On the grounds of Princeton University stands a statue of American Founding Father John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an early president of the school, but also a slave-owner, which complicates his presence. The university has officially formed a committee to determine whether he will suffer the same fate that so many other monuments to our forefathers have. One can not help but ask, however, how many of the activists calling for the removal of Witherspoon’s “racist” likeness would have been any less racist if they were in his shoes.

History is complicated. It is more complicated than either side – left or right – is willing to admit.

In his ancient book of wisdom, King Solomon apprised the human race that “[e]very way of a man is right in his own eyes.” This was not meant as an excuse for evil. It was a sobering reminder that few men are intentionally evil. Any of us are capable of wrongdoing, and most of us would not know if we were off course.

Ironically, Solomon is himself an example of this. In his later life, the wise king turned his back on the God who, according to the book of 1 Kings, had granted him his wisdom in the first place.

Solomon’s heart was led astray (by his 700 wives), and he almost certainly could not see the extent to which his disobedience would damage the kingdom of Israel. His ways were, we can imagine, “right in his own eyes.”

And so are ours.

And so have been the ways of almost all men of every generation for all of human history.

SEE ALSO: We stand in the shadow of heroes. Let’s act worthy of them.

In this present moment, humanity tells itself it has reached peak morality, but it is only a matter of time before history calls us uncivilized and barbarous.

Future generations will cast down the proverbial statues of either Barack Obama or Donald Trump – or both – depending on which side of history we happen to land. Or, perhaps, they will cast down the statues of those who, in this day, cast down literal statues. The point is: we are civilized… in our eyes. But history makes no promise of being so charitable to us in its assessment.

Professor Robert George of Princeton famously called the bluff of this chronological snobbery – as C. S. Lewis called it – when he asked his students what they would have done “had they been white and living in the South before abolition.”

“Guess what,” he wrote on Twitter. “They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.” He quickly followed up: “Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it.”

SEE ALSO: C. S. Lewis and Chronological Snobbery

“So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing:  (1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and (5) that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness. In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.”

I can imagine the stunned silence in the classroom.

Slavery and racism are evil. We know that full well today. What we fail to understand is just how contingent our societal sense of right and wrong is. We are conditioned to believe a lot of lies that posterity will either mock or spurn or outright hate us for (just as we mock and spurn and hate our antiquated forebears). These lies are so deeply imbued in our “civilized” psyche that most of us have probably never considered their validity. And even if we did, would we have the nerve to defy the orthodoxy of the day?

This is precisely the reason why we need John Witherspoon on the grounds of Princeton and monuments to other heroes of the past sprinkled throughout our proud nation. They serve as humbling reminders that even “good” people have blind spots. They call us not to judge others but examine ourselves.

SEE ALSO: Before Invoking the Founders, Take the Time to Know Them

It would, of course, be wrong to memorialize men who ultimately made the world a darker, more evil place. But what about those who ultimately made the world a better place despite their imperfections?

If King David was known only for having an affair with Bathsheba and killing her husband, we would not celebrate him. If John Witherspoon was known only for his stance on slavery, we would not celebrate him either.

We celebrate these men – and others like them – not for their sins, but because they, notwithstanding their sins, changed history for the better. They were not immune to the “characteristic illusions” of their age (neither are we), yet they still did great things.

I have said it before: It is the duty of
present-day Americans to disavow certain bad aspects of our Founder’s lives without totally dismantling the substratum of American philosophies that these men represent.

History, after all,
is complicated. We should not pretend that slavery is not legitimately offensive. But it would be just as foolish to pretend that the human race is any less fallen in 2022 than it always has been.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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