Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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Jayne: Historical figures present dilemma

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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?

Take Jefferson. The United States’ first secretary of state and its third president, he is rightly lauded for a brilliance that was manifested in the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Few phrases in human history have had the profound impact of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But he also owned more than 600 slaves during his life and fathered at least six children with one of them, Sally Hemings. Today, we would call that rape.

Jefferson’s reputation is facing scrutiny, including his role as a minor villain in the musical “Hamilton.” A statue of Jefferson was toppled last week outside his namesake high school in Portland, and vandals tagged the podium with “slave owner.” Regardless of how one feels about honoring slaveholders, vandalism should be decried; it does not advance the discussion.

That discussion is an important one that has been ignored for far too long. Lauding Confederates who actively fought against the United States to preserve slavery is indefensible; but honoring the accomplishments of Washington and Jefferson is a bit more complicated.

In Vancouver Public Schools, for example, there is a Thomas Jefferson Middle School and a Benjamin Franklin Elementary and a Washington Elementary. (By the way, Lee Middle School is Jason Lee Middle School, named for a missionary, not Gen. Robert E. Lee).

There also is a Harney Elementary, named for U.S. Army Gen. William S. Harney, who in the 1850s commanded the Army’s Department of Oregon. A few years ago, a federal board renamed Harney Peak in South Dakota, with the Rapid City Journal reporting, “the name of the state’s highest peak was derogatory to Native Americans because Harney was a general whose soldiers massacred Indians.” Early in his career, Harney was charged with beating a slave to death with his cane; he was acquitted, but it would seem that he might not be worthy of having a county in Oregon or a waterway in the San Juan Islands or a school in Vancouver named for him.

A spokesman for Vancouver Public Schools said this week that the issue of renaming schools has not been brought up. Should it be? Allow me to definitively say: I have no idea.

But it is clear that changing names or removing statues is not about rewriting history; it is about demonstrating a better understanding of that history and recognizing its complexities. And few figures are as complex by modern standards as Washington and Jefferson.

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