Like many middle-aged Americans, I was raised in an era in which the stories of America’s most prominent historical figures were filtered through a delusive lens of patriotic romanticism. In grade school, I was taught about the Columbus who “discovered” the land we now call North America, not the Columbus whose penchant for subjugating indigenous peoples paved the way for the rapid extinction of Taíno society in the early 16th century. The George Washington I remember learning about was a brilliant military leader who went on to become the first president of the United States, not a slave owner who actively sought to circumvent abolitionist legislation by moving his slaves back and forth across state lines. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I had been told, was a lionhearted warrior whose indefensible decision to intern tens of thousands of Japanese Americans was but a mere footnote to a legacy defined by his courageous leadership during World War II and the implementation of his life-saving New Deal programs in the 1930s.
It wasn’t until I began to do my own reading and research that I discovered the complicated reality of my nation’s history—and along with it, the complicated reality of human nature. With fame comes scrutiny, and with scrutiny comes the revelation that perhaps we have been a bit too gracious in our evaluations of the legacies of those who came before us.
The veneration of historical figures who have steered society in the right direction is perfectly natural, which is why this habit is practiced not just in America, but in virtually every society around the world. Sometimes, that desire inspires us to immortalize a public figure by erecting a statue in their honor, which in turn reinforces the larger-than-life mythos typically assigned to such figures. But there’s a distinct danger hidden inside that mythos and encased inside that statue—a temptation to avoid any critical analysis of the darker truths about that figure’s legacy and the political, cultural, and social forces that motivated them to engage in behaviors and defend institutions we now recognize as morally repulsive.
This is a pervasive problem that I believe has stalled our evolution as a society. Even now, as discussions and debates over the impacts of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial profiling, and police brutality dominate the national discourse, there is a lingering hesitance to dive deeply into these subjects and calculate just how much damage they have caused. Could this be because many of us are in denial about the roles that some of our most revered historical figures played in the creation and preservation of those shameful practices?
It’s an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless, that all people are capable of evil, and that their ability to recognize the implications of their own immoral actions is often hampered by the cultures into which they are born. This does not mean that their contributions to the world should be glossed over or forgotten, nor does it prove the existence of an innate and irredeemable malevolence passed down from one generation to the next. What it does mean, however, is that it is a mistake to put any public figure, living or dead, on a pedestal and deemphasize their failings for the sake of our own comfort. It is a mistake to opt out of the conversations we should always be having about how to heal and move on from the sins of the past just so we don’t have to acknowledge the misdeeds of our most celebrated forebears.
The fault for this mistake does not lie with the figures whom we have for centuries showered with praise and adoration; it lies with the many generations of Americans who have lost sight of the humanity of their ancestors. Even those with the purest of hearts have always been, and likely always will be, susceptible to the corrosive influences that characterize the eras to which they belong. But rather than choosing to acknowledge the nuances of the human experience and accepting that most people are a mix of positive and negative qualities, we prefer to think of the people we hate as being perfectly evil and the people we admire as perfectly good. That is why we struggle to accept that a man like George Washington can simultaneously occupy two historical spaces at once—one reserved for revolutionary heroes who risked their lives in defense of liberty, and one reserved for the villains who robbed African slaves of that very same liberty.
To be clear, I’m not trying to argue that all legacies are created equal, or that statues of George Washington are as deserving of removal as, say, statues of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. For all his faults, Washington was clearly the better of the two men, and his role in the founding of the United States is more than enough justification to preserve all the various statues and memorials commemorating his service to this country.
All I am arguing is that, in the future, it may be in all our best interests if we refrain from mythologizing the many imperfect public figures who have left behind legacies that are in some respects remarkable and in other respects repugnant. And if that means putting the brakes on building any more statues for a while, then so be it.
It is important to remember and appreciate the contributions of the very long list of notable Americans who helped build this country into what it is today. But when we elevate them to an almost godlike status, we make it that much harder to acknowledge, discuss, and learn from their failures and mistakes. That is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in right now. If we don’t want to have to relive this experience all over again, we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as an irreproachable hero.