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Why I stuck up for Thomas Jefferson’s legacy

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April 14, 2016

2:30 PM

The College of William and Mary’s most esteemed alumnus, Thomas Jefferson, would have turned 273 this week. If he witnessed the state of the nation today, he would have also turned over in his grave.

Institutions across the country — from the Democratic Party to a host of elite universities — are removing founding fathers like Jefferson from our collective memory, all for the sake of values like “diversity, inclusivity, and equality.” The College is not exempt from this growing national trend. Last November, students anonymously adorned Jefferson’s statue with inflammatory sticky notes that featured messages like “racist rapist,” “incestuous pedophile” and, “He knew it was wrong.” Although the intent of their protest was never stated, one message demanded, “Stop glorifying racists,” and their actions ignited a campus-wide debate over Jefferson’s legacy.

One month later, I responded (anonymously, at the time) by posting contradictory messages of my own on the statue, which included messages like “deserves to be on this campus” and, “W&M doesn’t glorify racism.” In light of Jefferson’s birthday, I thought I’d share why I felt compelled to fight back against this particular bout of student activism.

This is not to excuse Jefferson for his wrongdoings, but to emphasize that he was much more complex than a “white supremacist slaveholder.”

The original messages painted an unfair picture of Thomas Jefferson’s life, and erroneously suggested that the unsavory parts of his past rendered him undeserving of commemoration. Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder. He has received well-deserved criticism for it throughout the past two centuries, ever since his own time. But Jefferson also consistently expressed a moral aversion to the institution, drafted the Northwest Ordinance banning slavery in northern territories, and worked to end the slave trade, which he deemed a “human rights violation.” It was he who wrote that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights — concepts central to the contemporary ideals of equality and diversity that evidently inspire his modern-day detractors.

This is not to excuse Jefferson for his wrongdoings, but to emphasize that he was much more complex than a “white supremacist slaveholder.” If we only celebrated historical figures whose every action and belief conformed to today’s prevailing socio-political standards, there’d be no statues or memorials anywhere in the world.

More troubling to me than the gross misrepresentation of history, however, was both the idea that the mere existence of his statue signifies the “glorification” of racism by the College, as well as the subsequent implication that its presence on campus inherently denigrates minority students.

More troubling to me than the gross misrepresentation of history, however, was both the idea that the mere existence of his statue signifies the “glorification” of racism by the College, as well as the subsequent implication that its presence on campus inherently denigrates minority students. For one, it is patently absurd to contend that a block of marble carved in the likeness of a man long dead, or the names of Confederate generals etched onto a plaque, can itself harbor racism or actively perpetuate discrimination on campus.

Yet groups nationwide who campaign for the removal of historical figures nearly always employ these flimsy charges of prejudice, arguing that because they feel unwelcome, oppressed or discriminated against as a result of these memorials, they are unwelcoming, oppressive and discriminatory. Many in academia refuse to challenge this factual relativism — this idea that there are no objective truths, and that your subjective truth is the truth. Instead, universities today actually encourage it by recognizing (and thus legitimatizing) frivolous claims made by hyper-anxious students who think learning about Western civilization upholds white supremacy or referring to professors as “masters” is violently racist.

If we accept the charge that Jefferson’s statue glorifies prejudice, what would be next?

Acquiescing to this moral and factual relativism leads down a precarious and dangerous path, one that is antithetical to reason and ultimately impedes freedom of thought, speech and expression. If we accept the charge that Jefferson’s statue glorifies prejudice, what would be next? Would we need to tear down the Wren building because Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural style is reminiscent of European colonialism? Will there be certain topics students can no longer discuss?

Political elites in ancient Rome practiced damnatio memoriae, a form of dishonor bestowed onto traitors that entailed the purging of names and images after death. They used it primarily to erase dissidents from social memory, but it also served to intimidate political enemies and suppress future opposition. In the wake of ever-increasing intolerance, we ought to remain diligent in preserving our history, lest we see the College’s illustrious past condemned and erased forevermore.

