A wide gap separates Confederate generals memorialized on plaques, statues, and monuments, and the American founders and framers of the Constitution. It is no longer remarkable to say that these so-called Confederate leaders were traitors to the U.S., and should never have been memorialized. The founders are in a different category, though many owned slaves. No one questions the horror of slavery: all we need to do is read Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” or see the film based on it.
As for the Confederates, the right thing is to imitate the fate of the plaques honoring Confederate soldiers that graced Ocean Park until local NAACP leaders requested their removal, not destruction. As of last year, they reside, with full explanations, in Doherty Hall at the M.V. Museum. We can learn a lot from them.
But are the founders, especially the Virginians, similarly situated because they were slave owners?
Writing in the Washington Post, Island resident Michele Norris, the former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” says, “We must own up to the fact that [George Washington] owned people, that those people were separated from their loved ones, made to work without pay, made to live without dignity, made to suffer whippings, made to disappear.” Washington enslaved over 300 persons, and signed the dreaded 1793 Fugitive Slave Act.
Echoing Norris is New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who recently asked whether Washington is in the same category as Confederate generals. His answer: “Abso-fricking-lutely.”
Jefferson, owner of some 600 slaves, and the father of six children with his slave Sally Hemings, fares no better. For some, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington should be removed (and maybe change the name of Washington while we are at it). Novelist Lucian K. Truscott, a direct descendant of Jefferson, writes in the New York Times that “we don’t need the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate him. He should not be honored with a bronze statue 19 feet tall, surrounded by a colonnade of white marble.” Instead, remove the man and place Harriet Tubman there.
The same may be said for James Madison, James Monroe, and others. But they provided us with a foundation to build a nation, not destroy it. They were deeply flawed men and clearly thought, as Justice Thurgood Marshall once put it, that they created a country in their image, not his. All of them were hypocrites and liars when it came to race and equality.
As everyone knows, but it’s worth repeating, Washington commanded the troops in the Revolutionary War, and gave up his commission when it ended rather than act like a Roman emperor. He oversaw the Constitutional Convention, and became the first president when no one really knew what it meant to lead a democratic republic like the new United States. He could have served a third term, but declined (the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, was ratified only in 1951). Washington is still referred to as the Father of his Country.
Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence, and it is clear he did not have slaves — or women — in mind when he wrote that “all men are created equal,” unless he only meant only at birth. He served as a U.S. diplomat in France, the first secretary of state, and the third president, again for just two terms. He founded the University of Virginia.
Madison, above all others, promoted the convening of the Constitutional Convention, served in the House of Representatives, as secretary of state, and the fourth president. He is often referred to as the Father of the Constitution.
Post columnist Eugene Robinson has it right: “The fact that Washington, Jefferson, and other early presidents owned slaves should temper our admiration for them, but not erase it entirely. They gave us a nation grotesquely disfigured by slavery, but they also gave us the constitutional tools, and the high-minded ideals, with which to heal that original, near-fatal flaw.”
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, recently said, “The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves [with] someone in rebellion, committing treason … trying to take down the union to keep slavery, I think there’s a distinction there.”
Slavery was not only a Southern blight. Benjamin Franklin, originally from Boston, owned slaves. Until he didn’t.
Despite abolitionists like John Adams, it was prevalent in Massachusetts, where there were no plantations as there were in the South. Northern slaves experienced the horrors of life no less than their Southern counterparts. Slaves typically lived in the industrial and coastal towns, and could challenge their status if they had the legal grounds to do so. For example, they would have to prove their master promised freedom but then declined to liberate them.
Slavery effectively ended in Massachusetts when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that slavery was incompatible with the commonwealth’s new constitution, which Adams drafted shortly after the Colonies declared independence. The chief justice who wrote the opinion, William Cushing, later became one of the first Supreme Court justices nominated by George Washington. But there was never a formal legislative end to slavery in Massachusetts until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
Historian Walter Isaacson has said that “the silver lining of this moment, for those of us who ply the trade of history, is that people are talking about history and debating it a lot more. But we shouldn’t get trapped into thinking that we can only memorialize people who were perfect.”
Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others were imperfect, no doubt. But they created a solid foundation for us to build a nation based on justice, equality, and freedom for everyone. It is our duty to work to improve on and complete their early work, not destroy it or their memory.
Jack Fruchtman, a part-time Aquinnah resident, has written on Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Aaron Burr, and the Constitution.