Any decent person, regardless of his political orientation, will agree, emphatically, that American chattel slavery or the denial of women’s right to vote were immoral. Treating people as less than animals and denying people participation in the electoral process solely on the basis of gender are indefensible.
Despite this consensus, there is a growing trend on the Left that uses these flaws in our nation’s history to reject every aspect of our country’s founding out of hand. The argument goes like this: “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, therefore their ideas about individual rights and the role of the State are polluted by racism and able to be discarded without debate.” It can extend to any individual with troublesome ideas or actions: “Plato supported pederasty, therefore no aspect of his philosophy is worth considering.”
Conservatives, on the other hand, will be just as vocal in decrying the indefensible actions and positions of any person in history. However, they prefer to examine each action or position of an individual one by one. While some positions held can certainly be reason to reject the person as a model for the modern day, that doesn’t affect the validity of the other positions they hold.
Francisco Franco came to power as the dictator of Spain from 1939-75 after a military coup. He was responsible for the deaths of around 400,000 people (mainly political dissenters) in forced labor camps and executions and provided material assistance to the Axis powers in World War II. Franco also led Spain from a tightly controlled economy with little trade to a freer market, and is credited by some with saving Christianity in Spain. Franco is denounced by nearly everyone for the human rights atrocities he committed, but the transition towards capitalism he led and his defense of Christianity are individual positions he held that are praiseworthy for conservatives.
The core difference between conservative and progressive views of history is that conservatives embrace the complexity of the past, recognizing that individuals can have conflicting ideas, and that to reject a host of good ideas because of one bad one- no matter how bad- is intellectually dishonest and lazy. Progressives give into the temptation to try to place every single person and event in history into a category of either Good or Bad. Conservatives will critique the constitutional challenges posed by Lincoln’s presidency while praising his efforts in ending slavery. The same conservatives, while supporting Lincoln, will be sympathetic for Robert E. Lee for choosing to side with his home state of Virginia, without being sympathetic to his views on slavery (which fell somewhere in the range of active support to silence, neither of which are acceptable).
Most conservatives will say that Lincoln was a great president on the whole, while still sympathizing with Lee on the issue of States’ rights, even though they reject the idea that enslaving other human beings is an issue that should be an area of legitimate debate between different states. Progressives will reject Lee as unquestionably evil, and Lincoln as an American hero.
What this doesn’t mean is that we must regard every individual in history as complicated, unable to be categorized as truly good or truly evil. Some people, like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, are so unspeakably evil that to regard them as simply “morally complicated” is close to the level of a moral offense in itself. Likewise, some people, like St. Teresa of Calcutta, possess such heroic virtue that to regard them as somewhere in between good and evil is an insult to their good deeds. We should focus on ideas, not people. The bad ones must be denounced as such, and one must not attempt to defend them. Likewise, the good ones must not be dismissed on account of the bad.
Progressives often criticize free-market capitalism, family values, and other principles of America’s founding individually, and for that I commend them. But when they, almost inevitably, begin to argue that because some of the chief promoters of these ideas also held bad positions everything they thought is evil, it is difficult to continue the debate. If these things are really as bad as some progressives want us to think, they should be able to tear them down on their own. Conservatives find plenty to criticize about the economic policies of Mao and Stalin without resorting to the humanitarian crimes they committed. Discussion of these crimes is certainly important, as is our responsibility as modern day Americans to grapple with the role that slavery played in our own past. But in grappling with these offenses, we must take care not to conflate them with other ideas, ideas which are absolutely worth preserving and promoting.