The contemporary moment is witnessing a disgraceful outpouring of violent racism, emboldened by an erratic President who has made the White House a bully pulpit for white supremacy. As disheartening as this is, it is occasioning an extraordinary amount of history education, as scholars and commentators work feverishly to counter the myths and lies being espoused on the streets and in the halls of power.
Amidst Donald Trump’s historical malfeasance, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson offered yet another nugget of bad history lending aid and comfort to white nationalism. His August 15 commentary argued against the removal of statues honoring slaveholding Americans, suggesting that if slaveholding is to be the standard by which historical figures are to be honored, “nobody is safe.”
Carlson then went on to point out that slavery is an old institution, practiced by African tribes and American Indians, as well as figures such as Plato, Mohammed, and Simon Bolivar. If slaveholding bars us from honoring historical figures, Carlson asserts, there would be few left to honor. “If we’re going to judge the past by the standards of the present, if we’re going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that.” Many who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves, Carlson notes, but “does that make what they wrote illegitimate?”
Personally, I don’t care for historical hero worship and am not a fan of using public spaces to make reductionist arguments about historical figures who deserve nuanced investigation. But Carlson has it all wrong. For one, it is untrue that there’s a “movement” among “Leftists” to reduce the Founders to nothing more than “racist villains,” or have slaveholding Founders such as Jefferson “purged from public memory, forever.” Aside from the obvious caricature here, it is clear that statues honoring historical figures represent a mere fraction of our public memory, which is nourished in myriad realms ranging from classrooms and museums to popular literature and feature films. We are in no danger of forgetting the Founders.
The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.