June 20, 2020


When Donald Trump wondered whether it would be “George Washington next week” and “Thomas Jefferson the week after,” he was treated to haughty and dismissive dispatches in the mainstream press explaining why these Founders were more than just their proximity to slavery. These were valuable missives, but Trump wasn’t the right audience. They should have been directed at the activists who have taken their campus-based maximalism with them into the workforce.

The failure on the part of polite liberal opinion makers to anticipate this attack on America’s foundations is a failure of imagination and an act of hubris. They assumed they spoke for the mob when it was the mob that spoke for them. But their revisionism was only ever as myopic as the South’s hidebound dead-enders.

Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with slavery is condemnable, but his tolerance of it was conflicted. He was not just the author of one of the most expansive definitions of what constitutes human liberty up to that point in history—a radical document that paved a paradigmatic road to Emancipation—he practiced this philosophy. Jefferson was the author of a law that served as the basis for the first anti-slavery legislation in America: the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. In a message to Congress as president, he wrote that “the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe” slavery. Like men of his time and many generations after, Jefferson regarded blacks as inferior. And yet, he resented the “unremitting despotism” and “degrading submissions” American slaves endured.

Washington—the American Cincinnatus who established the customs that preserved the presidency’s diminutive constitutional status—is equally undeserving of the crowd’s unmitigated scorn. He was a slave owner and a brutal one at that. But he, like all his successors in the White House until Lincoln, subordinated the issue of slavery to the imperative of maintaining the Union. Those who regard any compromise in service to the preservation of the Constitution as unacceptable must also reconcile how that document enabled the abolition of the international slave trade, involuntary servitude, and the equal protection clause upon which almost all modern anti-discrimination law is based. To square these competing facts is to muddy a simpler narrative preferred by our enlightened betters in which history’s actors are rendered one-dimensional stick figures. But that isn’t sophistication, and it boils down the complicated conduct of human events to a childish morality play.

Related: Bill de Blasio’s wife to decide fate of NYC statues of Washington, Jefferson.

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