Christ Church is a historic religious institution in Alexandria, Va., that has had some very important parishioners. George Washington was a member and regular attendee at the congregation. Most churches, I reckon, would be honored by this, but Christ Church, the Washington Times reported, has suddenly grown embarrassed:
This week the church announced it was pulling down a memorial to its one-time vestryman and the country’s first president, saying he and another famous parishioner, Robert E. Lee, have become too controversial and are chasing away would-be parishioners.
“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said.
Still, we are likewise free under the First Amendment to criticize this harebrained decision to disrespect the nation’s first president. Christ Church should be ashamed of itself.
For starters, Washington actually freed his slaves after he died, the only major Founding Father to do so. Reverend Richard Allen, who cofounded the African Methodist-Episcopal Church, eulogized Washington in 1799, shortly after his death, as a patron of black Americans:
To us he has been the sympathizing friend and tender father. He has watched over us, and viewed our degraded and afflicted state with compassion and pity — his heart was not insensible to our sufferings.
Washington, of course, could have freed his slaves earlier in his life. He did not, and it is fair to criticize him for this (his posthumous manumission certainly indicates a guilty conscience). But it is awfully punctilious for Christ Church to target Washington’s memory. Moreover, it is fatuous indeed for the church to equate Washington, the father of his country, with Lee, the general who tried to destroy it.
And what of this impulse by some on the left to remove icons of America’s past? Recently, the debate has been over Confederate monuments, but Christ Church’s decision to hide Washington’s memorial plaque suggests there may be larger ambitions at play. And of course, we should not forget the Obama administration’s effort to demote Alexander Hamilton as the sole portrait on the ten-dollar bill, for the sake of gender diversity.
Washington actually freed his slaves after he died, the only major Founding Father to do so.
Like most conservatives, I think the complaints of those who feel “triggered” by some public memorial are too insignificant to demand public action. On the other hand, there is a very strong public interest in keeping most memorials in place.
First, the monuments and public testimonials serve an educational function. You are not going to get the whole story of George Washington by looking at the one-dollar bill, of course. But at least you will learn that he is a person worthy of esteem, which is a first step to taking the time to learn about him. And as I argued last week at NRO, civic education is necessary for good citizenship. We the people need to know our own history if we are going to keep our governing representatives in line.
This is perhaps especially true of our slaveholding Founders, who — despite keeping fellow humans in bondage — nevertheless espoused some very radical views about human freedom. That should remind us of how easy it is to fall short of the ideals enshrined in our founding documents, and thus how fragile it is to maintain a free and equal republic.
Furthermore, memorials promote public tranquility. I’m reminded of a famous exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1789–90, in which Madison offered a very strong case for appreciating the past.
Jefferson was a strident Lockean — he took seriously the notion that government was a contract among citizens. In September 1789, he wrote to Madison:
No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. . . . Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.
Madison, respectful as always, strongly disagreed. He responded:
Would not a government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favor which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational government in the most enlightened age? Would not such a periodical revision engender pernicious factions that might not otherwise come into existence? Would not, in fine, a government depending for its existence beyond a fixed date, on some positive and authentic intervention of the society itself, be too subject to the casualty and consequences of an actual interregnum?
Madison made a similar point in Federalist 49, where he (again, gently) disagreed with Jefferson’s suggestion that constitutional disputes be placed before the people. Madison simply did not have enough faith in the public to handle such matters. “The reason of man, like man himself,” he wrote, “is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.” He went on to note, “When the examples which fortify opinion are ANCIENT as well as NUMEROUS, they are known to have a double effect.” He therefore worried about “the danger of disturbing the public tranquility by interesting too strongly the public passions.” Notwithstanding the success the United States had had with the Revolution, such “experiments are of too ticklish a nature to be unnecessarily multiplied.”
In these passages, Madison highlighted the social utility of public reverence. If citizens have high regard for their foundational institutions, they will be less likely to alter them. This in turn reduces the chances that public passions will be needlessly riled up, dangerous factions mobilized, and peace itself threatened.
It is not good for the people to debate everything. It is useful to have a common tradition that limits and structures political disagreement while offering an agreed-upon framework for resolving our problems.
Put another way, it is not good for the people to debate everything. It is useful to have a common tradition that limits and structures political disagreement while offering an agreed-upon framework for resolving our problems. The frailty of human nature being what it is, ancient documents and institutions acquire a certain weightiness that promotes respect and thus provides such a foundation. We should not tamper with this, absent good reasons.
Madison was arguing in favor of a stable constitution, but the logic applies just as forcefully to the icons of our past. Honoring the Founders promotes respect for our system of government, which promotes public tranquility and thus advances the welfare of society. If a handful of people feel offended, too bad.
Does this mean that all monuments should stand? Probably not. Yale University’s decision to rename Calhoun College, for instance, was in my view the right choice. John C. Calhoun was a radical who offered a pernicious reinterpretation of the Constitution. Similarly, we are right to question the status of monuments honoring the Confederate States of America, which was a criminal act of sedition against the Union.
But memorials to men such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison deserve a place in the public square. They were slaveholders, and no doubt they should be remembered and criticized for that grievous misdeed. But the public nevertheless has a compelling interest in honoring their good works for the United States of America, which far outweighs the psychic discomfort that an oversensitive few might feel.
Christ Church is free to do what it pleases, but we should lament, not celebrate its decision.
— Jay Cost is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.