Yes, the Founding Fathers owned slaves, but…

But some of them felt bad about it later

Scholar Arlen Parsa had had enough. He wrote: “This is one of the most famous paintings in American history: Declaration of Independence. I decided to put red dots on all the men who held slaves. Next time someone puts them on a pedestal and says we can’t question their judgement on guns or whatever, show them this image.”

Ever since I saw the image above (and related Twitter thread) in 2019, I’ve done just that. When someone was talking about the Founding Fathers like they were heavenly messengers, I’d show them this image. And do you know what happened every single time?

The other person started making excuses for them.

  • “It was just accepted back then”
  • “They were flawed and made mistakes!”
  • “Slavery wasn’t as bad as you’ve been led to think.”
  • “It doesn’t take away from the good they did founding the country!”
  • “Many of them let their slaves go”
  • “You shouldn’t judge people in the past on today’s standards. After all, in 200 years someone might look at your life and be offended by something you did.”

Every. Single. Time. It doesn’t even make a dent in their certitude.

Before I consider these rejoinders individually, please note that my point isn’t that we should go around hating the “Founding Fathers.” Instead, be coldly realistic about them. Of course that will require a MUCH shorter pedestal.

OK let’s take a look at those points:

  • “It was just accepted back then”
    By whom was it accepted? Not by white abolitionists. Not by most Northern business owners. And sure as goddamn fuck not by its victims. No, the full statement would end with this: “…by the people in power.”
  • “They were flawed and made mistakes!”
    So… no pedestal then? Not revere them as a moral guide to the legal and ethical future of a country? Because those were some pretty awful “mistakes.”
  • “Slavery wasn’t as bad as you’ve been led to think.”
    Oh yes, it was. Worse, even. Read about it from former enslaved persons. They’ve got a whole different take.
  • “Many of them let their slaves go”
    Yes, a handful did. Much later.
  • “It doesn’t take away from the good they did founding the country!”
    You sure about that? At what point is an act so monstrous that it does indeed take away from the good someone has done? And a complete and dispassionate reading of US history balances the scale very differently.
  • “You shouldn’t judge people in the past on today’s standards. After all, in 200 years someone might look at your life and be offended by something you did.”
    Well I certainly hope so. If I turn out to be the moral pinnacle of history, that’s going to be a big damn disappointment. But directly to the point, these were supposedly brilliant moral philosophers writing about “Freedom.” And some of them went to some pretty horrible extremes to maximize profit from their human property.

It’s the 4th of July in 2022 as I write this, and in the news right now is the case of a man in Ohio who ran from the cops, and police fired 90 bullets at him, of which 60 hit his body. Then they handcuffed his corpse. And I have just one question: Do you really need to ask the race of the man they killed?

If America is big and strong and a moral leader and worth waving the flag and celebrating, then… it shouldn’t be afraid to look in the mirror.

NOTES:

  • 1619 Historian Imani Perry, herself in the crosshairs of a cultural firestorm, writes about unlearning our admiration of historical heroes in How To Be An Honest Historian