The United States is engaged in a debate — some say a battle — over the meaning and import of its history. D.C.'s recent foray into that standoff both illuminates its contours and demonstrates why so many Americans are up in arms.

D.C.’s clarifying contribution comes from a committee formed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), which this week recommended removing, renaming or contextualizing dozens of schools, parks, monuments and other facilities bearing the names of historical figures. The names spanned a huge range of famous figures from U.S. history, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. The committee even addressed the Washington Monument and the statue to Christopher Columbus in front of Union Station, both of which are on federal territory and beyond the D.C. government’s jurisdiction.

This report shows how little many on the left think about U.S. history. It’s true that many of our nation’s most eminent Founders held racial prejudice. It’s also true that there was no country at that time free from prejudice and bigotry. By the context of its time, the United States was the most progressive country in the world, establishing freedom of religion and proclaiming an ideal of universal human rights when essentially every other nation was either a monarchy, tribal tyranny or theocracy. This is why most Americans are proud of their history, not ashamed of it.

Polls clearly show that this pride is widely shared across political cleavages. Fully 63 percent of Americans told a recent Fox News poll that they see America’s Founders as heroes; only 15 percent said they were villains. Democrats said the Founders were heroes rather than villains by a 50-23 margin, and Black respondents said they were villains rather than heroes by only a 39-31 margin. It’s clear that most Americans see the founding generation for what it was: a noble and courageous group of men and women.

Americans oppose removing statues and monuments to the founders by an even greater margin. The same Fox News poll found that 73 percent of Americans thought statues and monuments to George Washington and Jefferson should stay up. Again, Democrats favored keeping the statues up by a 57-26 margin, and Black respondents delivered a split verdict, favoring removal by only 46 to 37 percent. A July Post-ABC News poll found that 68 percent of Americans opposed removing statues honoring former presidents who had owned slaves. An August Rasmussen poll found an even larger majority — 88 percent — opposed to removing Washington’s and Jefferson’s names from public buildings.

Yes, the Founders and many who followed them were flawed. But that’s true of all people. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of our greatest Americans, but even he has also been revealed to have been a philanderer, and FBI documents suggest he may have even looked on and laughed while another man raped a woman. Such behavior is awful and difficult to forgive, but it nonetheless does not negate the great things he advocated and accomplished in the public sphere. I don’t think his monument in D.C. should be removed or a plaque placed there to contextualize his achievements in light of his personal failings. The same consideration ought to apply to most ways in which we honor our most important historical figures.

That doesn’t mean nothing can or should be done to fully address our past. Tours of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s home at Monticello now include discussions about the experiences of the slaves who built those landmarks. This is appropriate, as trained guides for most tours have time to discuss at length the good and the bad each man did. Such contextualization is difficult, if not impossible, when it comes to buildings named for the men or monuments honoring them.

Americans need to learn to live together, and that means White Americans need to pay more attention to the lived experiences of those who have historically been deprived of the full equality and dignity our founding principles promise. It also means those people need to appreciate the virtues as well as the vices from our shared past and try to understand present-day White Americans as they understand themselves. That will not be easy, and broad-brushed efforts to wipe away our history will hurt rather than help that cause.

Nations always change if they are to survive. Successful and peaceful changes always make room for old understandings as they make way for new ones. D.C.’s recommendations would sweep away too much of the old in their pursuit of the new America. Let’s hope others can advance more balanced and unifying alternatives.

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