Email Mitch Hall at [email protected]

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  • Mitch Hall

  • Alex

    Not only did the notes never claim that Jefferson didn’t deserve any credit for his positive deeds in life, they were accurate. The man described black people as physically and mentally inferior in his notes on Virginia. That is racism, period. He owned slaves even as he claimed to condemn slavery, so claiming that he was against the institution makes no sense. This wasn’t some far off evil that was so entrenched in life that he couldn’t escape it(like the challenges of living a cruelty free lifestyle), people all around him lived without slaves. As far as the College goes, claiming that the statue of Jefferson is meaningless is ridiculous, given the almost nonexistent recognition of the slaves who built this campus and the continuing racial disconnects between the student body, faculty, and staff at the College. I guarantee you that no one is erasing Thomas Jefferson. Asking for the inclusion of multiple perspectives is not erasure, especially in a country and on a campus built by them. Where are the statues commemorating Native Americans? African Americans? Learning about Western civilization does uphold white supremacy Mitch, when your school refuses to give you any other option or forces you to only learn one side ( which is not what I’m claiming happens here btw). Had you spent your formative years being taught nothing but the subjugation of your people’s to the superiority of self-identified white men, you might feel differently. As historic as William & Mary is, progress doesn’t happen by being oblivious to contextual changes. We can say that Thomas Jefferson helped found this country while acknowledging that he was ravist and thus this country was founded on racism. Fact. While we’re there, we can spend some time discussing how that affects our lives today and discuss the ways I was which we move forward, one where people feel less threatened by challenges to the very fallible heroes.

  • BH

    Purely hypothetical: if I threw a cactus at your face but later told you all about my anti-cactus-related violence ideology (and the books I’ve written about anti-cactus violence) we’d be all good, right?

    • MC

      You’re missing the author’s point. At a personal level, you and him might not be “all good.” But if you went on to cure cancer, end world hunger, or, say, write the founding documents for a new nation that enabled people to live more free than they ever had before, then he would not protest the College building a statue of you, nor would he try to argue that your cactus-throwing habits negated your other achievements and warranted your removal from societal landmarks.

      • BH

        I’m not missing any point. I get it.

        It was just a cheeky way of saying white supremacists generally deserve cacti to the face.

        For white people, perhaps certain accomplishments allow them to overlook the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned humans and raped them. For black people, and many reasonable white people, that’s simply not the case.

        • MC

          But it’s not being overlooked. In public schools in every state, they point of the fact that Jefferson and other Founding Fathers owned slaves, and I imagine few people advocate that it was no big deal. At William & Mary, it doesn’t go unacknowledged. For people to think that having a statue of him somehow erases the bad parts of his past from our memory is just nonsensical. If anything, it helps to keep it in our memory.

          It goes back to the author’s point about moral relativism. As you yourself indicate, we’re now expected to acquiesce and believe that if black people and ‘reasonable white people’ subjectively attach a racist significance to it–if they *feel* pained by the history or *feel* discriminated against when they look at it–then it is, not ifs, ands, or buts. You can’t argue that the statue is in no way actually discriminatory. It can’t be debated because their feelings determine the truth, nothing else.

          It’s absurd.

          • BH

            I’m going to assume you’re white because only a white person would say Jefferson’s anti-blackness adequately represented and maintained in “our” memory.
            Are you trying to say that public schools adequately and accurately teach the white supremacy of the “founding fathers” of this country (put in quotes and intentionally made lowercase because the notion of founding fathers is absolute BS)? Now I know you’re white. Or Ben Carson.

          • BH

            Your entire argument is dismissive and racist.

      • BH

        For a white person to say black students are out of touch with reality for not wanting to see a shrine dedicated to someone who owned and raped people we see ourselves in is patently racist.

        • Greg

          Let’s take down the Jefferson statue. Let’s also remove the name of Martin Luther King Jr from every park, street, and memorial that bears it since he was known to have committed adultery and plagiarized large portions of his Doctoral Dissertation. That negates every thing he did for Civil Rights, yes?

          No, it doesn’t. Human beings of all colors are capable of committing terrible acts during the same lifetime of achieving great things for mankind. Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and every person who have walked this earth are complex and fallible human beings. Let us learn and honor them for the achievements that have advanced us as a nation and people, while at the same time learning from and improving upon the errors that they made as well

          • BH

            Are you actually offended by MLK? If you are personally offended then there’s a conversation to be had, but I don’t think you are. I think you’re just trying to pick a fight because people are pointing out that your white hero was a racist/rapist/pedophile.

            Also, MLK never raped or owned people. I suggest you do some more Google searches and find another historical figure to use.

            To be clear — you think owning humans and raping them is equivalent to adultery and cheating?

