Jefferson, Lincoln, Peers, and Informed Opinions
The Beacon Bolt is a publication of the student body of Northwest Christian University. Is it possible to be great and flawed? It always amuses me when students discover that some of our founding fathers were slave owners. What a bunch of hypocrites they were, with all their talk about freedom and liberty for everyone, and all men being created equal (they must have been sexist too since they didn’t mention women either). Suddenly the great figures who birthed this country don’t look so great anymore. It’s almost a feeling of betrayal, finding out that such prominent figures who we’d only been shown the highlights of, had some stains on their name. The common tendency to make snap judgments, and think that if we know a little then we know it all sets up George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the colonial All-Stars to disappoint us when we learn about them outside the context of the American Revolution. A bunch of racists, how can we view them as great?
It goes the other way too. I’ve heard people level heavy criticism at the paintings Adolph Hitler produced, except the criticism was never really about the paintings. Somehow the focus always returned to the fact that Hitler was the one who painted them. The quality of the art itself was never taken into consideration.
Abraham Lincoln fought to free the slaves. That sounds like hero material, what more do we really need to know?
Well, to be honest, Lincoln was no abolitionist and he didn’t see “black” folks and “white” folks as being equal, The Emancipation Proclamation was a military policy, and in his mind the purpose of the Civil War was to bring disgruntled separatists back into the fold. Improving the status of African Americans was only a priority when it could be played to the Union’s advantage and undermine the South in the war. He also held political prisoners and authorized the shutting down of newspapers whose publishings were at odds with the Union cause.
Now, in spite of all this, I still think Lincoln deserves his place among the prominent figures of our nation’s history. I just don’t think he was as infallible as he is often portrayed to be. One does not have to be messianic to be great. I also think the Founding Fathers were great men too. I think Hitler was terrible, but I don’t have a problem with his paintings. They’re nice to look at, if unremarkable.
There’s a popular phrase: “It’s the thought that counts.” It’s the truth, but only half of it. It’s the action that counts too. Where thought may falter, action can make up for. The Founding Fathers may have failed to follow their own reasoning to its natural end, but that doesn’t diminish their greatness or take away from the fact that they got the ball rolling; taking the critical first steps towards creating a society where there is liberty and justice for all, a society that’s still being worked on and fine-tuned.
Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves might have been a means to an end, holding the view that the Union was more important than those who were suffering and in bondage. But regardless of how much or little he prioritized it, the truth is that he gave action to an abolitionist idea that had previously been trapped as an idea only.
These are just a couple brief examples, but there are saintly sinners everywhere. The Bible has story upon story in which God makes use of vile, repulsive degenerates. Abraham, David, Paul. These are some sick people if you go and look at some of the things they did, yet somehow God makes them heroes. Apparently perfection isn’t one of the things God demands from his human instruments, so we probably shouldn’t either.
A great quality is to be smart enough to know what you don’t know, especially in regards to people. Most of us have a handful of friends we’re pretty close with, and then a bunch of other people we sort know or sort of don’t. Rumors and hearsay often make up the majority of the mental biographies we keep of all these people we’re in close proximity of, but don’t know anything substantial about. It’s human nature to fill in the blanks and make assumptions that ‘if someone believes that or did this then they probably have ___ worldview or do that kind of stuff all the time.’ We can be awfully quick to jump to conclusions about someone’s entire person based off just a few facts.
But think of it this way, if someone you didn’t know heard three random facts about you, would they get an accurate description of who you are? Probably not, There’s nothing wrong with filing away some information you pick up about someone for future reference, but it’s important to remember that it’s only some information, not all of it.