Before I try to share my thoughts on the presentation by artist Titus Kaphar, I should probably disclose that my level of art appreciation pretty much stalls out just past ‘Dogs Playing Poker.’ So I can’t say that I was looking forward to Monday’s opening luncheon speaker. But boy, am I glad I stayed.
One thing in particular struck me in his talk. I thought his statements regarding the importance of neither demonizing nor deifying people was spot-on, particularly in reference to the Founding Fathers.
Those men achieved something remarkable – not only defeating the world’s then-preeminent military power in the Revolutionary War, but also establishing a nation that recognised that legitimate government derives its power from the people, to whom it must ultimately be answerable.
They also ducked the issue of slavery, of course, and in many instances were slaveholders themselves. The ‘people’ to whom government must answer did not, as established the initial framework of our nation, include Black people, Native Americans, women, or landless white men.
Which brings me to Titus Kaphar’s point. Too often, it seems that the choice people are presented with when discussing the legacy of the Founding Fathers is binary – the Founding Fathers were slaveholders and therefore not worthy of any respect, or the Founding Fathers were great Americans and their flaws should be ignored. Demons, or deities.
It made me think of the time I went with my son’s Cub Scout den to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. For those of you who haven’t been to Mount Vernon, you can generally wander the grounds on your own but there’s a guided tour of the house itself, and the guide tells something of the history of the room. After the guide gave a three- or four-minute spiel in each room, he would ask if anyone had any questions.
One of the Cub Scouts asked more or less the same question each and every time – did the slaves clean this room, did they serve in that room, how were they treated, all variations on the same question – what about the slaves of Mount Vernon?
It was a good question, I thought. The first time. By the seventh or eighth time though, I was…sad. It seemed likely to me that the kid (who was white, for what it’s worth) thought that the most important thing to know about George Washington was that he owned slaves. And I’ve certainly heard that perspective voiced before.
It is indeed important to know that Washington, like all the Founding Fathers, fell well short of perfection and did not live up to the ideals that he led a revolution to secure. But it is hardly the most important thing to know about him – he does not hold the place he does in our history because he owned slaves, he holds his place because of his vital role in advancing liberty – not for all, to be sure, but a major step forward nonetheless.
This, it seems to me, is the point that Titus Kaphar was making – by all means, let’s understand how George Washington and others fell short, and either ignored or benefited from the institution of slavery, but don’t let that get in the way of appreciating the remarkable achievements of the Founding Fathers by reducing them to their biggest flaw. Neither demon nor deity, instead men who did something important and good that is worth celebrating who also turned a blind eye (at best) to a grave evil.
There was a lot more I enjoyed about his talk, but this was to me the most important point he made, and made well.
Sean Parnell is Vice President for Public Policy at Philanthropy Roundtable