Good Sunday morning. My friend Denny Burke’s Sunday morning jazz selection this week is “Time After Time” by Miles Davis.
A few blogs ago, I tried to make sense of the move at James Madison Memorial High School to change the school’s name because Madison owned slaves.
Here’s a far more eloquent discussion on the same theme, this time from an historian, about the decision to move a statute of Thomas Jefferson out of New York City Hall. This piece by Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, was posted on October 22nd in Persuasion. I’ve excerpted it below. I’ve taken the editor’s prerogative of highlighting passages that I thought were most compelling.
“Efforts to repudiate Jefferson are, by now, familiar enough. The reassessment of historical figures traditionally celebrated for their contributions to American equality is nothing new, as in Lerone Bennett Jr.’s much-criticized but widely-read vilification of Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist. Jefferson has become a particularly fraught case, due in large part to his slaveholding and his ugly remarks about Africans in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Additionally, historians have affirmed longstanding speculations that he had sexual relations and conceived several children with one of his young slaves, Sally Hemings, who also happened to be, almost certainly, his late wife’s half-sister.
“The most authoritative interpreter of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Annette Gordon-Reed, has described it as a fundamentally absurd and unequal but ultimately respectful long-term bond. Contrary to Gordon-Reed’s historical evidence, however, Jefferson gained a reputation as a rapist, a systematic abuser of black women, and a sadistic slave owner. Blend enough sensational falsehood into his biography and it’s easy enough to invent a Thomas Jefferson who was a perfect monster, unfit for celebration of any kind, let alone in New York’s City Hall.”
“One need not accept portrayals of Jefferson as a moral monster to see that he had flaws from which any fair-minded twenty first century observer recoils. But study him awhile and he appears to have been a man of contradictions. Notes on the State of Virginia indeed contains hair-raising comments about black people, closer than not to the common view among his fellow white Virginians. It also contains an indictment of racial slavery as an offense to heaven—an uncommon view in Virginia, especially among slaveholders. (“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Jefferson wrote, a remark that impressed his antislavery Massachusetts friend John Adams as “worth diamonds.”)
“There is the early Jefferson who took firm antislavery stances, to the point of heading a committee of the Confederation Congress in 1784 that sought to ban the introduction of slavery into any American territory. About two decades later, as president, he completed the abolition of U.S. participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Then there is also the later Jefferson, who backed off from any public expressions of antislavery opinion, to the point, in 1820, of supporting the introduction of slavery into Missouri Territory over the intense objection of antislavery northerners.
“Above all, there is Jefferson’s greatest contribution to America, indeed, to humankind, in the Declaration of Independence’s simple assertion that all men are created equal. The declaration’s universalist claim was a deeply radical statement then, and remains radical today. It expressed an idea that swept beyond Jefferson’s own time to inspire future abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and every variety of champion for human rights. Although there were radical egalitarians before Jefferson, there had never been anything quite like the declaration, which became the basis of a democratic political order that rejected monarchs, hereditary aristocrats, and theocrats. Furthermore, had Jefferson prevailed over the objections of delegates from the Lower South, the declaration would have included a denunciation of slavery and the slave trade as violations of human nature’s “most sacred rights of life and liberty.”
“Even when Jefferson lived, there were some who claimed that he didn’t really mean what he wrote in the declaration, that he really meant to say that only white men were created equal. Yet never, either in public or in private, did Jefferson seek to amend or modify the wording of his greatest contribution. His failure to do so made him and his declaration deeply suspicious to later generations of pro-slavery advocates and their allies, who denounced the declaration as a pack of “self-evident lies,” a farrago of “glittering generalities”—that is, as a standing rebuke to their barbaric cause.
“Indeed, it was Jefferson, more than any other American, who set the standard by which we find him so lacking, the universal standard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked when he quoted Jefferson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, meanwhile, warned that those who would forsake Jefferson were “the vanguard—the miners and sappers—of returning despotism.”
“The statue in City Hall, created by the great French sculptor David d’Angers, specifically honors Jefferson for the declaration, as well as his work to secure religious liberty. Thinking back on Lincoln’s observation, it thus struck me as especially bizarre to repudiate Jefferson and his declaration at the very moment when authoritarianism and despotism are on the rise. Now, more than ever, the most vulnerable among us depend on Jefferson’s egalitarian standard.”
Welcome to the 249th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!