Confronting Jefferson in the Library of Congress

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The main lobby of the Jefferson building in the Library of Congress is striking. Everything is marble: the three arches greeting visitors in the lobby, the staircases, the cherub sculptures lining them, the double columns along the second floor barriers. An unsuspecting person might think he’d just wandered into ancient Rome. But upstairs, the place reveals its true mission. Along each wall are quotes from Western writers elevating knowledge and virtue as man’s highest pursuits. Above several of the quotes were representational paintings of women. Along the north wall were a series of words: “wisdom,”  “understanding,” “knowledge,” and “philosophy.” The scene is an Enlightenment paradise. You may be in a library, but you’re really in a church — the object of worship not God, but man and his near-infinite ability to think and create.

I learned that the Library’s unofficial patron saint is Thomas Jefferson, whose influence is inescapable. After the British burnt down the Library (and the entire city of Washington) in the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his entire book collection to the Library, which formed its foundation. The breadth of Jefferson’s collection reflected his vision for the Library and for American democracy; it contained volumes ranging from political philosophy and fine arts to ecology and cooking. He believed that members of a democratic society, especially its leaders, should know something about everything.

As a humanist and a liberal arts student, I admire Jefferson’s belief in an informed democracy. I admire a lot of things about Jefferson. Yet, I find him deeply troubling. He professed the democratic, egalitarian values that form the intellectual foundation of America and understood on a basic level that slavery was wrong, advocating for gradual emancipation and colonization, yet he owned 130 slaves. It’s worth noting that after the Revolution and the passing of a state law making manumission easier, Virginia planters freed thousands of slaves. Jefferson freed two. Despite having a long-term sexual relationship (and fathering several children) with his slave, Sally Hemings, Jefferson refused to acknowledge the intellectual capacities of blacks, the same ones he wished to cultivate in his white peers.

Fortunately, unlike the College of William and Mary’s near fetishization of Jefferson, the Library’s curators are intuitively aware of these contradictions. In order to reach the display of Jefferson’s book collection, one must pass through the incredibly detailed exhibit entitled “Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” They did not forget Jefferson’s role; one of the original documents presented was a sales contract documenting Jefferson’s purchase of John Freeman from James Madison in 1804.

As horrifying as Jefferson’s racial views were, and their jarring divergence from the principles he espoused, they flowed from a man with the same flaws as the rest of us. Intellectual consistency has never been humanity’s strong suit. As Ben Franklin said, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” But we can always do better. Just ask the Library of Congress.