What about George Washington? What about Thomas Jefferson?
In the ongoing and necessary debate about naming things after historical figures, where do Washington and Jefferson fit into the discussion?
Some aspects of the issue are simple. As we wrote last week, there is no excuse for the United States to honor Confederate generals by naming military bases after them or building monuments to them. Those generals not only killed Americans in an attempt to preserve slavery, but they lost the Civil War. Do you think Italy has monuments to Mussolini?
History, however, is rarely simple; like human beings, it is filled with complexities and contradictions. So, what do we do about Washington and Jefferson, who were slaveholders yet have their names on buildings and schools and parks all over the country? Heck, Washington has an entire state named for him; but you probably knew that.
And what do we do about the fact that the list of slaveholders includes Ben Franklin? And 12 of the first 18 American presidents? And William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition? Heck, Clark has an entire county named for him; but you probably knew that.
So, as we reconsider figures from America’s past, as we reconsider noble-but-imperfect leaders who formed and built a noble-but-imperfect union, allow me to definitively say with the utmost certitude: I have no idea. How do we weigh anybody’s flaws against their strengths? Do we judge a person’s character by modern standards or by the norms of their time? Do we assess them by their worst traits or their best?