This Fourth of July, after dinner and fireworks, our family watched parts of “Hamilton.” The musical tells the complex story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, his contributions to our great nation and his human errors that caused so much pain. None of the Founding Fathers were 100% heroes or 100% villains. They were human beings. They accomplished something truly extraordinary by creating our Constitution and setting in motion the Great Experiment, but they weren’t perfect, and we should not pretend they were.
I am grateful for the freedom I enjoy because of the hard work, wisdom and sacrifice of our Founding Fathers and many others. But I don’t worship them. That I reserve for God alone.
God does inspire people, as he certainly did the Founding Fathers. But even as he inspires, he does not take away their ability to make mistakes — even serious mistakes. To do so would be contrary to a plan that places such a high value (and price) on agency. Allowing mistakes and inspiring mistakes are not the same thing. God does not inspire mistakes, nor does he excuse them.
Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers did many important things to establish freedom in our country. They also enslaved human beings. Imagine for a moment that these enslaved people were your ancestors. They were mine. I won’t ignore this history just because it’s uncomfortable. And I won’t justify it just because many people accepted these atrocities “back then.” There were also many people who did not accept racism and slavery before, during and after the revolution and founding of this country. And none of us should accept racism and the vestiges of discrimination that still remain (inequities in income, housing, employment, leadership and educational opportunities, to name just a few).
Children of God, our brothers and sisters, were brutally beaten, tortured and worked to death. Even worse, some, including some of the founding fathers, raped enslaved teenage girls. Forty-four-year-old Thomas Jefferson first impregnated enslaved Sally Hemings when she was 14 or 15 years old. Can you imagine that being your great-grandmother, or your daughter? I can. And it breaks my heart.
God was not, and is not, OK with the enslavement of human beings, His beloved sons and daughters. Jesus felt every crack of every whip, every robbery of every child from his or her mother’s womb and every rape and dehumanizing act. Every single one. Jesus Christ bled from every pore because of those horrific actions. I worship Him.
I don’t judge the Founding Fathers by their worst actions, no more than I want others to judge me by my worst actions. Judgment, just like our worship, belongs to God. Judging the Founding Fathers by their worst acts will not bring us any closer to the goal of liberty and justice for all. But nor will ignoring or denying these horrific acts.
Like the Founding Fathers, my ancestors sacrificed to build this country. Their labors and efforts were vital to the development and greatness of this country and the freedoms we all enjoy. This country is the homeland of African American people every bit as much as it is of European American people or Americans that came from any other place.
I don’t hate the Founding Fathers. Nor do I worship them. We can — and must — teach the ugly parts of our nation’s history even if that drops our founding fathers from flawless heroes to ordinary human beings.
I am grateful to live in the United States and for the inspired documents that proclaim freedom for all people. I am grateful that God can inspire all of us to do good. I pray that we will use that inspiration to lift all people and all nations to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. Let’s be grateful for all of those who sacrificed and worked for our freedom. And let’s save our worship for God.
Tim Overton is an attorney licensed in Arizona and Utah specializing in complex commercial litigation and diversity and inclusion training. He also teaches at ASU Law School, is a governor-appointed commissioner on the Arizona Commission of African American Affairs and a member-at-large of the Arizona Black Bar organization.