Don’t Help Trump Re-write History
Charlottesville demotes Thomas Jefferson Day, ignoring the consequences at the nation’s peril
Monday morning’s Washington Post did not bear much good news of any kind, an increasingly typical state-of-media-affairs. Political in-fighting, White House in continuing disarray, coronavirus infections and deaths, market instability, sliding 401(k)s, sadness, sickness, foreign woes, floods, droughts, toads, and locusts, etc. (only the toads part is made up). But one headline in particular caught my attention not for what it proclaimed in print, but for what it portends in policy:
“Charlottesville won’t celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. It will mark slavery’s end instead.”
The third paragraph was the harbinger of future bad news for the republic:
“For the first time since World War II, Charlottesville won’t honor the Founding Father’s birthday this spring. Instead, on Tuesday, the city will celebrate the demise of the institution with which Jefferson increasingly has become associated: slavery.”
We all get it
I’m not going to re litigate what has been hashed over for decades, if not centuries. Thomas Jefferson, along with many of the framers of the nation’s founding documents, owned slaves and did not take immediate action to end human trafficking as it was in their time. I get it. You get it. We all get it. And nothing I write, and nothing that has ever been written about the Founders and their imperfections will change the facts. Nothing will, including attempts at revisionist history or incidents of statue destruction or historical plaque thefts which are defended as “political corrections” to sooth public outrage or support far right or far left groups.
My own family history is conflicted: On my mother’s side, Dr. Hiram Corliss of New York was a well-known abolitionist; on my father’s side, my great-great grandfather James Alexander Moore was a lieutenant in the Confederate Army. And if I reach back to the Revolution, I have great-great-great grandfather, John Rogers, Jr., who was a paymaster in Fifth Battalion of the North Carolina Continental Army.
My mother’s family connects directly with the Massachusetts Bay colony and the very first colonists of Jamestown. My dad’s folks all come from Scotch-Irish stock who immigrated to the Carolina’s in the late 1600s, eventually raising families in western North Carolina and all across Tennessee by the early 1800s. I don’t doubt there were slave owners in that line, just as I don’t doubt that my mother’s family held firm on abolition.
So whose gravestones do I tear down in the name of political correctness? What pages in Ancestry.com do I strike out? None of them, of course. I can’t rewrite my family history; I can’t exorcise the phantoms from my family’s stories.
Something sinister this way comes
Misguided people can desecrate all the memorials to Jefferson they can get their hands or ropes on, and they can take his name off the roster of their town’s streets or buildings or parks, but by doing so, they are playing into the hands of something more sinister than they can imagine in their short-term, instant gratification plans.
There are forces in America today hard at work in the shadowed and fetid back alleys of thugs-for-hire politics to discover a path to rewriting the Constitution to suit their desire to turn our struggling experiment in democracy into a dystopian and dysfunctional desert of demoralized, disaffected citizens. Those forces, operating with increasing impunity in daylight and darkness, have little regard for historical accuracy or, for that matter, any truth whatsoever. Their goal is to pry apart the timbers of Constitutional law, tear down the institutions of representative government (as weak as they have become) and remake government in their own image.
Engaging in revisionism opens the door to tyranny
When we engage in attempts to correct the historical record by purging or disparaging the names of men like Jefferson, whose many flaws did not prevent him and his colleagues from drafting the apex documents that revolutionized the way a rising nation would coalesce around a set of ideals intended to shear away from tyranny…when we engage in such revisionism, we open wide the door to the tyranny we once abhorred and bled to overthrow.
If, by removing statues, plaques, street signage, park names, and memorial inscriptions, anyone thinks the moral imperfections associated with those names will also be erased is engaging in magical thinking. If they believe it is their moral obligation to represent and elevate their 21st century cause by demoting or disappearing the names of ghosts of the nation’s history who harmed the ghosts of their personal or cultural history, they are engaging in the moral equivalent of social cleansing without understanding the unintended consequences of their short-sighted actions.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion — for every action, in nature, there is an opposite and equal reaction — is only the beginning when it comes to laws of actions in society, where the Third Law of Social Science should read, “For every action, in a society, there will be an asymmetrical and greater, possibly violent, reaction.” In other words, be careful when tearing down history; future actions are apt to be unpredictable and more robust in their impact.
