Two new books, both involving the highest law in the land, have been published.
I haven’t read either one, but it seems to me, after reading their summaries, they show us, in a nutshell, a critical challenge we face going forward in the way we look at great Americans.
Slave-holding Presidents have already come under scrutiny, especially Washington and Jefferson, who each owned more than 200 enslaved humans.
The juxtaposition of these two books points the spotlight to the Supreme Court.
By all accounts, Chief Justice John Marshall stands proudly on the pantheon of Founding Fathers. The summary for Joel Richard Paul’s new book,“Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times,” indicates a similar admiration:
Without Precedent is the engrossing account of the life and times of this exceptional man, who with cunning, imagination, and grace shaped America's future as he held together the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the country itself.
In Supreme Injustice, the distinguished legal historian Paul Finkelman establishes an authoritative account of each justice’s proslavery position, the reasoning behind his opposition to black freedom, and the incentives created by circumstances in his private life. Finkelman uses census data and other sources to reveal that Justice Marshall aggressively bought and sold slaves throughout his lifetime—a fact that biographers have ignored.
How do we process this?
Should we lessen our admiration for these men or not?
Is it right or wrong to pass judgements all these years later?
Is this part of the need for reconciliation?
These are not just topics for everyday Americans to discuss (or avoid) between sips of coffee. Public memory always needs to be reevaluated. It’s a tough wrangle, but we need to face and meet the challenge of understanding our complicated past.