President vs. President

Published 12:34 am Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Two days after Presidents day, it’s a good time to compare our presidents, of all vintages.

George Washington, our first president and “the Father of Our Country,” owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson, our third president and “the Father of the Declaration of Independence” owned slaves. James Madison, our fourth president and “the Father of the Constitution” owned slaves. Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederacy, owned slaves. There you have it. All these men owned slaves, and so, many are now asserting that they were morally equivalent to one another. Therefore, it is said, their historical reputations, as well as their monuments, should either stand or fall together.

So, are honorary bronzes of George Washington and Jefferson Davis honestly the same?

Email newsletter signup

For the Confederacy, we have already seen what motivated its formation. It was not just one more place in the world where slavery and racism happened to exist. Its founding purpose, its reason-for-being, was to defend and perpetuate slavery and white supremacy. This was not an incidental aspect of the Confederacy’s character; it was its essence. Slavery was proclaimed to be a positive good for the enslaved as surely as for the free. In an independent Confederacy, the abolition of slavery and the recognition of racial equality were inconceivable.

As for slavery and the United States, let’s not be naïve. Our celebrated Founders (Washington, Jefferson, Madison) had the spare time to found this “free” country thanks to their profits from unfree labor. They all ruled with the whip, and allowed their craven self-interests and prejudices to overrule their principles. Our early national incrimination in the sin of slavery, though, goes far beyond the plantations of the Virginia Dynasty. Every day, new historical research is revealing more about just how critical slavery was to the economy of the entire country, not only the South.

And still, there is this huge distinction. The founding purpose of the United States, its reason for being, was not to defend or perpetuate white supremacist slavery. In fact, from the beginning there was an awareness that something was elementally wrong with the idea of a “slaveholding republic.”

Even our slaveholding Founders saw slavery as a cancer to be cut out eventually, even if they themselves recoiled before the pain of abolitionist surgery. Within the seriously flawed United States, there was still the possibility that slavery would be ended one day, as it was. That racial equality would advance one day, as it did.

So, when you build a monument to the slaveholders Washington, Jefferson or Madison, you honor men who created this nation, a nation that fell far short of its ideals, but with the capacity to work toward their realization in the future, a promise that has, at times, actually been kept. When you build a monument to the slaveholder Jefferson Davis, you honor a man who was willing to destroy this nation expressly out of fear that it would live up to those promised ideals, a promise that some try to deny even today.

No, there is no moral equivalency between President George Washington and President Jefferson Davis, between the United States and the Confederate States.

But that does not mean we should tear Jeff Davis’ statues down. We should make sure all monuments are placed into their proper context by adding accurate interpretive information. But also, just as the answer to lies should not be censorship but truth-telling, we should answer Confederate monuments with anti-Confederate monuments. Right across the street from Jeff, erect a statue of the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass; let them stare each other down.

THAT would be the story of America, told in stone.
Jim Wiggins is a retired history instructor from Copiah-Lincoln Community College.