Lessons from the Enlightenment
Great guidelines, not always great results
Jefferson was a creature of his time, a man informed by the Enlightenment and that movement’s elevation of rational humanity as a way of thought and actions. But embracing the Enlightenment’s ethos of knowledge, freedom, and happiness in theory did not translate fully into Jefferson’s daily practices as a flawed man. Like all of us who make choices based on self-interest, he was selective in what fruit he picked from the Enlightenment’s tree of wisdom. And because he was a man of his time — a time when slavery would run its dreadful course in America for almost thirty years after Jefferson’s death — he did not struggle to distance himself from owning other humans.
Was Jefferson an “enlightened” man by our standards, 250 years later? Insofar as he and other Founders were slave owners, no. Absolutely not. Was he an enlightened man relative to Gandhi or Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela? Clearly not. Did he try to apply the finer, more noble theories of the Enlightenment to his understanding of the need of the American colonies to free themselves from British rule? Absolutely yes.
One only has to read Jefferson’s 1774 pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” to at least agree that while the Virginian may have been freighted with personal weaknesses, he did not shrink from calling out the King of England and Parliament for the many travesties of law and commerce pressed upon the American colonies. There are three passages from the pamphlet to which I frequently turn for a sanity check on our current state of affairs in 2020. All bold text is mine for emphasis.
“History has informed us that bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.”
I cannot but help but see the Republican majority in the Senate as one of the “bodies of men” that is operating not in the 18th century, but in the 21st century with increasing tyranny against the better purposes of their oaths of office.
This next quote, referring to that minority of the population who could vote in Great Britain to influence the members of Parliament — and thus its powers over the colonies — is too much like today’s Electoral College to ignore:
“Can any one reason be assigned why 160,000 electors in the island of Great Britain should give law to four millions in the states of America, every individual of whom is equal to every individual of them, in virtue, in understanding, and in bodily strength? Were this to be admitted, instead of being a free people, as we have hitherto supposed, and mean to continue ourselves, we should suddenly be found the slaves, not of one, but of 160,000 tyrants, distinguished too from all others by this singular circumstance, that they are removed from the reach of fear, the only restraining motive which may hold the hand of a tyrant.”
And finally, this passage which is too often ignored or forgotten by Jefferson’s detractors, does set for the record Jefferson’s paradox — his public opposition to slavery while remaining a slave owner (note the phrase, “…previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have):
“Yet this will not excuse the wanton exercise of this power which we have seen his majesty practice [sic] on the laws of the American legislatures. For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”
We are imperfect even as we strive for perfection
Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Franklin, and even Washington were hardly perfect models of human rights advocacy. There is not one original framer, nor one subsequent man or woman of note in all the American history that flowed from our founding who can lay claim to a faultless life. To one degree or another, the great leaders of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries had feet of clay…demons of their souls…shame to be borne. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” How apt that is when we consider the “greatness” of our nation’s heroes.
But acknowledging our heroes’ failures is not tantamount to dismembering their achievements. It is a false equivalent to suggest that a man’s or woman’s life’s work, otherwise noble but tainted by the stain of simply living in a past time that does not comport with our time, is therefore suspect and merits demotion or historical erasure. Once a society starts down that road, goaded on by corrupt public servants who genuflect to monied interests, the game is over for a democracy.
Trump’s keys: discontent, disinformation, discord, division
And that is what the current administration is angling for: profound disunity, abject poverty, disrupted communities, and the rule of law dismissed as a nuisance. In order to achieve those goals, and to reap the financial and monarchical rewards treasured by all tyrants, all Trump has to do is continue to sow seeds of discontent, disinformation, discord, and division. So far, his first four-year plan has worked.