          • Greg

            You didn’t read my statements very carefully. I made it very clear that I do not want memorials to Jefferson to be taken down and I do not want memorials to MLK to be taken down. I am talking about the reactionary climate we live in today where people who have never studied a topic in depth simply react to something they have little understanding of and start “screaming” on comments sections…I am as annoyed by the people who scream “RACIST/PEDOPHILE/RAPIST” about Jefferson as I am the people who holler about Obama being a “SOCIALIST/MUSLIM/FASCIST” or who want to discount MLK for his sins as well. Historical interpretation is far more nuanced and complex then simply pointing out who was evil, who was good, who wasn’t as evil, who was a hero.

            I prefer to follow the path of Annette Gordon-Reed, who in the preface of her latest book on Jefferson writes, ” ‘Jefferson the God’ has given way to ‘ Jefferson the Devil’ We hope to steer clear of both of these presentations, making use of new information that broadens our understanding of Jefferson, even as we reassess the material that has been known in light of contemporary understandings of politics, race, and gender.” She is an African-American woman who has spent as much time studying Jefferson as any white male and has concluded very rationally that in spite of owning slaves and probably engaging in a sexual relationship with one of them that “Jefferson was no monster.”

          • Republicus

            Most people don’t consider adultery and child rape to be immoral equivalents. And Lincoln never owned slaves. Jefferson owned slaves since the age of fourteen. Your wingnut analogy is flawed.

  • Republicus

    “Racist or Great?”

    He was great, he was a racist, and he was a child rapist. The evidence is rock solid, and backed by science.

    • Greg

      No, it is not ‘rock solid” and “backed by science.” The DNA test only makes him a possible link to one of Sally Hemings children. That does not automatically prove that he fathered all her children or that he even had sex with/raped her. It is likely that he fathered Eston Hemings, but not a certainty. To claim that the matter is solved 100% is to overstate the evidence.

      • Republicus

        You’re in denial. The evidence is so strong that even the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has admitted that “The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.”

        Surprisingly, they also offer this gem in their conclusions: “Many aspects of this likely relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are, and may remain, unclear, such as the nature of the relationship, the existence and longevity of Sally Hemings’s first child, and the identity of Thomas C. Woodson.”

        The reason that the results turned out negative for the heirs of Thomas C. Woodson is not because he was the son of Sally Hemmings, fathered by someone other than Thomas Jefferson. The results turned out negative because he wasn’t actually mothered by Hemings. “TOM” the first born son of Jefferson and Hemings, which James Thomson Callender exposed in 1802, The real Tom Hemings, died at the age of sixteen, in Richmond, Virginia.

        Callender published the truth on September 1, 1802. Eleven months later he was found drowned in the James River, in three-foot deep, calm water.

        • Greg

          You need not recount all the evidence and the story to me. I own every book and dozens of articles on this topic and have studied them extensively.

          Also, I am not in denial. It would be naive to assert that Jefferson was somehow too noble to have had children with a slave woman However, there is a difference between “rock solid evidence” and “high probability.” I myself believe that Jefferson is likely the father of Eston Hemings and that there is a “high probability” that he fathered some or all of her other children. However, it is not “rock solid” and it is not certain that he was the father of all of her children. This is merely the assertion made by most historians based on the evidence available. There is no evidence for paternity beyond Eston Hemings and the DNA other than Madison Hemings interview with Wetmore and James Callender’s accusations.

          Do I believe Jefferson fathered children with Hemings? Yes, I probably do. However, without concrete, solid proof, I would never take the jump to state that I know it is rock solid, unshakable, and undeniable proof.

          Be well…

          • Republicus

            “HIgh pobability?” Okay, I’ll settle for just this side of “rock solid.”

            SALLY was not even Jefferson’s first “highly probable” statutory rape. But, as well studied as you are, you must have known that.

  • Kyle L

    I don’t see the problem with calling a racist, rapist, and incestuous pedophile a racist, rapist, and incestuous pedophile. We’ve all taken US History before college, so we know the good stuff already. Jefferson wasn’t just a product of his time– many of his contemporaries took strong moral stances against slavery, like Robert Carter. What’s wrong with knowing both sides? Also, the notes never called for the removal of the statue.

  • Republicus

    Where was Thomas Jefferson on October 17, 1766? Was he at the home of Colonel John Chiswell, when the Colonel, supposedly, committed suicide?