Humans beings are complicated, flawed creatures that mustn't be judged without context. And Johnson County Supervisor Supervisor Rod Sullivan risks ignoring this imperatives in his desire separate the Richard Mentor Johnson from the county that bears his name.
Sullivan said recently that he's "pretty serious" that Johnson County should shed its link to the United States' ninth vice president. A healthy debate is always welcome, and a free people has every right to designate its heroes. But, on this topic at this time, Sullivan's histrionics might backfire and only add fuel to the very people Sullivan hopes to out-maneuver.
Most historians will tell you that it's perilous intellectual ground to judge a figure outside of his or her time. Norms and maxims are always evolving. Applying current ethics to someone dead centuries ago skews history. Such an undertaking is, at its core, a political exercise, not a historical one.
It is a fact that Johnson owned slaves. His promotion of manifest destiny and the devastation brought to Midwestern Native American groups is shameful from a postmodern perspective. But Iowa wouldn't exist without the push for westward expansion.
Yes, the lawmaker from Kentucky was deeply involved in all the brutality of his time. From a 21st-century perspective, he also got a few things right. Johnson championed debtors relief, a major issue in the early 19th century, when simply owing a creditor was grounds for arrest. His defense of the separation of church and state — and support for religion free from government interference — still holds up today. He was a decorated veteran of the War of 1812.
Johnson's ownership of African slaves and rhetoric that resulted in direct conflict between American settlers and Native Americans don't fully define him. Nor do his other political exploits of the less notorious nature. They're all just fragments of a larger picture of a complex man.
In fact, the prejudices of Johnson's own time ultimately hindered his political career. Johnson didn't hide what amounted to a common-law marriage to a mulatto slave and his love for his mixed-race daughters. Johnson's affection for a woman outside his race was an effective political weapon that scuttled more than one campaign, according to U.S. Senate archives. Mixed-race marriages were outlawed throughout the South until 1967.
The point here is simple: Johnson was a complicated individual even by the standards of his time. The same could be said for Caesar Augustus, Queen Victoria and Thomas Jefferson. They were all prisoners of their respective times.
The only rational approach to judging someone like Johnson is applying the standards of the world within which he lived and not one two centuries after his death. And, by that measure, he merits recognition.
The timing of Sullivan's debate also is problematic. Naturally, the attempt will — right or wrong — be linked with efforts to remove Confederate statues from public parks throughout the country. The two issues are fundamentally dissimilar. Unlike Johnson, Confederate generals committed treason specifically to maintain the institution of slavery. Even in 1860s, slavery was quickly becoming a moral outrage. It's no less pertinent that most of these statues were erected in the early 20th century at the height of Jim Crow. They were never monuments honoring dead soldiers. They were threats aimed at African Americans who wanted integrated schools, voting rights and economic opportunity.
Again, context is everything.
Sullivan is adding unnecessary fuel to the wrong-headed argument that do-gooders and social justice warriors are looking to whitewash history. He's providing more evidence that quixotic revisionism holds out-sized sway in local politics. Ultimately, he's damaging more appropriate calls for putting Confederate statues where they belong — in museums — by muddying an already-contentious debate.
By modern tastes, Richard Mentor Johnson wasn't a model citizen. But that's not, nor should it be, the point.