It’s the birthday of the nation, the Fourth of July. John Adams proclaimed in a letter to his dearest wife Abigail that this day “will be celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Years later, in an amazing twist of historical fate, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would each ascend to heaven on the very same Fourth of July.
These days, many of our historical figures and symbols are under review, judged in the context of current mores and sensibilities, always a process to be undertaken with care. The Confederate flag is being banished from government property, as it should be. During an earlier part of my life, I was sensitive to the argument that this flag properly honored the heritage of Confederate forefathers. A little wiser now, I now realize that my ‘sensitive’ southern viewpoint was wholly insensitive. The offense that this symbol has for most of us clearly outweighs competing arguments to brandish the flag on public lands. If you want to display this image to honor the gallantry and heroism of your ancestors, your home is still your castle and you may adorn it as you wish. Or, put on a T-shirt, get a tattoo or apply a bumper sticker.
As expected, many who are now decrying the flag are doing so for political and economic reasons. I don’t think that Amazon or WalMart have suddenly experienced a moral revelation as they scour their shelves to remove Confederate merchandise from their inventory. Similarly, presidential candidates who weeks ago would finger-wag that these issues were ‘better left to individual states’, are now racing up the flagpoles themselves to be the first to tear down the flag. Sounds like an electoral epiphany.
My worry is that this will initiate an avalanche of a politically correct cleansing of our historical icons and symbols. What should the standard be for us to publicly honor our historical and modern figures? If the standard should be moral purity, then we will be spending the next decade carting away statues, demolishing monuments and changing the names of schools and streets throughout the country. Who could make the cut? We can’t even agree on if a female portrait should appear on the ten or twenty dollar bill, let alone who should be selected.
It’s not easy to define a hero. Name half a dozen Americans whom you think are our nation’s best, and I guarantee that there will be folks who see it through a different lens. Same is true for the revered legends in American history. Should we admire Robert E. Lee for his deep sense of honor, while he took up arms against his government? Should we honor Henry Ford, who changed the world, but was a viscous anti-Semite? Should honor Harry Truman as one of the most popular presidents in modern times, even though he dropped two atomic bombs on Japan within 3 days of each other?
This nation emerged from a crucible in which virtue and vice cohabited. We cannot expect that those who created and sustained the nation would be perfect. Indeed, the preamble to the Constitution begins with the phrase ‘in order to form a more perfect union, acknowledging that we can never achieve the ideal state, but must strive toward it.
Those men were also not perfect. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the immortal phrase ‘all men are created equal’ into the Declaration of Independence, was a slave holder and a miscegenist. George Washington owned hundreds of slaves. Should the Jefferson Memorial be converted into a Museum of Tolerance? Should our nation’s capital be given a new name? If we sanitize every corner of the public square, what will we be left with?