When the carving began at Mount Rushmore in 1927, Thomas Jefferson’s visage was planned to be to George Washington’s right. But sculptors soon discovered a flaw—a crack in the rock—that altered their plans. Jefferson had to be relocated, this time to Washington’s left.
To me, it seemed like the media covering President Trump’s speech at that location last week focused on the crack, and not the monument. It was as if they couldn’t see past the flaw to see how a young nation’s workers overcame adversity and imperfection to achieve something beautiful and historic.
It’s true that America at its Founding was flawed—it took nearly a century of work and a bloody Civil War to end the sin of slavery. Yet the new focus on the year 1619, when African slaves first arrived in the colonies, misses the truly revolutionary nature of 1776. What happened on July 4 of that year, with the signing of a foundational document declaring that all men are created equal, was groundbreaking. No government had yet been established, in all of human history, based on equality and the consent of the governed.
The iconoclasm we see now—even extending to calls to destroy Mount Rushmore itself—is not constructive or instructive, but destructive. It exists to tear down monuments and to tear asunder the unity-out-of-plurality that the United States has achieved.
Yet in his speech at that monument, I believe President Trump offered an antidote to the poison that is “critical race theory,” which now drives our discourse. He proposed a National Garden of American Heroes, a monument park that will include the best of America and Americans—flawed as we all are, but showing our nation’s promise, as well.
Because the truth is, as President Trump pointed out, “No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America. And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.”
Look at the list the president has offered up for initial consideration—luminaries ranging from John Adams and Clara Barton to Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. They hail from every corner of America and every part of society—authors, athletes, soldiers and teachers. And the names he listed are just the beginning.
Such a park would allow us to move beyond the currently reigning presentism—the “tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms,” through the lens of postmodern sensibilities and not historical insight. We can add context. Yes, Jefferson was a deeply conflicted man, a slave owner who nonetheless advocated equality. But in understanding him—rather than simply deleting him from history—we can understand better our country, and even ourselves.
Personally, I’d love to see statues included in the National Garden that commemorate the civilian response to Hurricane Harvey. The nation and the world were moved by the sight of the Cajun Navy, Louisianans arriving with jon boats and airboats to rescue their neighbors in Texas. We saw the moving photos of rescuers helping their fellow countrymen—regardless of skin color.
Our nation is deeply divided right now. But we must not allow the present discord to destroy, in the president’s words, “the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery and progress.”
The journey is not finished; we still have much to achieve. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial that our Founders “were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
A National Garden of American Heroes could be a significant down payment on that note.
Photo: Officer Daryl Hudeck rescues Catherine and Aiden Pham. David J. Phillip/AP