Honoring our founding fathers has been a longstanding tradition of U.S. culture.
Going way back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Americans look at the founding fathers almost as if they were deities.
But Washington Post columnist Sanford J. Ungar, who is also the president emeritus at Goucher College, has raised an interesting question regarding these and others, who are known to have made some “horrible” life decisions (like owning slaves for starters).
In a piece entitled, “Great people in history have done horrible things. Should we stop honoring them?,” Ungar explores the possibility of renaming monuments, street names, buildings, and other such landmarks because of the “value of hindsight.”
Before firing off an angry missive to Ungar, it is important to note that he is not in favor of such ideas. To him, it “seems like a slippery slope.”
He continued, pointing to a number of examples of highly respected figures who, nevertheless, made decisions that could be considered anywhere from misguided to downright cruel. Among them, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, whom Ungar knew and respected.
Fulbright was on the right side of a lot of issues, Ungar attests, but when it came to the widely supported landmark civil rights act of 1964, he joined with a bloc of 21 Southern Democrats refusing to support the measure.
“This one startled me and my friends the most. He was known for standing up to demagogues like Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and for challenging key elements of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, we had an image of him as one of the leading intellectuals of the Senate, a progressive internationalist and the namesake of the iconic exchange program that sends U.S. scholars abroad and brings the best and the brightest from around the world to the United States. How could Fulbright possibly endorse the brutal segregation that was not just morally wrong, but was sullying the United States’ global reputation?”
Ungar decided that the “answer” to that question had to do with Fulbright being voted into office by “segregationist voters in the Old South.”
The vote “was apparently the kind of thing he had to do to sustain their support while acting more independently on other issues,” Ungar said, adding that he had “already voted against a number of civil rights bills in the 1950s and ’60s and would continue to do so.”
At the end of the day, Ungar said, “sometimes good people feel compelled to do wrong for the sake of political survival.”
Ungar pushed back against the idea that Americans should feel the need to rename every little thing or remove a President’s picture from currency just because they have made some mistakes or knowingly taken a wrong position on an issue.
That kind of thinking, he warns, is “Soviet-style,” and it is important not to overextend oneself in this regard for the sake of “understanding of our own history.”
Not surprisingly, his “honoring our founding fathers” piece has stoked its share of comments, with some attempting to draw the line for when to dishonor and when to keep in place.
One commenter felt that any time that a person or group of people actively fought against the U.S. Army, they should not be honored, including “the Confederacy and its army.”
Others pled for greater insight into historical context, noting that people should recognize a society is always changing its own moral rules, citing Christians, who once felt a moral imperative to “convert” other cultures at the expense of a way of life.
“So, be careful,” this commenter stated. “You may want to take down every name from every building and monument, but one day, future generations may view your contributions with loathing.”
Do you think honoring our founding fathers — even the ones, who’ve been responsible for morally wrong outcomes like slavery — should be done, or should society continue to reconsider who it honors?
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