Washington, Jefferson, and Muhammad all owned slaves. Should we tear their statues down?

The obvious answer, which will probably appear in the comments somewhere, is that we can’t tear statues of Muhammad down because there aren’t any. That’s not actually true. Among others, there is a statue of Muhammad above the press seating area of the United States supreme court building. It is a part of a series honoring great lawgivers, which includes Hammurabi, Justinian, Charlemagne, Moses, and other highly regarded slaveholders. But even if it were true, it would sidetrack us from the real question: Should we honor and respect a person who owned slaves, if they did something else to make up for it? Or perhaps can we honor the deeds without honoring the person? C.S. Lewis said Christians are supposed to hate the sin and love the sinner. Are we sometimes required to do the opposite for good deeds? Love the deed and hate the doer?

We could save a lot of statues with that argument. The statues honor the deed, and recognize the impact it has had on our lives and traditions. The deed was still important and praiseworthy, even if the person who did it was a schmuck, or even a criminal. By this principle, the only statues that would need to go would be those honoring people because of their moral failures, and not in spite of them (such as statues commemorating the fact that someone committed treason in order to keep slaves).

However, I am not going to take the easy way out on this one. I’m going to try to defend the actual character of at least some of these slaveholders, and try to show that they should be admired and respected in spite of their failings. There’s been a lot of digital ink recently spilled about Washington and Jefferson on this topic, so I will concentrate primarily on Muhammad.

Sexual slavery was permitted by the Koran, as it was permitted in 19th century America. Muhammad practiced it, as did many of the signers of the American declaration of independence. Nevertheless, even the most conservative Mullahs and Imams in Saudi Arabia and Iran agree that it was Muhammad’s intention to cause slavery to gradually fade out of existence. That claim seems a bit speculative to me, but it is fully compatible with the facts we have. What is undeniable is that Muhammad put new restrictions on sexual slavery, and slavery in general, which greatly improved the lives of 7th century Arabic slaves.

In Muhammad’s Arabia, Slaves lived and worked in their master’s houses. There were no massive plantations worked by anonymous slave labor. Slaves were captured in battle, and were usually racially indistinguishable from their masters. This made it easier to blur the lines between slaves and family members, and Muhammad’s new laws encouraged this process. Masters were not permitted to sleep with married slaves whose husbands were known to be still alive. They were also not permitted to prostitute their slave girls out to other men. If a slave got pregnant, the master was forbidden to sell the child, or to separate the child from its mother. This meant in effect that the slave and the child became members of the master’s family. After years of living in the same house with his own children and the woman who bore them, masters were often inclined to free slave girls and marry them. Muhammad strongly encouraged this practice, saying that masters who freed and married a slave received a double reward in heaven. If the master did not free his children by his slaves, they became automatically free at his death.

There is a Hadith which condemns the selling of slaves in markets, and a Koranic verse, (47:4) that authorizes the capture of prisoners of war, but does not permit slavery, ordering military commanders to either free the prisoners or hold them for ransom. As these were the only ways that slaves could be acquired, some Islamic scholars use this as evidence that Muhammad was gradually trying to abolish slavery a step at a time, the way he gradually banned the consumption of alcohol. Whatever his unexpressed intentions, he certainly narrowed the differences between rights granted to slaves and free persons. If a master struck a slave, the slave was automatically freed. Masters were required to dress their servants the way they dressed themselves. If the slave was given a task he could not complete, the master was required to help him. There were even provisions in Sharia law which made it possible for a slave to sue a master in court for mistreatment.

Admittedly, there was a large gap between the protective rules in the Koran and Hadith and how slaves were actually treated. That was, in fact, the primary argument for abolishing slavery in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Because essentially no one was treating their slaves as Muhammad prescribed, the Saudi Government concluded that slavery as actually practiced was un-Islamic. Should Muhammad thus be seen as a visionary pointing towards the future, and can this vision be used to forgive the fact that he himself owned slaves? I think it should. Muhammad, Washington and Jefferson were all men of their times, who on occasion were ahead of their times. We should not say they were morally depraved just because we are aware of evils that they did not see, any more than we should say they were stupid because we can operate computers and they can’t.

No one acquires all their moral principles through diligent reasoning and introspection. We were each thrown into our moral system at birth, just as our ancestors were thrown into theirs. Some people have the ability and temperament to criticize and fine tune the moral system they inherited, but no one builds their moral system completely from scratch. More importantly, the maxims of these inherited moral systems often conflict with each other, and we often disagree with our ancestors about which maxim should take priority in a particular situation. Their disagreement often seems delusional to us, but that is primarily because the morally repellent alternatives have disappeared, thanks in part to the efforts of some of our ancestors.

We all agree that it is wrong to lie, and also wrong to tell the Nazis about the Jews hiding in your cellar. We also agree that the proper choice is to lie to the Nazis. But what about the choice between 1) failing to provide for your family, and 2) complicitly cooperating with an institution that everyone you know says is OK, but you are starting to think might be an unnecessary evil? What about the choice between 1) legally underwriting slavery so the constitution can be ratified, and thus preserve the United States or 2) insisting that slavery be abolished right now? What about 1) signing a really terrible law so that a really good law gets passed or 2) Vetoing the terrible law hoping that you can pass the good law later somehow?

Moral heroes like these three great men frequently get lumbered with tough dilemmas like these. A few times they made terrific choices, which become the basis of their legends. The rest of the time, however, they were often just like any regular schmoe, which makes them seem monstrous by modern standards. Sometimes the great moral leaders of the past did the right thing, sometimes they tried and failed, sometimes they don’t even try. George Washington was very aware that this first dilemma was real, and he never felt comfortable on either horn. He did try to make his participation in enslavement less morally repellent to himself. He said he was opposed to separating enslaved families when selling them, and as far as I know there’s no record of him ever having done so. He freed all the slaves he could legally free when he died, and his wife’s slaves were freed after she died. A powerful gesture, very much ahead with its time, but it also revealed that he saw his duty as being to his family responsibilities first, and to abstract principles of justice second.

Jefferson spoke more eloquently against slavery than Washington, but was nowhere near as good at walking his talk or putting his money where his mouth was. Jefferson didn’t treat his slaves as generously as Muhammad required, but he was nowhere near as bad as the monstrous enslaver Thomas Thistlewood. That’s very faint praise , but perhaps we can give Jefferson some credit for those magnificent words of his. Jefferson probably did more than anyone else in the 18th century to overturn the idea that kings are destined to rule and the rest of us are destined to serve our appropriate places in the hierarchy. As the next generations came to realize their full implications, those words were powerful weapons when thrown back in the face of slavers by great abolitionist orators like Frederick Douglass. Was Jefferson arguably a hypocrite? Of course, but by faking it, he inspired others to do the right thing. The mistakes of our great moral leaders, and what they learned from them, are what created the values we live by today. We are their superiors only because we stand on their shoulders.

Happy Fourth of July 🇺🇸