In defense of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner

I am an imperfect person — full of flaws inside and out. I like being an imperfect person. It gives me room to improve and to accept myself as I age. But we are living in a technology-driven age that demands minute-to-minute perfection — the perfect Facebook persona, the perfect LinkedIn page. No imperfections allowed.

And now we want a perfect history, too. Or at least the Democrats do. The Maine Democratic Party, along with that of other states, are changing the name of their annual fundraiser to eliminate the names of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. They both owned slaves, and Jackson was of course famous for his campaigns against the Cherokees.

Obviously these acts are horrific when viewed through our perspectives today, but they were norms back then. They were legally sanctioned actions carried out by flawed individuals who believed, at the time, that they were doing their part to create the free nation we love today. And they were elected into office, which means these presidents and their actions were representative of what they considered an electorate back then.

The 2014 Maine Democratic Convention in Bangor. (Brian Feulner | BDN)

The 2014 Maine Democratic Convention in Bangor. (Brian Feulner | BDN)

I certainly respect the Democratic Party’s intent. It’s hard to accept the complex mix of hope and atrocity, cowardice and courage that is our nation’s history. It is our history, though, and I am proud of it, for better and for worse. It’s quite a story — how our nation, birthed by flawed but driven individuals, has progressed, evolving and improving through time.

Where would we be without flawed individuals? Well, for starters, music would suck. From Mozart to Cobain, deeply flawed, yet brilliant individuals have kept our toes tapping. Art and literature probably wouldn’t be so hot, either. There are deeply flawed, but brilliant people throughout history in politics, in religion — in every facet of what human beings do.

I am not suggesting that we should celebrate slavery or genocide, but I don’t think even Jesus Christ could have made it today. One tantrum at the temple, and he would have been behind bars and eaten alive on Facebook.

I am suggesting that we should accept that America started the way it started. We should be willing to talk about it, accept it and move on. I am proud to live in a country whose origin story centers around the words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I like those words even if they were penned by a slaveowner, and the words didn’t originally include anybody but white, landowning men. I like those words because they sparked a revolution that created a country that includes me, a mixed-race single mom, in those words today. It’s an amazing, complicated story.

In Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and later in the Constitution, our deeply flawed forebears gave us templates we are still using today. They gave us words that we can continue to reinterpret as our perspectives and levels of understanding change through time. They had the foresight to design documents that enable the ongoing discussion we call self-governance today.

America is a great country, even if our history is imperfect. In some ways, striving to rise above our imperfections has made us greater than we were before. As great as we are, we are still imperfect; we still have more to strive to rise above.

We have many real challenges in the present on the state and federal level that should be dominating any discussions party leaders have. Monday morning quarterbacking the morality of our forebears over 200 years later shouldn’t even be on the list. It’s too late to improve their imperfections. We should probably stick to ours.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.