did not understand it fully. He somehow felt he could enslave hundreds of people, including a woman with whom he fathered children, and still accept the idea that some humans can own others. He was born owning enslaved people and he died owning enslaved people. He made no real effort to face his own complicity in the deep evil of slavery.
So, yes. It is past time for the statues of Confederate generals, all traitors to the United States, to come down. It is also time for the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial to come down. These men were present at America’s founding and they played significant roles in that founding. But they missed the essential element of America’s founding: all people are equal. Period. These men did not understand that. Thus, their images and lives are not worthy of our public honors.
Some mistakenly say that this is erasing history. This proposal does no such thing. No one should forget George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. We should remember them for all they did, including their incomplete understanding of human freedom. We should certainly remember them. But we should certainly not honor them. It is past time to remove any public honors accorded to these men: statues, park names, state names, monuments, and let’s do it now.
Photograph Credit: I took the photograph above in June, 2020 on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.