Should We Tear Down Washington and Jefferson?

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George Washington Sculpture

We’ve been a little antsy lately because of neo-Nazis and White Supremacists but we haven’t really discussed the trigger event. We all know that the march in Charlottesville was sparked by a motion to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee – but how do we feel about that?

President Trump invoked a “slippery slope” argument, that it would only be a matter of time until people wanted to remove statues of Washington and Jefferson. Of course, this was derided as a ridiculous conclusion but as people were ridiculing Trump for such an assertion, James Dukes, pastor of Liberation Christian Center in Chicago, was simultaneously protesting the statue of George Washington in Washington Park, as well as the park’s very name.

So how do we feel about the attempts to remove statues? Is there a way we’re supposed to feel? (A huge disclaimer here: what follows is strictly my opinion. It is not meant to represent a position on the part of the OU or anyone else.)

I’m going to say something that’s bound to be unpopular: many of the people protesting statues of Lee don’t know what they’re actually protesting. The Civil War wasn’t fought because of slavery (which was waning in Virginia anyway) and Lee wasn’t even pro-slavery himself! In an 1856 letter to his wife, Lee wrote, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” (He was hardly an abolitionist, though. He seemed to believe in the “white man’s burden,” as his letter continues that “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.”) In any event, he didn’t fight for the South because he supported slavery, he fought for the South because his primary loyalties were to the state of Virginia, of which the Lees were a First Family (FFV).

Personally, I would support removing statues of Lee, not because he was pro-slavery (he wasn’t) or because he fought to preserve it (he didn’t) but because he led an armed insurrection against the United States. In my book, that shouldn’t get one a statue!

What about Columbus, whose popularity has plummeted over the past few decades? Just last week, vandals defaced a statue of Columbus in Astoria, Queens. Should we remove statues of Columbus and rename his holiday “Indigenous People’s Day” as it is already called in some places? (Will New York City’s 59th Street subway station be renamed “Indigenous People’s Circle?” That seems less likely.)

It may surprise some to learn that I would be perfectly okay with knocking Columbus off of his pedestal, both literally and figuratively (although I limit my approval to legal means). In school we learn that Columbus discovered America and that he proved the world was round. Neither of these is true: Columbus never set foot on the North American continent and that the world was round was already common knowledge in Columbus’ day. What Columbus did do was enslave and murder close to a quarter-million Taino natives. As governor and viceroy of the Indies (in what we would call the Dominican Republic), Columbus put an end to political unrest by ordering the dissidents killed and their dismembered bodies paraded through the streets. So, yeah, I’d be okay without glorifying this guy.

Washington and Jefferson are another story. Yes, they owned slaves but that’s not what we’re celebrating. Washington was the hero who led this country to victory in the Revolutionary War; Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. That they owned slaves was merely a product of their time. Make no mistake: owning slaves was immoral then, just as it is today. But if one lives in a society where such things are accepted, it would be unrealistic to demonize everyone who didn’t oppose the status quo (which would be virtually everyone). By definition, only a few people in such a society would be the campaigners for change.

Times are always changing and human ideas of good and evil are malleable. For example, look at wholesome family entertainment from the first half of the 20th century and you’ll find a staggering amount of casual racism. I’m not just talking about The Little Rascals and Looney Tunes, but even Disney cartoons. And not just Song of the South – even Fantasia featured casual racism! (Google it!)

It’s not just about race; lots of ideas change! What would you say if a cigarette company used TV cartoon characters as their mascots? Today, we’d call that evil and there would be multi-million dollar lawsuits. In the early 1960s, however, characters from The Flintstones were spokesmen for Winston cigarettes. Yes, during commercial breaks for The Flinstones, you could see Fred, Barney and the others lighting up and telling us that “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should!” (You can Google that, too.)

Lots of ideas change, for good or for bad: the role of women in society, the definition of marriage, attitudes towards circumcision, the morality of eating meat, and many more. We can’t blame someone for being a product of their times.

People are complicated creatures and none of us is all good or all bad. David’s sin is well-documented (II Samuel chapter 11) but he is still remembered as righteous. (Remember, “righteous” doesn’t mean “perfect.”) Similarly, Yoshiyahu (King Josiah) appears to have spent a good portion of his life “off the derech.” This is limited to one oblique reference II Kings 23:25, which says that Josiah’s teshuvah was unprecedented in its magnitude. His flaws, whatever they may have been, are unstated in favor of his many righteous deeds. Conversely, King Menashe’s evil was so great that his end-of-life repentance isn’t even mentioned in the Book of Kings – one would have to read II Chronicles chapter 33 even to know that it occurred. It may have been spiritually effective as far as Menashe’s afterlife but it was too little too late to change his legacy as an evil king.

We have to judge a person’s legacy on the big picture, which includes all of their deeds in the context of the times in which they lived. As Genesis 6:9 tells us, Noah was righteous in the generations when he lived. Rashi cites a Talmudic debate about the words “in his generations.” One opinion says that, had Noah lived in righteous times, he would have been even greater. The other opinion says that in Abraham’s time, Noah would have been nobody special.

Like Noah, Washington and Jefferson were great people “in their time” – a time that overlooked the unconscionable evil of slavery. We can only speculate as to what they would have been in other generations but the acceptance of slavery was not their fault and their failure to oppose the status quo in this area is by definition unexceptional. They might have made great abolitionists had they lived 75 years later but instead they made their marks in other areas.

I’m all for downgrading the status of those whose legacies are murder and oppression. Those who are merely products of their times, however, provide us with educational opportunities to discuss with future generations the evils that man is capable of overlooking. Retaining a statue of George Washington is not an endorsement of slavery but removing one deprives us of an opportunity for meaningful dialogue.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.