Were the Founding Fathers perfect men? Of course they weren’t; it would be laughable to claim otherwise. The worst of it is that many of them were slave-holders. The Founding Fathers were guilty of all sorts of misdeeds that showed many of the Founding Fathers to be less than perfect men.
We judge the Founding Fathers not, however, as shameless hypocrites and villains but as flawed, but nevertheless great, statesmen who by their vision and their deeds brought us the republican government we enjoy today.
Exactly this sort of judgment is required at Northwestern University, where a group of students and faculty have insisted that the Northwestern’s celebration of its founder John Evans on its annual Founder’s Day is deeply misguided. Writing in the The Daily Northwestern earlier this week, they argue:
Northwestern has a shameful past for which it must atone. In order to grow, institutions must remember their past, but this University has chosen amnesia. We must not forget that John Evans, the man who established this University and served as the chair of the Board of Trustees, was morally and politically culpable for one of the most despicable acts of genocide in American history: the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.
Those are serious charges. They were enough to get Northwestern to rename this year’s Founder’s Day a “birthday celebration.”
Here’s a brief sketch of the background to these charges: while Evans was the governor of the Colorado Territory, his friend and appointee Col. John Chivington attacked, killed, and mutilated an encampment of Cheyenne Indians. Most of the dead were women and children; others were old men.
For Evans back then, as for so many politicians today, it wasn’t the initial misdeed that was his undoing but the subsequent cover-up. Evans himself was travelling on official business to Washington during the massacre, but he actively worked to obscure the events upon his return to Colorado. When the cover-up came to light, Evans was fired from his post as territorial governor (with the circumlocution that his “resignation would be acceptable”).
Undoubtedly Evans was wrong when he engaged in the cover-up -- and it’s possible that his own unfriendly attitude towards the Indians was an encouragement to Col. Chivington. Evans, as they might have said at the time, most certainly “blotted his copybook.”
Does that make him “morally and politically culpable” for the Sand Creek massacre? Well, perhaps in part, but surely the responsibility falls more directly on Col. Chivington. A full account of Evans’ culpability might also need to take into account the complicated history of hostilities between indigenous Indians and settlers, which would throw both Indians and settlers in a less-than-flattering light as judged by today’s standards.
A full account of Evans himself would need to take into view his whole life—which includes a very impressive range of statesman-like accomplishments. As a physician, he helped to establish various hospitals in Illinois, including one that provided care for the mentally ill. He worked not only to establish Northwestern University but the University of Denver, where there is no move afoot to distance itself from Evans (indeed, where the campus chapel is the Evans Memorial Chapel, an annual Evans award is given to an outstanding alumnus, and the John Evans Society recognizes large donors). The city of Evanston is named for him.
As with the Founding Fathers, a mature judgment of John Evans must be complex. It would false to skip over Evans’ role in the Sand Creek massacre (as seem to have happened, for example, at Northwestern’s centennial celebration, when the chancellor said too euphemistically, “He brought stability to our last frontier.”) But simply to dismiss Evans as unworthy as celebrating as a founder, with gratitude for the university he worked assiduously to establish, seems also false.