A More Perfect Union Was Made By Some Imperfect People

By Harry Peterson

This is the first in a series of pieces from an esteemed group of contributors. Harry L Peterson served as UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala’s chief of staff and is president emeritus of Western Colorado University. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Capital Times last summer.

The Black Lives Matter movement is raising the conscience of this nation in a way that has the potential to bring real change.

The demonstrators who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement are acting on two of the most important guarantees in our country’s history, freedom of speech and assembly.  

That guarantee was part of the heritage we received from James Madison and other Founders, a great many of whom owned slaves.  Their goal was to create “a more perfect union.”  

Harry Peterson

The Constitution they wrote was improved by Abraham Lincoln who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves, and helped pass the 14th and 15th amendment.  Those amendments made citizens out of former slaves and guaranteed the right of all males the vote.  He died for the cause.

Lincoln helped create “a more perfect union.”  He did not believe African Americans were intellectually equal to white people. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black voted to eliminate mandatory prayer in public school; guarantee the right of counsel to the accused; and strengthened the guarantee of free speech.  He helped create “a more perfect union.”  As a young man, Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

John Muir was an inspiration for thousands of people who cherish this country’s wilderness.  He was a tireless leader in the creation of our national parks, protecting millions of acres and providing almost free access for citizens.  He helped create “a more perfect union.”  His attitude toward African Americans and Native Americans he encountered on his walk to Georgia revealed racist attitudes.

Frederick Douglass was one of the most important leaders in our history in advancing the cause of African American freedom.  He had no interest in helping the cause of women’s suffrage.  

Elizabeth Stanton, an early supporter of women’s suffrage, had little interest in advancing the cause of black women acquiring the right to vote, nor was she concerned about African Americans.

Both Douglass and Stanton were contemptuous of the Irish. Adam Gopnik writes, “Douglass insulted women, Stanton insulted blacks, and both felt free to insult the Irish.”

Both Douglass and Stanton were historic giants in advancing their respective causes.  They both helped create “a more perfect union.”

Each of these individuals, and I could list many more, improved our country in lasting ways: ways that are benefitting us in the 21st century.  They were ahead of their times and could see a future that others could not envision.  These and other American leaders were often obsessed, quirky and single minded.  While their contemporaries were indifferent or, more often, opposed to their goals, they persisted.

They were also deeply and unquestioningly a part of their times in other important ways.  They were prejudiced, racist by any definition and deeply flawed.  And yet they helped create “a more perfect union.”

To tear down their statues, and the Wisconsin statues of Christian Heg, an anti-slavery activist who gave his life in the Civil War for a cause he believed in, and Miss Forward who symbolizes progress in Wisconsin, is the worst kind of self-defeating behavior. (Editors note: In June protesters tore down these two statues, which sat on the grounds of the state Capitol. The statues are being restored and will be replaced while the state is likely to commission a new statue honoring Val Phillips, the first Black Wisconsin Secretary of State.)

Successful political movements require passion.  They also require critical thinking.  Let us not confuse America’s leaders with the leaders of the Confederacy.  One group was working to establish a better country.  The Confederates were working to destroy our country and preserve a vile tradition.

The great African American leaders in this country understood and embraced the commitments to our freedoms made by our ancestors, however limited that they were.  Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and John Lewis were united by one thing: taking the words of our founders literally and asking the country to live up to them.

Destroying the statues because of the defects of these leaders is to destroy their contributions, leaving nothing to build on.  Without a foundation we become rudderless.

Madison and our other founders knew they were not creating a perfect union.  They expected it to be improved.  While still far from perfect, it has been made better since our founding.  

Let us work so that the Black Lives Matter movement will help make our country “a more perfect union.” If we are successful it will be more perfect, but still incomplete.  Adam Gopnik, in his review of the biography of Frederick Douglass, writes:

“…We need to be charitable about the moral failings of our ancestors—not as an act of charity to them but as an act of charity to ourselves.  Our own unconscious assumptions and cultural habits are doubtless just as impregnated with bias as theirs were.  We should be kind to them as we ask the future to be kind to us.”

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