Up until last Thursday, visitors and students entering Florida State University’s campus via the front gates were greeted by a statue of Francis Eppes VII. Eppes played a pivotal role in founding FSU, having donated land and using his political influence to get the state of Florida to establish a school in Tallahassee.
The decision to remove the statue has stirred up debate. Proponents of the removal argue that Eppes owned and actively suppressed slaves. Critics counter that he was essential to the founding of the university and that many historical figures owned slaves, or otherwise were morally imperfect.
Interestingly, the decision to remove the statue goes against the will of the student population. In 2016, Florida State university students voted on whether to remove the statue. Only 28 percent of students supported removing it, while 72 percent supported keeping it in place.
Personally, I can understand why some would want to remove the statue of a slave owner. Slavery is abhorrent and America’s reliance on slavery is a dark part of our history. At the same time, I am not sure that removing statues of slave owners is a prudent choice. If anything, it takes attention away from a serious issue that we as a modern society should grapple with.
Had the student population voted to remove the statue, I’d fully support their decision. If I were a student at FSU and had the chance to vote, I would have closely listened to the pro-removal side and may well have been swayed by their argument. This is especially true if the allegations made by some that Eppes was especially brutal towards his slaves were substantiated. Again, slavery is abhorrent.
Still, the decision to remove the statue only a few years after students had voted in favor of keeping it is inarguably undemocratic. The move also quashed an important chance to discuss a vital issue. If anything, another vote should have been held, and the issue should have been debated publicly. This would have spurred more discussion on an important issue.
As a liberal myself, and one whose heart bleeds, I nevertheless admit that I am concerned by the increasingly undemocratic censorship found on university campuses. I don’t believe that papering over issues, such as slavery, moves the stakes in a positive direction. If anything, it obfuscates problematic issues that we should discuss and analyze.
If we continue to “bleach” history, it’s fair to wonder if we’ll have any history left. Many of our ancestors were morally compromised in one way or another. Rather than forgetting their flaws, covering them up, or forgetting our past leaders, we should dissect the issues directly.
Many of America’s Founding Fathers, including George Washington, owned slaves. This, of course, doesn’t justify slavery in any way, but does highlight how ubiquitous it was. Should we forget the legacy of our Founding Fathers because they owned slaves? I’d argue not. We should acknowledge this dark lining, but our Founding Fathers did advance a freer society (for some) and established the first modern democracy.
The example set by the United States encouraged the establishment of democracies in other countries, such as the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the UK went on to ban slavery long before the United States. America, too, was arguably able to eventually learn from the UK’s example.
While I could never support Eppes’ ownership of slaves, I also recognize that he played a vital role in establishing one of America’s premier colleges. We should remember and honor him for that while also acknowledging his support of slavery. We should do the same with our Founding Fathers and other leaders.
In response to the statue removal, the Eppes family reportedly stated: “How sad that FSU President John Thrasher was so easily convinced to overlook all of the accomplishments and generosity of Francis Eppes and cave to the noisy few liberals that think he is unworthy of recognition.”
At the end of the day, it’s just a statue. It’s possible that the statue will be relocated somewhere else prominent on campus. If FSU authorities do so, they apparently plan to add a plaque discussing Eppes’ role in slavery. This acknowledgement strikes me as a wise idea. Slavery is an important issue, and one that we should never forget and should continue to discuss.