Montana Viewpoint: The good and the evil of American history – and American greats

Jim Elliott

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” – William Shakespeare

Time passes, morals change and statues fall. In direct contradiction of Shakespeare’s words, for two centuries the founders of the American experiment had nothing but good said about them, their evil ways were buried with their bones.

The truth has been slow to come out, but it has come out; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”), even Benjamin Franklin were slaveholders.

How do we reconcile the founders of modern democracy with their practice of the most illiberal act in history?

How should history judge national figures of the past who committed both good and evil? Does the good outweigh the bad, the bad the good, or is it more complex than that?

The legacy of Richard Nixon was great, but it was accomplished by an imperfect man who was willing to commit crime to salvage his reputation. Lyndon Johnson, generally regarded as a tyrant to his underlings, as a Southerner ushered in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and saved many lives with the introduction of medical insurance for all elderly Americans – Medicare.

But he also caused the deaths of tens of thousands of American youths for political reasons by prolonging a war that his generals told him could not be won.

How do you judge a famous person in history who engaged in an accepted practice in the days they lived in, but that is prohibited now? There are many ways, but erasing them from history is not one of them. The leaders of the past, perfect or imperfect, are those who created the history that put us where we are today.

You cannot erase that part of history which you do not like. We cannot learn from our mistakes if we don’t remember them.

History is complex because, like truth, it is elusive. What one person sees another does not. But there is nothing complex about the fact that the founders of America had slaves. It was common among the wealthy then, it is abhorrent now.

The Declaration of Independence, in retrospect, did not reflect the conditions of the time. That all men were created equal was true about white men, which was who mattered then. They were imbued by their creator with life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but this did not apply to slaves.

But while the words written by Jefferson could be seen as hypocritical in retrospect because they ignored the realities of his time, by design or happenstance they remain words that have defined and transformed the world today. Because of their ambiguity they have been used as a benchmark for what should be, not what was, or even what is today. They have come to define a goal to be worked towards, and America, in fits and starts, has been able to move itself and the world towards that goal.

So, let us take history for what it is, acknowledging the good and the bad. Accepting that there can exist good and evil in the same person, and celebrate the good while recognizing, but rejecting the bad.

That’s hard to do in a statue, so maybe statues should not be memorials to humans, but to ideals, like the Statue of Liberty. Some might say that the sentiments of the Statue of Liberty do not live up to the realities of life in America but consider this; it was a gift to the United States from France.

It might not have reflected what we thought about ourselves, but more important, it reflected what others thought of America.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.