On Jefferson’s legacy

Cavalier Daily: Professors ask Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson: Faculty, students believe Jefferson shouldn’t be included in emails. This letter has blown up, so a few words about what happened:

  1. University president Teresa Sullivan sent an email after the election to the student body after the election, noting that UVa students had the responsibility of creating the future they wanted, with these words: “Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes’ … I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.”
  2. Assistant psychology professor Noelle Hurd drafted a letter, signed by 469 students and faculty members, to Sullivan, arguing that in light of Jefferson’s status as a slave owner and other racist issues, he should not continue to be held up as a moral compass: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it… For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
  3. Predictably, the right wing of the Internet lost its mind. I’m not going to link to that, but you can get a flavor of it in the comments to the CD article.

If you’ve been reading my blog this year, you probably already know how I feel about this. I tried to express it in this post about appreciating Edgar Allan Poe’s art while rejecting his racism, but I don’t think I was clear enough.

This country may have been founded out of a desire for religious liberty and economic opportunity, or just for economic opportunity. But, as far back as 1640, our colonial forebears gave a legal basis to slavery, and by 1750 even colonies that rejected slavery on moral grounds (like Georgia) embraced it because of a shortage of workers. And ever since that tradeoff of morality for economic benefit was made, slavery and its corrosive effects have been at the heart of the history of this nation.

You want to knock Jefferson for being a slave owner? Here’s one worse: the economic growth, largely agricultural, that enabled this nation to come into being in the first place, that allowed it to grow strong enough to fight for and win its independence, was driven largely by the labor of chattel slaves.

You cannot uphold the ideals of American democracy and inclusiveness on the one hand while denigrating the intellectual contributions of a Thomas Jefferson on the other. Indeed, you have to acknowledge that both Jefferson and America were, and are, imperfect, are in fact stained with the same original sin.

But that cannot be a reason to stop being inspired by the ideas that Jefferson created and the hope that he gave the world. Jefferson’s great genius was that his intellect led him to ideas that had far greater implications for humanity than even he originally intended; that carried far greater moral authority than he could ever claim. The rejection by the young United States of the inherent inequity of the class systems of Britain, of the monarchical inequities of Europe, and the embrace of the idea that a people have inherent rights and should determine its own destiny, are all ideas that were far bigger than their limited implementations in 1776, or 1787, or 1863, or 1920, or 2015.

I recognize that I write this from a place of privilege, that I cannot in fact have any idea what Jefferson’s hypocrisy, his endless contradictions, and his inhumanity to his fellow man feels like to an African-American, or to anyone else. But to me, to demand that we silence Jefferson seems like the wrong response, now more than ever. We are all of us imperfect strivers toward an ideal we cannot possibly uphold. We should seek to hold a clear eye on the failings of those that came before us, while still acknowledging that their vision and ideas put us on this path in the first place.

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