The Founders and Atticus Finch

Like most people who have attended school in the past 40 years, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. Like most people who read To Kill a Mockingbird, I loved it. The vivid portrayal of a small southern town during the Depression, the elegance of the prose, and the paternal love, moral courage, and logical thinking of Atticus Finch fascinated me. When I heard Harper Lee’s long-lost manuscript for a second book, Go Set a Watchman, was to be published this summer, I was excited to read it and catch up with my old “friends” from Maycomb, Alabama.

As the publication date approached, I read more and more negative reviews of the forthcoming sequel. “You’ll never view Atticus the same way after reading Watchman!” “In 20 years, Mockingbird won’t be read in schools because Watchman has destroyed its meaning” were the dire predictions blaring from seemingly every source. Internally I debated whether or not to read Watchman or let Scout, Jem, Atticus, and Calpurnia continue their familiar, comfortable existence in the recesses of my childhood memory. By July 14th, I had decided that I must read the next chapter in their lives and now, having just finished Watchman, I’m glad I did.

Spoiler alert: the Atticus Finch of Watchman isn’t the liberal, Civil Rights crusader that he appeared to be in Mockingbird, yet, in a way that makes him all the more realistic and believable. Mockingbird’s Atticus was something of a secular saint; the kind of character you aspire to be, yet will always frustrate you because his character traits are elusive to us mere mortals. Watchman’s Atticus is human and that makes him all the more relatable.

The reviews were correct: Atticus is a white supremacist. While he’s no Bull Connor, you wouldn’t find him marching with Dr. King either. His views on race are more complicated and—true to Mockingbird—reasoned (I suppose all racists’ views are well-reasoned in their own minds, though) than those held by most racists of his day. While Atticus’ views are morally repugnant to 21st Century Americans, they seem consistent with the opinions a well-educated, independent-thinking, self-described Jeffersonian democrat from the Deep South who came of age during the dark days of Jim Crow might hold. It’s far easier to conceive of Atticus Finch as a product of his day who believed in the concept of justice for all, than an alien of sorts, with decidedly modern views living and walking amongst the blatant racists and devout segregationists of 1950s Alabama.


Which brings us to the Founding Fathers. Recently I had a conversation with a friend regarding the Confederate Battle Flag. I invoked Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” and his disagreement with Mr. Jefferson’s concept that “all men are created equal.” She could not understand how a man who owned slaves could believe the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Surely it was all a front, or Jefferson was living a lie. Perhaps both.

How is it possible that fictional men, like Atticus Finch, and real men, like Thomas Jefferson, could hold such morally repugnant views, yet still be remembered as champions of justice and liberty? I think it demonstrates the human condition: it is perfectly in keeping with our fallen nature for good people to be capable of great acts of moral depravity and for wicked people to be capable of astounding acts of righteousness. Further, if we all take a long look within our hearts, we will probably see that we, too, hold a few logically inconsistent positions. Does that make us evil, too?

We have had the benefit of more than 200 years of thought and history to help refine our ideas of liberty and justice. Our racial views are shaped in no small part by the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the barbarity of Bull Connor and the Klan. It would be grossly unfair of us in 2015 to expect that Jefferson or Finch believe exactly as we do on this side of Freedom Summer. While it doesn’t excuse their actions or beliefs, it does explain them; they aren’t necessarily evil, merely human, and in this life that’s the best that any of us can hope to be.

We can still look to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Finch as heroes—flawed mortals who did noble work and made America (or Maycomb, Alabama) better—without endorsing their personal prejudices. No doubt, 200 years from now, our own descendants will look back at us with shock at some of the things we believe today, so we should be careful only to measure judgment with the same mete by which we ourselves are prepared to be measured.


Near the end of Watchman, Scout (our moral conscience), receives sage advice from her Uncle Jack that we would do well to remember today when we view the Founders with a sense of moral superiority:

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious. …As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers. …When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience—your conscience—you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you.

When we view Atticus Finch and Thomas Jefferson, to paraphrase Harper Lee, as men, with men’s hearts, and men’s failings, the brilliance of their actions becomes even more impressive . As mere mortals, they were able to overcome their personal prejudices to stand up for justice and proclaim liberty to all. If they could do that—far from being deities on a shelf we can only aspire to emulate—so can we, because they have given us a concrete example that we can emulate on this side of eternity. Far from crushing our dreams, their examples should give us hope of what we too might become.

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