History has a funny way of tarnishing even the most sterling of reputations. While society still deifies our heroes of the past, we are by now quite used to finding out awful things about the people we revere. Gandhi and Churchill were racist, everyone was sexist, and Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, didn’t even think Black people were people!
Still, it’s generally assumed that these character flaws are products of the time periods these historical figures lived in, and that the paragons of history more or less followed their prescribed paths to heroics (or villainy). That’s why it’s so surprising to discover cases where some of history’s biggest names fought for causes completely contrary to their reputation.
The history books seem to prefer a simplified version of events and characters, which often results in some of this contradictory material being left out. However, historical figures, like most people, are much more complex than the two-dimensional beings we remember them as. From famous disability advocates who touted eugenics to brutal dictators who battled illiteracy, this list of historical figures who supported surprising causes will shake up your image of history.
Few historical figures are more beloved than Gandhi, the man who peacefully protested his way to Indian independence. While some pretty dark secrets have emerged about him over the years, most seem like products of his time. However, he made himself absolutely clear about a few controversial topics: namely, birth control and homosexuality. Oddly enough, Gandhi thought the two, in addition to both being evil, were inextricably linked. He wrote that birth control took the meaning out of sex, which would lead to more and more youth embracing the “deviant” homosexual lifestyle.
Of all the historical figures to promote eugenics, Helen Keller has to be the most disappointing. After all, Keller is a legendary example for disabled people, and a personal testament that people can derive value from their life no matter what their disadvantages.
Unfortunately, Keller didn’t learn from her own example and thought that human beings should be subject to selective breeding. Keller put her money where her mouth was by not procreating herself, but it still stings to know that one of history’s most inspiring figures wanted to stop people with disabilities from starting families.
Few modern figures are more reviled than Fred Phelps. Phelps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their signs bearing homophobic slurs and for picketing military funerals. That's why it is so surprising that he spent his younger years fighting for human rights.
Phelps was a Southern lawyer who specialized in fighting racist Jim Crow laws, often taking cases for Black individuals that other lawyers wouldn’t touch. Whatever his motivations, Phelps personally made gains for civil rights, before wasting all that good karma in his later years.
Thomas Jefferson is one of America’s most famous presidents, and one of its most controversial. Despite helping shape both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Jefferson is often portrayed as a villain today for his continued reliance on slave labor and his frequent dalliances with slave women whom he owned.
However, Jefferson actually took several stands against slavery. The most notable of these came when he wrote a passage denouncing slavery into the Declaration of Independence, only to have it edited out by others. Jefferson would continue to fight for the end of slavery throughout his career, despite being personally invested in it.