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It’s Time To Cancel Presidents Day

The fracturing of society in recent years under the strain of Donald Trump’s presidency and the racial reckoning spurred by George Floyd’s murder has had one positive consequence: A widespread awakening of interest in the American past.

Curiosity about the country’s history has been a pathway to something more bracing: Sharp arguments about the meaning of the past, and about the lessons people living today should draw from the lives of people who died long ago.



Long-forgotten lives, like the dozens of people killed in the Tulsa race massacre, are being vaulted into public consciousness. More controversially, people who long enjoyed revered status in the national story are being dethroned as national heroes.

Historical reappraisal has been especially vigorous in a particular arena: the U.S. presidency. Woodrow Wilson, a president whose reputation among many historians placed him in the ranks of “near-great” leaders, has in recent years become toxic because of new attention to his deeply prejudiced racial views.

On the other hand, it is still treacherous to take on presidents of Rushmore-sized stature. Liberal San Francisco voters recently evicted school board members whom they judged too preoccupied with left-wing advocacy, including efforts to rename public schools honoring George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

The presidency itself, like so many aspects of American culture, is now in the middle of ideological crossfire between left and right. Is there a way that the center can find its voice in arguments about the presidency?

Yes, there is. A good way to start would be to cancel the day we mark today: “Presidents Day.”

One hastens to add: The aim is not to “cancel,” in the contemporary sense of the word, any particular president. Lincoln and Washington — the two presidents most closely linked with Presidents Day — face stiff challenges when judged by contemporary standards, but they aren’t the targets here. Instead, it is the notion of Presidents Day — an inane name for a dubious concept that is less a show of genuine respect for American history than an insult to it.

The problems with Presidents Day are intertwined with a basic challenge of how Americans think about their history — or, really, how the people of any country think about their national story. There are two conceptions of what it means to learn history — always in tension with each other, and sometimes in flat contradiction.

One conception — the kind of history we start learning in elementary school — is a kind of civic religion. Like real religion, this brand of history relies on homilies. Stories are told to make a point, and the point is typically to highlight virtuous dimensions of national character. The story can feature setbacks and bad guys, but the good guys should win in the end — with a patriotic lesson for the audience to carry away. The characters in this kind of history are marble statutes.

The other conception of history is something quite different — a disciplined effort to reconstruct the past as it actually happened. This enterprise relies on evidence that is always fragmentary and on interpretive arguments that are never settled with finality. This brand of history aims to liberate its audience from national mythologies, and its characters are not marble heroes. They can suffer from bad tempers, diarrhea, self-doubt — the last entirely justified, given that, unlike people who will later study their histories, they have no idea what’s about to happen next, or how their decisions will look in hindsight.

So while one style of history studies the past in search of moral clarity, the other is attuned to moral ambiguity. One kind of history aims to create national heroes. The other kind — even when it is not expressly aimed at demolishing heroes — can’t help but dismantle the reputations of presidents and other outsize figures, revealing all manner of unheroic traits.

A brand of history that embraces reality over myth, and ambiguity over sharp moral judgments over heroes and villains, ultimately offers far more useful lessons for a democracy.

Lincoln is the best example. For a century and a half he has defied most efforts to dismantle his historical reputation. Yet as his San Francisco critics know it is not hard to find unheroic elements of his record.

Here is the man school children know as the “Great Emancipator” at the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

These are words that are repugnant to our ears today. But Lincoln is also the author of words that are nearly as resonant now as they were in 1865. His second inaugural address was the most searching meditation on power, humility and citizenship ever delivered by an American leader. A month before the end of the Civil War, and his own assassination, Lincoln noted how neither North nor South had envisioned a conflict so violent:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

 

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