Don’t Cancel Jefferson

We’ve been struggling with a way to write about the move by the Madison School Board to change the name of Jefferson Middle School — in a way that says something more enlightening then that it’s a really bad idea. Well, our old friend Harry Peterson published an oped in the Wisconsin State Journal recently that said just exactly what we had in mind. Harry has given us permission to repost his essay here.

By Harry Peterson

The Madison School Board has appointed a renaming committee to change the name of Jefferson Middle School, after changing the name of James Madison High School last year.

This will eliminate recognition of the two authors of the most important documents in the history of the United States: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. It will do so because of their reprehensible practice of owning slaves.

In doing so, the Madison School Board is joining the Republican Party in undermining the principles of our democracy — the Republicans by distorting and lying about our history, and the School Board by trying toeliminate it. The United States is a country of documents. As Gordon Wood, one of the most important early American historians, wrote: “Lacking any semblance of a common ancestry, Americans have had to create their sense of nationhood out of the documents — the declarations and constitutions and bills of rights — and the principles embodied in them that accompanied their eighteenth-century Revolution.”

Unlike Germany and France, we do not share a common ethnicity. We have something better. We Americans have declarations of our intentions as citizens. The documents were written by flawed men who had a vision. If the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are spoken of with reverence, it is a reverence they have earned over almost 250 years. The men who wrote the documents created a country with the greatest freedom in the history of the world for its citizens.

Let’s not oversimplify the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — one way or the other.

Two heroes of mine, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, understood. They did not denigrate these documents, they embraced them and held them up to Americans to decry the gap between their ideals and our reality, when it came to equal treatment of our citizens.

Frederick Douglass, in 1852, before an all-white female audience, said about the Declaration, “The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Standby those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, at whatever the cost.” Then, he chastised the audience for its history of slavery.

Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” wrote about the courageous young people who sat in at segregated lunch counters, “they were really standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

In one of the most important speeches of the 20th century, King’s “I have a dream,” speech, he declared, “when the architects of our Great Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

In his moving tribute at John Lewis’ memorial service, former President Barack Obama paid the ultimate tribute to Lewis, saying that, when the dream of racial quality is realized, “John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”

Embrace the dream, respect the documents that hold us together, even shakily at times, and continue the work to realize that dream. We may disagree on whether James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were great men. For our country to survive, we must agree that they wrote great documents.

The time the Madison School Board could save by not changing the names of the schools for which they are responsible, they might devote to other subjects. They might consider whether East High School has a safe learning environment. Police have been called almost daily to intervene in fights and other issues at the school. Some conflicts are so serious, frequent and injurious that many parents held their students out of school because of concerns for their safety.

Research demonstrates that good teachers make an enormous difference in the learning of their students. The School Board members should ask their teachers whether they are working in an environment conducive to teaching and learning. We need an environment in which our young citizens can study the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

If the authors of our founding documents are denigrated and eliminated, their words will be forgotten. These are the words that hold us together. If Douglass and King embraced the words and the visions of Jefferson and Madison despite their flaws, surely we can join them. In the words of Martin Luther King, let us embrace and help realize the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Peterson is president emeritus of Western Colorado University. He served in the administration of former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey and was chief of staff for former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala:


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Cancel Jefferson

  1. ​“A historian who judges a man in the context of today’s time and standards and not the standards and conditions of the time in which the subject lived commits a scholarly sin. The attempt to understand people in their context and on their terms requires that we temporarily suspend judgment. Understanding the America of the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s obliges us to make the effort of not judging it by the standards and values of today.” Norman L. Wacht

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, yes, but let’s not let Jefferson off the hook too easily. He may have been a man of his time, but he and most of the other Founding Fathers understood slavery to be morally wrong and yet they still held slaves. We shouldn’t cancel Jefferson or devalue what he did for freedom writ large, but we also shouldn’t excuse him for the freedom he denied to others.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good response David. Even more to the point, Benjamin Banneker — a free black — wrote to Jefferson directly to point out his hypocrisy.

        “but Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

        As to the quote above, it’s by Norman Macht, not Wacht, who was a baseball historian and a good example of moral relativism. Jefferson wrote the most despicable statements in his Notes on the state of Virginia, comparing blacks to the “Oran ootan” as he wrote. To me, one of the most despicable things he speculated on was the reason for the black skin color was because of the color of their blood. Here was a guy who engaged in child slave labor in his nail factory, but was so oblivious that he never saw — or cared — if a black person bled?

        But yet, no matter how despicable Jefferson was, it’s important that students read and understand Jefferson and that his name remain on schools and monuments. This was after all the guy who wrote (but Madison actually got it passed) the revolutionary document, “Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom”. That and Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” should be required reading in public schools.


  2. Comparing people to perfection is a fool’s errand. Look at all the good people today burning fossil fuels to heat their homes and power their cars. The power to commit to change can precede effective change for a long time. In the mean time, it’s easy to blame or point out shortcomings. But that is the political flavor of the day: don’t solve a problem, just blame someone else for it. Solving problems is hard, it’s messy, and it takes time. It’s a lot easier to just go blah blah blah. Administering a central city school system has to be one of the most difficult undertakings imaginable. So it’s easier to rename the schools. Of course, it’s also easy to blame the school board for falling short of educating disadvantaged students. How are they doing by the way? Seems like Madison should be able to do it if anyone can.

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