The Legacies of Historical Figures
BY MRUNAL DEORE '24
Many historical figures have established long-lasting legacies, but their shining images often hide an array of misdeeds. Legacies are built on the ideas they pass down, so it is important to understand the history of those we choose to remember. However, if only a historical figure’s positive legacy is taught, the stories and lessons found in the communities they harmed remain untold.
Modern social activism has taken a stand against historical figures with harmful legacies. For example, Black Lives Matter, a movement that highlights the discrimination and systemic racism Black people face, represented their strong stance by graffitiing a message on a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia, the Confederacy’s general in the Civil War. There are some legacies, however, that people are more divided on. For example, former US President Andrew Jackson believed in the power of democracy and following the Constitution where all men are created equal, but his views only supported the country’s white community. While Jackson’s rags-to-riches story and support of the lower classes led some to believe he created a legacy for unheard voices, his mistreatment of Indigenous people and other minority groups says otherwise. By displacing the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek tribes with the Trail of Tears in favor of westward expansion, Jackson effectively turned on the morals he claimed to stand for. Moreover, most of the wealth he accumulated came from slaves he abused on several occasions. His legacy of fostering respect for poor white farmers pales in comparison to his role in committing genocide and perpetuating racist sentiments that still persist.
Recently, there has been discussion about replacing Jackson’s face with that of Harriet Tubman’s on the twenty dollar bill. This change would be a large step forward, as an enslaver’s recognition would be replaced by a former enslaved person who played a significant role in helping other runaway slaves. In addition, nine full-body statues of Tubman were installed across the nation as an inclusion in the memorials of African-American women; a bill was also introduced in Congress for the removal of certain statues as a part of the Black History Month series, with Andrew Jackson's statues in Lafayette Park being one of them. By implementing these changes, we can begin to acknowledge the predominantly negative legacies left behind by Jackson and many other historical figures. Tubman showed qualities of a leader who could empathize with and help others no matter how difficult, while Jackson turned on his own morals for his own or the United States’ interests. There are still many people today whose perspectives have been influenced by negative legacies, and ignoring these figures’ misdeeds only allows hateful sentiments to linger.
Legacies are complex, but one thing is for certain: historical figures’ actions influence today’s mindsets. Slavery and colonization may have ended in name, but the United States carries a history of hatred enforced by many of its historical figures. Only by acknowledging and fighting the mindsets of the supposedly shiny heroes of our past can we begin to pass on a legacy of growth for the nation as a whole.