If you believe conventional wisdom, Atticus Finch is right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and maybe even Jesus Christ himself.
He’s the great savior, hero and progressive – at least as portrayed in Harper Lee’s first published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird – even though he fails to acquit his African-American client of raping a white woman.
So if you read her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, published 55 years after the first book, you’re taken aback to learn that this great Southern litigator is a segregationist at best, a racist at worst.
It’s as difficult to accept as it would be to learn that Jesus was a thief and a womanizer.
Say it ain’t so!
Historians and political scientists are constantly writing about what influenced the country’s leaders.
The changes in their thinking, maturing if you will, came slowly, often with great struggle, because they were debating society as they saw it, the teachings they were handed, formally or informally, against new ideas, for which there was little support.
Writing his will, George Washington decided to free slaves he owned upon his death and while it’s often passed over, by doing so, writes Henry Wiencek, it represented “a repudiation of a lifetime of mastery.
“… he (Washington) had been conditioned to be indifferent to the aspirations and humanity of African-Americans. Something happened to change him and to set him radically apart from his peers (Southern plantation owners) and his family.”[i]
While it might be easy to dismiss this act, it’s important to know that Washington’s native state, Virginia, according to the country’s first census, taken in 1790, when he was president, held nearly half of the country’s slaves – 292,627 out of a total enslaved population of 694,280, as it was originally reported.[ii]
Washington’s experience as battlefield commander, where free blacks were often armed in the fight against the British, changed his views on slavery and, in time, helped him accept the humanity of African-Americans, Wiencek shows.
Washington even met an enslaved woman in Cambridge, Mass., at his headquarters during the Revolution, who was one of the most successfully published poets in her day, Phillis Wheatley – nothing short of incredible given the times.[iii]
Imagine if today’s media were covering the event. The cameras would close in on this humble African-American woman as the man nearly greater than life itself greets her at the door.
It can be argued that Washington didn’t do enough to correct a serious and profound wrong, especially for a country that claimed to be founded in liberty.
But it’s equally important to understand that Washington was an 18th century man, a member of the landed gentry, and, as Wiencek reminds us, someone who wasn’t about to tamper with someone else’s property by issuing an executive order to free the slaves.
The single best thing Washington could do was set an example to his peers and countrymen by freeing his slaves at his death. He was the only Founding Father to do so.
Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln defied his beginnings – which should have made him white trash – to become the great emancipator.[iv]
There’s nothing to suggest he’ll become the president of the United States and, more importantly, hold views on African-Americans that are contrary to what many people likely held during his earliest days.
It’s hard to pinpoint when Lincoln saw African-Americans as his equal, Anderson University History Professor Brian Dirck writes.
Was it during his days of working for his father, Thomas; when he worked on flatboats traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; when he saw New Orleans’s free blacks; or when he observed how a group of slaves on a Mississippi River boat named the Lebanon?
We’ll likely never know.
What we do know is that through much of his reading and interpreting of the U. S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence as well as other documents and books, perhaps even his faith, he came to reject popular views of African-Americans.
And this is the problem with both of Harper Lee’s novels, although somewhat less so in her second one.
In Mockingbird, the first time we see Atticus Finch, he’s a 50-year-old father correcting his daughter’s language, forbidding her to use “nigger” because it’s a word of the uneducated.
Readers are also supposed to accept that Finch is the great progressive because he’s defended African-Americans and holds off a lynch mob at the local jail where his client is held.
What we don’t see is how Finch came to those views. Was he born with them or, through years of studying legal and historical writings, plus his own interactions with African-Americans, did he come to see them just as human and endowed with the right to life, liberty and justice as any white person?
The latter is likely the answer but it remains a question that’s never resolved.
Lee does a better job of explaining Finch’s racial views in her second book. He’s worried about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's interference in local events and government overreach.
In some ways, the racist and segregationist version of Finch is easier to accept. His entire life is spent in the South – as we know it – so why wouldn’t he hold views that are not all that kind to African-Americans?
It’s a shame Lee doesn’t do a better job of explaining Finch, showing how he grew one way or the other.
But maybe Lee did something no reader or critic expected: Maybe she shed light on our mental shortcomings, showing, very indirectly, that we’re not as free to change our minds and reject our experiences in defining our views as we prefer to think.
Are we, as Noble laureate Doris Lessing suggested, living in mental prisons, where we’re comforted because our views are unchallenged?[v]
How are you going to know?
[i] Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), page 7.
[iii] Wiencek, ibid., pages 205 – 214.
[iv] Brian R. Dirck, Abraham Lincoln and White America, (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2012), page 30.
[v] Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1987).