Taken with TJ

For a sense of how much the College of William and Mary relies on Thomas Jefferson in its branding, simply search Thomas Jefferson on the College’s website. There you’ll find 10 pages of results directing you to links such as the Thomas Jefferson Award, the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy, the Jefferson’s College page, the Thomas Jefferson statue and Jefferson Hall.

You’ll also find that, in the spring of 2012, hundreds of students congregated by Jefferson’s statue to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his graduation. Participants were told that the statues on campus can be awakened on important anniversaries by students “honoring their legacy.” Too much? You tell us.

Flash-forward to Clint Smith’s spoken word performance Saturday. Smith addressed the problematic history of our early presidents. In his poem, “A poem to five presidents who owned slaves while they were in office,” Smith provides a different conception of Jefferson, one that presents the historical reality of his racism against African Americans. He questioned the way he saw Jefferson mythologized all over campus, and he talked about Jefferson’s sexual abuse of a young Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.

Of course, the College does a good job selecting which parts of history it wants to tell. On the College website, in a section titled “Jefferson’s College,” there is a brief history of Jefferson’s time at the College and his views on the Wren building and the College curriculum. The word “slavery” is never used.

There are a lot of problems with the way the College relies on a skewed version of Jefferson. By refusing to acknowledge the totality of Jefferson’s character while still using Jefferson as a figure central to the institution, the College is doing itself a grave disservice. The College’s branding should reflect its appreciation of critical thinking and nuance, values which correspond directly with its rich history and academic excellence. By excluding the problematic aspects of Jefferson’s history, the College is contradicting these values.

If the College is to use Jefferson as a selling point, it needs to present him objectively, as a nuanced historical figure. Presenting a holistic Jefferson is not only the right thing to do, it’s the strategically better thing to do. An honest acknowledgement of his complicated history places the emphasis back on the values of the College — like critical thinking and analysis — rather than just glorifying the man himself.

The best use of Jefferson as a branding symbol is one in which he inspires the community to think critically about the values we hold, and why we hold them. A holistic representation of Jefferson can spark a conversation about racism and other issues we still face today, engaging the community in a dialogue that is both valuable and important.


  1. “the historical reality of his racism against African Americans.”

    Jefferson was the architect of blocking Slavery’s expansion into the Northwest Territory’s. He originally penned a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence that condemned King George for “wag[ing a] cruel war against human nature itself… ” by oppressing “a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” He undertook pro-bono legal work in two separate suits where he argued for the freedom of enslaved individuals, going so far as to declare “under the law of nature, all men are born free” in his oral arguments. He also advocated for expanding education to enslaved peoples, asserting that they were “destined to be free.”

    This is the work of the man being broadly painted as a profound racist. Was he perfect? No. But the nuance the author(s) want is to paint Jefferson, a radical liberal of his time who advocated to the best of ability the cause of freedom in the context of a racially bigoted society, as something he was not.

  2. I respectfully disagree with you. The editorial invites us to understand Mr. Jefferson’s racial views and actions in all his complexity, and I believe we should. Understanding Jefferson is a powerfully valuable way of understanding our own heritage as Americans, since he powerfully reflected us – and shaped us, as well.

    I agree that it’s always difficult to set fair expectations on historical figures, who lived in times very different from ours. Nevertheless, the more I study Jefferson, the more I conclude that on matters of race he came up far short of any moral standard we have a right to apply. Others around him behaved far better than he did. He could have done so, too, but repeatedly chose not to.

    Consider, first, his observations on race in Notes on Virginia: “…blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind… different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications… This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

    While Mr. Jefferson was not the only Enlightenment figure to believe things like this, there was significant diversity of opinion about racial difference in Jefferson’s day. Many whites considered blacks inferior for the same reasons they considered white indentured servants or poor laborers inferior. But Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia played a powerful role in crystallizing the idea that blacks were biologically inferior as well.

    (For more about this, I recommend the paper Secular Damnation: Thomas Jefferson and the Imperative of Race, by Robert Pierce Forbes, University of Connecticut.)

    That wasn’t all. Given freedom in America, black men would pursue white women: “declared by their preference of them as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran ootan (Orangutan) for the black woman over those of his own species.” Jefferson contrasted American slavery with that of ancient Rome: “Among the Romans… the slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master.” Roman slaves and masters shared a race. Not so here, where the challenge of emancipation is uniquely vexing.”

    Jefferson wrote that blacks have never been capable of comprehending Euclid’s theories; “that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous”; “never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture… Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.”

    My biggest complaint isn’t that he believed these things as a young man. It’s this: throughout the rest of his life, well-meaning whites and blacks alike would write to Jefferson with one counterexample after another, and get polite and noncommittal answers saying that Jefferson hoped someday blacks could improve their condition. But it doesn’t seem Jefferson ever paid one bit of attention to the evidence they were repeatedly placing before him.

    Meanwhile, after his Presidency, his young admirer Edward Coles wrote to him asking his views of Coles’ intention to emancipate his own slaves. Jefferson wrote strenuously to discourage Coles, who thankfully followed his own moral compass instead of Jefferson’s, and did so anyway.

    Other early abolitionists also wrote to Jefferson, imagining that the man who had once spoken against slavery might be coaxed to join their efforts; he informed them that this was now a matter for future generations, and he would say nothing. At that point, he was still plenty willing to engage the public on issues he actually cared about, such as infringements on states’ rights.

    But of course Mr Jefferson’s own comfort and fortune depended entirely on slavery. And even though there is debate as to just how brutal a master he was, we know – at minimum – that some 400 of the 607 slaves unfortunate to be owned by him were sold and separated from their families. We know that as soon as productivity on his plantation slipped, he brought back a slave master he well knew to be especially vicious.

    When George Washington died, Washington freed his own slaves. He was not the only founder to do so. But Jefferson condemned all of his slaves to the auction block, with the exception of Sally Hemings’ children; we now know that the powerful Mr Jefferson had had his way with Miss Hemings for years.

    That the man who wrote “All men are created equal” could do all these things is an important thing to know – about him, about our country, and about each of us as human beings. Knowing it can help us build a better country, and maybe even become better people – more aware of our human capacity to excuse evil or choose ignorance based on our own narrow self-interest. If Jefferson could do that – and he spent his whole life doing it – so could you or I.

    That’s an important thing to know! So I completely agree with the editorial.


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