What To Make of Heroes Who Did Bad Things

In a press conference this afternoon, President Trump equated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The first two were founders of our country. The last two led a revolt against our country to preserve an economic and social system that enslaved African Americans and were responsible for the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousand of Americans.

These four men shared something in common of course. They owned slaves — that is, they held other human beings in captivity because of the color of their skin.

But there are differences. For starters, 100 years separated them. We’ll never know what either Washington or Jefferson would have done if presented with the possibility of succession — dissolution of the Union they fought so hard to establish.

There were other differences. Jefferson had conjugal relations with at least one of his slaves. More bluntly, he didn’t mind sleeping with his captives.

Washington, by last will and testament, granted his slaves freedom after the death of his widow.

Does any of this mean Washington and Jefferson were less immoral than Lee and Jackson?

What it does mean, of course, is that all four men cited by President Trump did bad things. Well, at least some of us think so. Obviously, some of us, apparently including the president, don’t think so, or at least aren’t so sure.

Nobody is perfect, as we know. Each of us transgress in some way or another. Yet few if any of us transgress to the extent of enslaving other human beings. And no one I know is willing to kill other people in order to preserve the institution of slavery.

Some will say the standards were different back then. They were, but it’s also true that many people, back then, thought slavery was immoral.

Fortunately, it’s not up to any of us to judge any historical figure, or contemporary figure for that matter. But it is up to us to judge conduct.

I never thought I’d hear a sitting president of the United States come to the aid of two generals who sought to dissolve the Union which Washington and Jefferson helped forge in Philadelphia. But there are a lot of things I’m hearing these days that seemed unimaginable not that long ago.

It’s one thing to refrain from judging another person’s soul. It’s quite another to defend their bad acts.

David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was thrilled with the president’s comments this afternoon. And why not? The Confederacy finally has an apologist in the White House. And so do the Nazis.

P.S. Lest an erroneous inference be drawn, none of the aforementioned men is a hero of mine.

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