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Opinion Washington, Lincoln and the work they left behind

The likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The coincidence of Black History Month and the Presidents’ Day holiday is not an accident. It’s also an opportunity.

We are struggling with how to tell our national story and how to teach it in schools. At stake is squaring our self-understanding as a beacon of liberty with the undeniable historical facts of slavery, racism and racial subjugation. Not for nothing do historians so often invoke the words “irony” and “paradox.”

Black History Month is an effort to move us toward a more accurate understanding of who we are by encouraging us to face grave national failings while also celebrating human resiliency.

The scholar and educator Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926, when racism, anti-immigrant feeling and segregation were on the rise. The second week of February was chosen to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator,” and Frederick Douglass, the brilliant writer and Black abolitionist. President Gerald Ford recognized it as a month-long remembrance in 1976.

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Thanks to Woodson, we now regularly lift up Black American achievement in the face of oppression while also recognizing how deeply racism is embedded in our nation’s development.

Black History Month is a rebuke to those threatening to criminalize the teaching of, well, pretty much anything that might make us think of our country as less than saintly.

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Advocates of such censorship seem to think that candor about our past is the enemy of love of country.

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President Donald Trump summarized this view in a September 2020 speech calling for the restoration of “patriotic education to our schools” in order to “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history” and make sure “our heroes will never be forgotten.”

These observations, citing a different country, might have been uttered by Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. They are also based on a false premise: that facing up to our country’s racism means consigning figures such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, whom we commemorate this weekend, to history’s trash heap. This is profoundly wrong because it implies that to honor what made them great, we have to lie about their failings.

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We should not deny that Lincoln — especially during his 1858 Senate campaign, when he was pursuing his era’s swing voters, who were racist — declared himself opposed to “bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races” and spoke of “a physical difference” between them.

But Lincoln said this in the course of arguing against the far more racist position of his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln was speaking against the spread of slavery and in defense of common humanity across racial lines. “In the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anyone else, which his own hand earns,” he said of Black Americans, “he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

Yes, Lincoln pandered to and in some ways partook in the racism of his time. We can recognize this and still honor him for saving the Union, ending slavery and cleansing its stain on our Constitution — even if the embarrassed Founders omitted the actual word — by pushing through the 13th Amendment.

It’s a fact that slaveholders — including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — were central to the founding of a republic that became increasingly democratic. All of them, as Lincoln would later insist, set in motion the process that would bring about this democratization. Washington’s most important contribution beyond the Revolutionary War battlefield was his giving up his office voluntarily after two terms, establishing that we had a republic, not a monarchy, and that we would regularly elect new leaders.

His letter to the Jewish congregation at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., is still cited by friends of religious liberty for its insistence that our nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” Washington declared.

Of course, the ironies of this beautiful statement are staggering. The vile enslavement of Black Americans was rooted in bigotry, persecution and the private but state-sanctioned tyranny that defined the relationship between owner and the enslaved.

It would be easier if our heroes and our history were flawless. But it’s in the nature of humans and nations to fall far short of this standard.

The American promise, as President Barack Obama put it in his 2015 speech in Selma, Ala., is “that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”

So let’s honor Lincoln and Washington — not because they got everything right but because they helped create a path for those who would later recognize how much more work our nation needed to do.