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- Jonathan Lockwood Huie

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Monday, February 15, 2016

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Presidents of Their Own Times

Today, Presidents' Day, may be a good day to examine our feelings about our earlier Presidents and other great people who lived in days gone by.

Generally, Americans have focused praise and gratitude upon the likes of Washington and Jefferson, but more recently, many people make the case that as slave-holders Washington and Jefferson were terrible and morally-flawed people. This early-stage movement follows upon the older and better established movements that declares Christopher Columbus to be a genocidal invader rather as one who "opened up" America to European settlement, and the likes of Robert E. Lee to be slave-holding traitors.

Can we reconcile these opposing points of view. I believe we can once we recognize that Washington, Jefferson and everyone who lived in the past were creations of their own time, and each stage of history has its own customs, its own values, and its own morality. If we are unwilling to acknowledge that morality is a function of the times, we must condemn ourselves and everyone living today for failing to live up to the evolving morality we will be judged by a century from now (how could those people let children starve? why did they shoot each other? and perhaps other concerns we can't even imagine today: why didn't they let 12 year-olds vote? why didn't they require a license for procreation to prevent overpopulation?)

Look at life as described in the Old Testament - the sacred book of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The Old Testament records, without condemnation: polygamy, genocide, torture, mutilation, infanticide, incest, slavery, and many other practices that today's Americans regard as immoral. Yes, times change. Abraham, David, and other heroes of the Old Testament, like Presidents Washington and Jefferson, must be judged as people of their own times.

Today, let us appreciate the best of Washington, Jefferson, and the others. And let us also appreciate our own time for having moved past practices like slavery and dueling.

Keep pace with the times.
We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy,
as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
- Thomas Jefferson

My first wish is to see this plague of mankind,
war, banished from the earth.
- George Washington

What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends,
and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world;
to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors,
and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! 
- Robert E. Lee

We have abundant reason to rejoice, that, in this land,
the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition,
and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.
- George Washington [Washington was a little premature on this one]

All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion;
nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution.
- Thomas Jefferson - Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776)

Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions,
any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.
- Thomas Jefferson

The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. 
- Thomas Jefferson

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.. a  means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. 
- Thomas Jefferson

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.
- Thomas Jefferson

Merchants have no country.
The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment
as that from which they draw their gains. 
- Thomas Jefferson

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