Great but Imperfect Leaders
America has been blessed with some of the most dynamic and impressive leaders in world history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. But none of them were perfect people. Criticism of many of our past leaders has increased dramatically over the last few years, particularly our Founding Fathers, and the driving force behind that criticism is the positions they held on slavery.
While most of today’s militant left has diverted their attention from tearing down statues of historic leaders to burning down courthouses and churches, they will surely be coming back for more. We must remember how absurd their actions had become, and consider that in late-June they went so far as to bring down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. Evidently the logic of those rioters was to ignore the fact that Grant was largely responsible for winning the Civil War, thereby ending slavery. Grant was a white man, and apparently that was the only justification the rioters needed.
Carefully examining the deeds and misdeeds of leaders such as Jefferson and Washington through the prism of 21st-century enlightenment, it now becomes clear to the Left that our Founders were bad people. We must loudly reject this narrative. To illustrate the point, let’s consider some of the similarities between two U.S. presidents George Washington and Jimmy Carter. (Now there’s a sentence we don’t see every day.)
Jimmy Carter was our nation’s 39th president, and very few people even try to pretend that his presidency was an effective one. Instead, a common talking point from Democrats nowadays is this: Jimmy Carter may not have been a very good president, but he’s been a terrific ex-president, referring to his charitable works. Try to come up with a similar situation where apologists go out of their way to prop up someone’s legacy, and you’ll probably fail. “Well, Joe may have been a lousy doctor, but as a bartender he’s been a fantastic ex-doctor. You should try one of his margaritas. “
But with all of Carter’s flaws, we don’t find many people that attack his character, even on the Right. When it comes to ranking presidents, most agree that Washington is in the top two, along with Lincoln, whereas Jimmy Carter is most likely in the bottom ten of any rankings; if not the bottom five. That doesn’t mean Carter is a bad person, however.
George Washington owned slaves throughout his life, and even though he grew to oppose slavery and then freed his slaves upon his death, his stance on slavery deserves consideration when evaluating him. But we must also consider the context of time and culture. Slavery in 18th-century Virginia -- where Washington was born, lived, and died -- was an accepted part of the culture, part of everyday life.
Slavery during Washington’s lifetime wasn’t unlike abortion in America during the 1970s and 1980s. There were many people who opposed it, but they were in the relative minority. Abortion, like slavery, was legal, and its detractors were largely ignored. In the cases of both slavery and abortion, in the back of people’s minds they perhaps thought there was something not right with the institution, but a majority of people thought it was acceptable, so they just shrugged their shoulders.
Slavery was a despicable, moral abomination, not just in America but throughout the world; no one disputes that. It’s an absolutely shameful part of American history. But abortion is no less despicable, and we see increasing scientific evidence to support that statement. We now have babies being born as premature as 22 weeks and not just surviving but thriving, while Democrat politicians pass laws legalizing abortion up to the moment of birth; undeniable infanticide. We are now over 220 years removed from the death of George Washington, and the fact that he did not do more to address the evils of slavery is unthinkable to our friends on the Left. Therefore, Washington could not have been a moral man, they tell us. But what will people say about current America in 220 years?
Due to his efforts with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the underprivileged, Jimmy Carter is largely considered to be a good, moral person; a humanitarian. But Carter is pro-abortion. We are in the midst of a dramatic shift in public opinion regarding abortion, with more people switching to the pro-life side every year. In the year 2240, after 220 more years of scientific clarification and common sense, it seems highly likely that mankind will look back at our generation with equal shame. They may point to people like President Carter and scoff.
It is difficult to comprehend how anyone could have been complicit in the enslavement of human beings, even if it was so long ago. But we have the benefit of centuries of analysis, consideration and philosophy on the matter, benefits that Washington did not have. Judging Washington based on today’s morals and culture is no more reasonable than 23rd-century Americans holding us up to their standards, whatever they may be. We exist in our times, and we should be assessed within that context. And the fact is, everyone is flawed, even our greatest leaders.
In 1861 at the onset of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a fundamental human right that ensures due process for a prisoner or detainee. Lincoln did not have the authority, but did it anyway, and deprived American citizens of their basic rights in doing so. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led us to victory in World War II, abused his power by unsuccessfully attempting to increase the number of Supreme Court Justices to ‘pack the court’ with like-minded thinkers, and then violated the human rights of thousands of Japanese-Americans by placing them in internment camps. Lincoln and Roosevelt were not perfect but that does not take away from their greatness, it just makes them human.
We must reject the current trend toward insisting on purity; demanding that our leaders, past and present, be free of any transgressions. It is an impossible standard, and a dangerous one. There has never been a man more worthy of being called the father of his country than George Washington. He was a remarkable military mind, and an even more remarkable statesman and president. His flaws, including his failings with slavery, should remind us of his humanity. He is not a mythical figure; he was a person with imperfections. Just like Lincoln, just like Roosevelt, and just like every other great leader we have had. Let us acknowledge and learn from their shortcomings, but let us also continue to celebrate their accomplishments. As Americans, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and the least we can do is show our gratitude.
P.F. Whalen is a conservative blogger at TheBlueStateConservative.com. His work has appeared in multiple publications, including American Thinker, the Western Journal, and Human Events. Follow him on Twitter at @pf_whalen.