If freedom lives at the heart of the American idea, then denying people freedom is profoundly un-American. This shouldn’t be a shocking idea. Keeping people from living their lives in freedom contradicts everything America means. Thus, it is time to stop honoring slaveowners. All of them. Even, and especially, those who were presidents, those we consider the American founders.
George Washington had a great military mind. He won the military revolution against the British crown. But his life was profoundly un-American. He inherited ten enslaved people when he was eleven years old and when he died he owned 123 enslaved people. He had 317 enslaved people at Mt. Vernon, his plantation, some who were leased from other slave owners. How can he possibly be considered an American founder when he lived a life so contrary to the central American idea of freedom?
Similarly, Thomas Jefferson wrote soaringly of human freedom. His words about human freedom stand among the most beautiful and profound– until one looks at his life. Jefferson owned over 600 enslaved people at his Monticello plantation. He raped one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who bore him children. He even wrote and spoke against slavery at times, but his words never found a living place in his own life. How can one who lived such a publicly un-American life be considered an American founder? His life contradicted the very value he seemed to believe stood at the center of the American ideal.
I am not arguing that we erase them from history. I argue the opposite. We should remember exactly what they did as a reminder of how hypocritical, vicious, and cruel humans can be. We should study them, know their lives. We should also know the lives of the people they enslaved. But we should not honor anyone who owned enslaved people.
Not honoring them means we should remove their images and words from public displays. They should not be memorialized in statues or monuments. They should be remembered as a dire and searing reminder of how far we can drift from our nation’s ideals.
Thus, the Jefferson Memorial should come down. His words, praising human freedom, should be scrubbed from the dome of that memorial. Most importantly, his statue should come down. Perhaps we should leave the pedestal empty. Perhaps we should erect one whose life is profoundly American– a real founder– Frederick Douglass. I will wrote more on this in the coming weeks.
Similarly, the Washington Monument should come down. We should bring it down slowly, stone by stone, from top to bottom. Perhaps that rise on the National Mall should remain just a grass field, a place where visitors can rest and reflect.
Now, America needs to mature. American needs to look at itself honestly and see that just because these men had a role at the founding of the country, they did not live American lives. In fact, they lived the least American idea of all: they enslaved people. There is nothing more anti-American than that. As such, their statues and memorials should be re-purposed. We should stop honoring anyone who owned enslaved people.
Photograph: Thomas Jefferson, Getty Images