There is a trend today among the left and the regressive left to try to avoid celebrating the accomplishments of certain people, because they did or believed things which we now hold to be terrible. Two good examples of this: Christopher Columbus, whose bold voyage (based upon a mathematical error of epic proportions – the ancient Greeks knew the earth was round and knew its circumference to within 10%, but Chris thought it was 25% smaller than it really is, which is why he thought he would reach India by crossing the Atlantic) is now disregarded because of his poor treatment of the natives (including massacring some), and Thomas Jefferson, because he owned slaves.
As to the first point: celebrating courage and achievement does not mean condoning a person morally. I admire the WWII tank and fighter plane aces of Nazi Germany, not because I believe they were moral people, but because I admire their skill. I admire Julius Caesar, not because I agree with his politics or think he was a good man, but because of his military capabilities. Admiring and celebrating someone does not mean overlooking their faults. One can admire Bill Crosby as a comedian (I don’t actually think he’s funny, but many people do), while also thinking he’s a rapist bastard.
Unfortunately, people like to categorize others into black and white categories of good and bad/evil. It is very difficult for us to hold someone as admirable in one way, and neutral or contemptible in others. Among regressives, this ability appears to be particularly lacking.
Lumped in with the criticism of people like Jefferson or J.S. Mill (who is criticized for suggesting that despotism might be a good form of government for savages, before they were civilized), is sometimes a criticism of classical liberalism, noting that classical liberals held such opinions of savages, or denied the rights of women to vote, or in some cases held slaves. Thus, regressives argue, we should dump classical liberalism entirely, replacing it with an authoritarian cultural marxism, or some other system.
What I propose is this: The problem is not the principles of classical liberalism, but rather that many people who espoused such principles did so in a manner limited the scope of people to whom they applied, or did not apply them in a consistent and complete manner. Furthermore, over time, this scope was expanded, and the principles were applied with fewer contradictions, and we should celebrate those who contributed to such progress, even when such progress was not perfect (nor have we reached a state of perfect application of these principles today).
Let us go on a brief, overly shallow, historical review of the principles of classical liberalism, and illustrate how these principles became applied in practice to a wider and wider scope of people. Many of these principles go back to Greece and Rome. Yet even in those times, there were slaves. Rights were for citizens, not for everyone. Certainly, even for citizens, these principles did not fully apply as we understand them today After Rome became imperial, then fell, the west turned to the feudal system. But classical liberalism began to make a comeback in England, when the nobility forced the king to sign the Magna Carta, which granted certain rights to the nobility.
This was a very tiny step. And it literally only granted rights to the nobility. However, some of our most cherished notions of liberty were contained in this document.
Over time, the rights of the nobles expanded, and eventually, rights were extended to land-owning Anglo-Saxon christians (sometimes, only the right type of christian). We come to classical liberals like Locke and Paine, whose ideas were influential in the founding of the United States. Yet, the United States, while applying many principles of classical liberalism almost in full (more on this later), still limited the scope to white male citizens.
Yet what I would argue is that this was a great advancement. Formal social class, such as the concept of peerage (nobility) were abolished. The problem was not that the principles were bad; rather, it was that the people in charge considered women and non-whites inferior, and thus did not think they were worthy of the same rights.
We rightly condemn them for thinking this, yet, there is something to be said for the idea that if we truly consider someone inferior, they should not be granted the same rights as everyone else. Even today, children are legally wards of their parents, because they are considered to be inferior in decision-making for their own good. Of course, nothing can excuse the treatment of black slaves; however, the problem here was not that the classical liberal principles were bad, but rather that they were not applied to cover black people as well! In other words, these founders were racist. But their racism was due to 1. Not applying liberal principles to everyone in a consistent manner, and 2. a misunderstanding of black capabilities.
But consider this: we have reached the point of applying the principles of classical liberalism to everyone, regardless of race or religion, precisely because, throughout history, people came to realize that these principles should apply to more and more groups of people. Indeed, it was classical liberal principles which fought against racism (and sexism), because people realized it was inconsistent to restrict individual autonomy to only certain groups! We have reached the point that we (try to) apply these principles to every human, only because the American founders and the English (and others) made the leap of applying it equally to all white males. They reached that point only because the British nobility made the leap of demanding such principles should apply to the nobility. In other words, there were numerous steps of progress, culminating in fuller and more consistent applications of liberal principles.
One of the great principles of classical liberalism, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., is that we should judge every person based on their individual qualities, and not based on their belonging to a specific demographic or phenotype. This principle was originally applied in an inconsistent manner, to European males only. But this limited application paved the way for us to attempt to apply it fully and consistently to everyone.
As an analogy, consider the progress of physics. We can nowadays say that Newton was wrong about everything. His theories are completely supplanted by relativity and quantum theory (though they remain useful approximations for use in engineering, etc.). However, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, et al. would never have figured out those theories if it weren’t for Newton. Similarly, one could argue that the ending of slavery in the West was made possibly by the advancements towards universal human rights made by the classical liberals, even when they were sometimes also guilty of violating human rights toward certain groups.
Of course, even today, we do not enjoy full classical liberal autonomy. I would argue, for example, that conscription violates the principles of classical liberalism (and conscription was always part of the US: every able-bodied white male was liable for 90 days of militia duty per year, for example). We still allow parents to mutilate their children’s genitals, as another example (and here is where I think we need to more fully understand what a ward should be, in accordance with liberal principles: not someone under the parents’ full control, but someone under their protection).
We should absolutely criticize those classical liberals who held slaves, or who denied the rights of women. Yet we should also celebrate the progress which they made, which is part of the march of progress for which we now fight. Criticizing them is the only way forward, yet to go forward, we need to understand that their failures were due to limited or contradictory applications of these ideals, and not a failure of those ideals themselves.
So thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for the great progress to which you contributed, you slave-owning bastard!