‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Can it really be that the statue of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote these sublime words – words that make us proud to be human – is being removed from New York’s City Hall?
Of course, there was a contradiction, indeed an underlying hypocrisy, in the fact that those words were written by a slave-owner, as was pointed out at the time by Samuel Johnson in his pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny. Yet none of that can detract from the noble aspiration of Jefferson’s words, on which his country was founded.
None of the United States’s Founding Fathers were proud of being slave-owners and almost all of them looked forward to the day when it could be abolished without fatally dislocating the US economy, although all too few looked for alternative economic models whereby that could happen. Yet the movement to tear George Washington’s name off schools and universities and to remove other Founding Fathers’ statues is about much more than an admirable revulsion against slavery long after it was abolished.
It is nothing less than an attempt to destroy any notion of the US as a country built on the ideals of freedom, and forever to tarnish the idea that America might stand for anything good. If the Founding Fathers of a country were evil, the founding of their country was evil and built upon a lie. No society can survive such an existential belief about itself, which is why the present trashing of the Founding Fathers is an unmistakeable sign of dangerously self-destructive decadence.
Anti-Americans will rejoice in this, but friends of the US should be horrified, not least because our security in an ever more dangerous world still to a large extent depends on that increasingly challenged superpower.
This is where historians can help. They can point out that, for all that they owned slaves, America’s Founding Fathers were incredibly brave in taking on the largest and most powerful empire of the day, with a population over five times the size of the non-enslaved colonists. Historians can show what an extraordinarily successful and enduring Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote, which “four-score and seven years” after 1776 encompassed the abolition of slavery.
Above all, historians can show how the Founding Fathers’ demand for sovereignty and self-government led to the US becoming the most powerful nation on earth, helping Allied victories in two world wars and promoting democracy and freedom across the planet.
It is historians who have already demolished the central contentions of The New York Times’ egregious “1619 Project”, which attempts to redefine the birth of America as when the first slaves arrived and to argue that the Founding Fathers rebelled against Britain in order to preserve slavery. When a group of immensely distinguished (and, incidentally, in today’s academic environment, very brave) historians wrote a letter to The New York Times pointing out the myriad factual errors in the 1619 Project’s arguments, the paper disgracefully refused to publish it.
The truth is that Britain had no plans to extend the illegality of slavery in Britain, as re-established by the Mansfield Judgment of 1772, to the American colonies, and the Founding Fathers did not fear that it would. In 2015, the Queen inaugurated the wonderful Georgian Papers Programme, a collaboration between the Royal Archives and King’s College London comprising 100,000 pages of George III’s archive. Not a single sentence anywhere in it mentions any such plan. The Founding Fathers rebelled for independence, not to preserve slavery.
In some Ancient Greek city-states it was a crime to defame “the gods and heroes” of the polis. They understood that that way lay the demoralisation of a community. We can criticise and must contextualise our own heroes, and the publishing industry is testament to how much we rightly revise our history. But to pull down statues of giants who fought courageously for independence and democracy is nothing less than the first step in a national suicide attempt.
‘George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch’ by Andrew Roberts is published by Penguin