George Santayana must be turning over in his grave. He is the essayist and philosopher known best for his admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Throughout much of the Obama years, we have seen wholesale efforts to erase a past that liberals find too odious to contemplate, especially the chapter of American that includes the enslavement of African blacks. In the interests of racial healing, we are told, statues have been torn from their foundations and Confederate flags have been lowered for the last time.
The problem with this type of cleansing, as with book burning, is not only that the past is prologue and as such offers lessons for future generations. It is also that a too-broad brush is being used to wipe away reminders of “America’s original sin.” Distinguishing good from evil, innocence from guilt, is not all that easy.
A development in the city of Baltimore serves to illustrate my point. The Baltimore Sun reports triumphally that the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted to “rid its City Hall courtyard” of a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who — the authors explain — authored the 1857 Dred Scott decision affirming slavery. Also slated for removal is a “bust of Maryland’s first governor, Thomas Johnson, who owned slaves.”
Interestingly, there is no mention of the fact that, like Jefferson, Taney was also a slaveholder. The most likely reason for that omission is that early in life Taney freed his slaves, which were an inheritance from his father. But he didn’t stop there. He provided pensions for the older ones for as long as they lived.
If nothing else, these actions betray a shred of decency in the man and an ambivalence about the practice of slavery, which is somehow disquieting to the angry mob, who wants all memories of him to be extinguished.