In light of George Washington’s church in Alexandria deciding to remove the plaque honoring him from their pews, and generally opting to displace mention of Washington from their physical history, Brendan Michael Doughtery writes that the next logical social justice cause in America will likely be the social taboo-ification and prohibition on honoring the Founders in public life:
The desire to see white supremacy toppled in the present will motivate anti-racists to expose its influence throughout American history. And the fact that the Founders gave America its long-lived institutions — its Constitution, its presidency, its courts — will no longer be seen as a reason to retain their monuments, but as the primary reason for tearing them down. …
Political battle creates archetypal heroes and villains. And once the villainy of the latter is established, why shouldn’t they lose even more ground? …
Right now, most liberals cannot quite envision the toppling of the Jefferson Memorial on account of Jefferson’s white-supremacist views. It seems so unthinkable that they genuinely don’t allow themselves to contemplate it, much less desire it.
Generations of mass immigration all but guarantee that the future of our politics will almost certainly be more and more focused on achieving the equitable distribution of economic, institutional, and honorific resources in an ever-more-racially-diverse society, thereby ensuring social peace. Because I believe that human nature cannot be perfected, and that human ambition is very difficult to restrain, I doubt any government or society is capable of creating a distribution of resources that is fair and disinterested and perceived by everyone as such. Yet it is precisely this need to create harmony in an increasingly diverse society that prompted Christ Church to ditch George Washington. They explained in their statement that the plaques “create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors.”
And so, if white supremacy will be named as the perennial problem of American life going forward, the Founders must eventually fall. …
Previously, civil-rights activists such as King reconciled white America’s devotion to the nation’s founding and their own ambition to living as equals under the law by casting the Declaration and other artifacts of the Founding as a “promissory note” whose liberties need to be justly extended to all human beings in America. And many today say that we can honor the Founders because, unlike the the Confederates, the principles they enshrined in our Founding documents could be used against the injustice of slavery and white supremacy.
It is my contention that this way of honoring the Founders will soon begin to seem dishonest to liberals. It will be seen as a concession to a recalcitrant prejudice and a political reality that is rapidly disappearing, the same way civil unions for same-sex couples are now seen.
It is easy to imagine a writer who grew up reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on “the First White President” looking back at Bouie’s assertion that we have statues to Jefferson on account of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence with a jaundiced eye. That future man of letters will observe that the Declaration’s invocations of liberty and its pretensions of universalism were merely Whig propaganda against a King. He will assert that Jefferson did not actually believe that all men were so endowed by their creator. He will hasten to add that as America achieved the political sovereignty, Jefferson became more convinced of white supremacy, more secure in the view that white liberty could be guaranteed only through black bondage. Many reading this argument will conclude that by raising statues to Jefferson we are crediting him only for his hypocrisy, a privilege only white racists and slavers get in America. They will conclude, in other words, that America has spent centuries sanctifying its foundational hypocrisy. …
Forget the promissory note, they may say — only right-wingers talk about that any more. We ran away from Washington in the 1770s, and we’ve been running from him and what he created ever since. Everything that has been good for racial peace in this country has involved running away from the Founders. …
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the great themes of American politics will change before that can happen. Perhaps China or some other power will emerge as an empire that threatens our subjugation, and the Founders’ desire for sovereignty, independence, and republicanism will seem relevant and ennobling of American life again. Perhaps unforeseen changes to society and technology will so atomize us that racial divides in politics no longer exist on account of factional cohesion itself becoming impossible.
But I doubt it. The pieces on the board are where they are, and the logic of the game requires that some of them will fall, even if the players cannot yet anticipate it. All that is required is for the game to continue on its current course.
When the founders of a nation cannot be honored, the nation’s founding principles—namely, in our case, the constitution—seem likely to be at risk.
I’m proud to be a life member of the Sons of the American Revolution, proud of my French/German ancestors who fought in the War, and I’m proud of Washington. George Washington should never have been “sanctified,” but he and the founders deserve their place of honor. Washington’s wartime fortitude and foresight as president continue to be models of civic leadership.
Neither justify his sins. That sort of injustice, and the sins of all human beings, corrode us and make us less than we were meant to be—and we are answerable to God for our sins, and I have no doubt Washington will answer to God for his.
Neither sainthood, nor absolution, can be granted in the secular square. Good citizenship requires being humble enough to recognize that we will soon enough join the figures of the past that we sanctify and vilify today, and so should be careful about what we say and do in the present.
We have our constitution. We have our rule of law, free from kings. We have long attempted to govern ourselves by faith and reason, and in doing so we contribute to the health of a society that can be a fitting home to a free people.
For these reasons, Washington, the founders, and the great and varied men and women of our pluralistic country’s past will have places of honor in my heart and home.