Yesterday Donald Trump stood in front of Mount Rushmore and spoke about strong and proud Americans who protect their heritage. In doing so he calls on scared and weak Americans to defend an artificial history based on half-truths and misinformation. Strong people are willing to see their past leaders as real people not demigods. So who were these men Trump stood in front of yesterday?
George Washington was integral in creating a nation that offered the promise of liberty and justice for all. Yet as a slave owner he denied those blessings to African Americans. He called on congress to pass laws protecting the rights of American citizens, while dealing fairly with Native Americans. In 1790, 91 and 94 Washington used troops to suppress Native Americans. Certainly, Washington has a mixed and complex record of dealing with people of color.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men were created equal. In his personal life he failed miserably in extending those rights to anyone but white males. Jefferson owned and sold slaves freeing them only at his death. During the revolution Jefferson proposed removal of the Cherokee west of the Mississippi. As President he encouraged selling goods to Native Americans on credit and then claiming their land when they failed to meet this obligation. Jefferson’s actions fall far short of the inspiring words we celebrate today.
Abraham Lincoln has a clear record of being opposed to the spread of slavery but he was not an abolitionist. He ran for office arguing he would leave slavery alone where it existed. In his first inaugural address Lincoln clearly said he believed he had no authority to end slavery. His Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves held in areas still in rebellion. Lincoln left slaves alone in Tennessee, New Orleans and other conquered territory. He never mentioned slaves in Union states like Maryland at all. Lincoln’s writings and speeches give no indication he saw freedmen as equal to whites.
Theodore Roosevelt has a complex and confusing relationship with people of color in this nation. Roosevelt publicly called for slow and gradual movement towards economic and social equality. In private he used racist language and spoke of white supremacy. Roosevelt presided over a period of economic growth and prosperity during the creation of our industrial nation. At the same time he did nothing as the ugly hand of Jim Crow was hardening its grip on people of color in this nation. Statues raised across this nation, during this time, honor traitors who fought for the right to own their fellow man. His treatment of Native American populations was one of oppression and land grabs.
This is the American History I tried to teach my students for 27 years. The story of imperfect men building a nation that keeps moving towards the promises enshrined in our founding documents. Today we need to honor what the four men on Mount Rushmore got right and keep working to correct what they did wrong . We should recognize Washington and Jefferson as the founders of our nation. Lincoln should be celebrated for preserving the Union and the end of slavery. Roosevelt should be recognized for helping to build the industrial nation and the modern presidency. However we must acknowledge the failure of these men in the areas of racial and social justice. This in not tearing down America as Donald Trump alleges but a recognition of who we really are. Strong and proud Americans will honor this legacy not the false heritage Trump wants to protect this July 4th.