In another instance of judging the past by the standards of the present, the statue of Thomas Jefferson is to be removed from the City Council chamber in New York City because Jefferson was a slave owner. Besides owning slaves, Jefferson helped to found the nation that has given more freedoms to more people than any other in history, and he wrote the document that eloquently sets forth the reasons why the colonies struck for their freedom.
But Jefferson held slaves, so he is to be removed to a place where his image will be less prominent and his memory more obscured.
Slavery is evil. It was evil when Jefferson was alive, and its use then cannot be excused or defended now. Many of us think of it as a practice that is defunct, but it still exists in some parts of the world, including in the vile crime of trafficking. The day cannot some soon enough when slavery is eliminated everywhere.
Slavery was part of the world into which Jefferson was born. The economy of his time and place depended on it. His own livelihood depended on it. Jefferson held more than 600 slaves in his lifetime and freed only 10—two while he was alive and eight in his will. He criticized slavery and stated in his writings that it was immoral, but he continued to hold slaves, even as he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that freedom was the natural right of human beings.
Despite those contradictions, it is a mistake to remove statues of Jefferson and other founders of this country from places of prominence. Hiding images does not hide history; it fosters ignorance of history. Better to face the truth, and grapple with it and learn from it, than to forget it or pretend that it can be erased.
This country, which has offered more freedom to more people than any other—including my ancestors, and maybe yours—still grapples with slavery’s legacy of injustice. We have made great progress since slavery was outlawed in the U.S. in 1865, but we have more work to do to make equal opportunity a reality in fact and law.
One pitfall we need to avoid, though, is the belief in our own moral superiority that leads to the removal of statues and other tributes to our historical heroes. We congratulate ourselves for refusing to honor flawed leaders of the past, but are we certain that we ourselves are not blind to injustice in our own times? Take, for example, the manufacture of clothing and footwear.
Late in the 20th century, clothing companies began moving their operations overseas, hiring companies that employ local workers who earn far less than American workers, and whose working conditions are poor or even hazardous. Today it is hard to find moderately priced clothing that is made in the United States. Most footwear sold here is made overseas; if it were made here, by workers earning competitive salaries with benefits and pensions, only the rich would be wearing well-made shoes and boots.
In Manhattan on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers—the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. Most were Italian or Jewish immigrant girls and women. The tragedy led to mandated safety regulations.
In Bangladesh in 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1,134 persons; it is considered the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history. Workers made clothes for brands that are widely sold here.
Keeping clothing costs down by using the labor of foreign workers is not the same as holding slaves. But it easily leads to abuses, and we need to take action to protect overseas workers, as some clothing designers and companies are already doing.
We also need to make sure of our own innocence before we judge and condemn leaders of the past. We demand perfection of dead people. Do we demand it of ourselves?