In Super Tuesday’s Washington Post, reporters Sean Sullivan and Robert Costa examine the Sanders and Trump camps for their binary choice populist messaging in an article with the headline, “Trump and Sanders lead competing populist movements, reshaping American politics.”
First, a Sander’s rally in Tacoma, WA
“Onstage, a city council member gave a speech urging a “powerful socialist movement to end all capitalist oppression.” An actor accused the news media of slanted coverage. In the crowd, one Sanders supporter hoisted a sign that read: “Obi-Wan Bernobi — He’s our only hope.” Another wore a jumpsuit festooned with pictures of Sanders. A third screamed the names of large corporations and declared, “You’re next!”
Then, in Las Vegas, it was Trump’s turn
“A few days later, thousands gathered at the convention center in Las Vegas to express their ardor for President Trump, waving signs, snapping photos and pumping their fists passionately as he took the stage. In return, he expressed his devotion to the Americans who helped elect him in 2016, the ones he claimed everyone else had forgotten. “With your help,” Trump told them, “we’re going to defeat the radical socialist Democrats.” He called the crowd “amazing people” and declared, “Under my administration, we’re finally taking care of our own citizens first.”
It doesn’t have to be this way
One cannot avoid the media-amplified takeaway: Capitalist oppression vs. radical socialist Democrats. Is that what we are going to hear and see day after day in the months between the national conventions and election day? There is a huge void between those two polarizing messages, and it is into that open grave of failed political hopes the Trump plotters and planners hope to bulldoze the rest of us and cover over our cries for comity and compromise.
Perhaps most disheartening to those of us who continue to believe in government of, by, and for the people, a government kept in check by separation of powers and the rule of law, is that Trump has convinced his base that neither the separation of powers nor the rule of law are prerequisites to his continued reign as their dear leader.
Trump has also convinced his base that a free press is the enemy of the people and that an educated populace is an existential threat to the MAGA’s intellectual vacuity — to put it in their terms, “Smart people want to keep us down.” And that kind of mind-control is just what Trump craves: “The dumber they are, the more there will be for me once I have knocked out the last pillars of the Constitution and rewritten it to assure my supremacy.”
The erasures have begun
In order for Trump’s plan to succeed, he must erase all traces of our past struggles and overwrite those blank spaces with his own version of history. It is not inconceivable that Trump (or his puppeteers) could encourage the removal of every reminder of the founders — not just Jefferson, but all the patriots whose signatures grace the Declaration and whose words illuminated the Constitution. From the beginning of his candidacy, he sought to erase the heroic record of John McCain, cast doubt on the national allegiance of a federal judge, and tried to raise questions of Obama’s origin story.
We have fresh evidence of Trump’s ongoing plan to cleanse history. It is obvious with every executive order he signs to remove any of Obama-era regulations or programs. It is not those regulations or programs that bother Trump — he couldn’t care less either way — it is Obama and all that attaches to Obama’s legacy that Trump wants torn down and plowed under. Tear down Obama’s record, throw shade on John McCain’s service to country, demonize Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Alexander Vindman, et. al., and you might as well tear down the Jefferson Memorial. It’s the logical next step. To Trump, it’s all the same: Let nothing of the past remain that might remind people of the arc of democracy and those who sacrificed for it.
Be careful what you wish for
My advice to those in Charlottesville who are renaming Thomas Jefferson Day in favor of Liberation and Freedom Day, let both days exist as one. They are not mutually incompatible, nor are they paradoxical; they simply exist as the ghost of an imperfect man, and a celebration of the freedom of a freedom I do believe he worked to promote even though he did not live up to his noble words.
Do not rush hastily toward the day when anything with which you disagree, any history you would rather ignore or rewrite, disappears completely from the nation’s record. There is a man in the White House who hopes you will do just that because that is his modus operandi — divide, erase, and conquer. Rise above that temptation; do not let him win by following along in his dream of a nation with no history but the one he writes. That is the dream of kings and tyrants.