Mitchell Chapman: Addressing America's ugly duality
PITTSFIELD — In the past month, I've thought a lot about Paul A. London's July 8 column "Founders' insights predicted progressives' hard-line tact," and why it bothered me. London's piece came in response to a national conversation on race sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May, that has seen even the Founding Fathers come under fire for their shortcomings on race.
"I do not, however, support progressive attacks on the Founding Fathers and earlier American leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, who are being dismissed as 'moderates' and 'racists,'" London wrote. "To the contrary, their insights about human nature are the bedrock of the American political experiment."
London argues that it is unfair to hold up historic figures to "imperfect 2020 standards," and he likens the legitimate criticism of the dark side of the Founding Fathers to political attacks. He compares such critiques as a "search for perfection [that] has too often been suicidal politics," using the failed presidential campaigns of Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter's reelection bid and Hillary Clinton, who faced progressive challengers, as examples as to why liberal critique is harmful, though I would argue that those candidates failed because they were extraordinarily unpopular and felt like they didn't have to take their critics seriously.
America is and always has been an uncomfortable contradiction, but we like to pretend that it isn't. Too often I see people subscribe to the sanitized myth of America and its Founding Fathers, in which we celebrate their accomplishments and diminish their failures, where we reduce complex figures like former President Lincoln to the guy who "freed the slaves," former President George Washington as the guy who beat the British and established the country, or former President Thomas Jefferson as only the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, as is the popular culture renditions of them, which is often shaped and reinforced by how our K-12 education system portrays them — it wasn't until my upper-level college courses that I myself was able to take a deeper dive into who they were as people.
In reality, there was much more to them than that. Lincoln struggled with race all his life, even going so far as to say in 1858 "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races."
Washington allowed the slave trade to become institutionalized.
Jefferson did write that all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence, but he later contradicted himself in his infamous "Notes on the State of Virginia," in which he stated that Black people were "inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."
The national conversation on race we've been having since May has seen Americans reevaluate the legacy of this country, and that has included exploring the darker side of America and its historic figures that is often downplayed, both intentionally and unintentionally. It is no secret that traditionally, those who have documented American history have been predominantly white men, and that has played a large role into how we view and teach the past, and why we put the founders on impossibly high pedestals. The Black perspective on the founders and other early American political figures have rarely made it into textbooks, and I think a large part of what white people need to do to understand the Black Lives Matter movement and what it fights for is to acknowledge that Black people have a much different relationship with America.
Jon Stewart, former host of "The Daily Show," addressed this in his June 15 interview with The New York Times Magazine, in which he identified two different Americas in relation to policing:
"The police are a reflection of a society. They're not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the Black community. ... The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don't have to deal with it. Then that situation [in Minneapolis] erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don't address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, 'I'm tired of everything being about race.' Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that."
That anguish is as much a part of the legacy of the founders as their accomplishments are, and noting their sizable contributions to the injustices of today is in no way a political attack; they're statements of fact that we focus on too little.
The legacies of the founders and other early American political figures are often complex ones that must be approached with nuance. One of my college professors, Dr. Mark Miller, described this as a great duality of existence. We can praise Jefferson for his excellent declaration, while still condemning his ownership of slaves, just like we can admire the courage and bravery of figures like Lincoln and Washington, while acknowledging where they fell short.
America has always been simultaneously great for some, and terrible for others. While it has greatly improved since 1776, that's still a reality we grapple with today, which we must work towards making more just, fair and free.
Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.