The problematic Thomas Jefferson

October 23, 2021 • 12:04 pm

What do we do about Thomas Jefferson? He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served the new United States government in several capacities, including Vice-President and Secretary of State, was our third President, founded the University of Virginia as a secular school, and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religion Freedom—the model for America’s First Amendment. All that would commend him to our approbation, but for one ineluctable fact. He kept slaves: many of them. More than that—he had a relationship with and impregnated one of those enslaved people, Sally Hemings, and fathered at least a couple of her children. That relationship, because of the power imbalance, is considered rape.

Because of the slave issue, Jefferson’s star has sunk very low (see my piece here). A statue of him at my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, has been repeatedly defaced, a statue of Jefferson in front of a Portland, Oregon high school has been pulled down, Jefferson Elementary School in San Francisco is to be renamed, and, as I reported this week, as gleaned from the New York Times, a statue of Jefferson in the council chambers in New York’s City Hall has been relocated elsewhere.  All of this for the same reason: Jefferson was a slaveholder.

I’ve been conflicted about this legacy for a while, for how do we balance the good with the bad (more on that below).? And I was influenced by the comment of reader Historian about Jefferson on my post, to wit:

The removal of the Jefferson statute from the New York City council chamber is justified totally. While one can at least make an argument that the statue of a slaveholder need not be removed from some areas because of the “good’ things he did and looking at the statue is optional. In this case the chamber is the workplace of the council members, who have no choice but to look at it. Minority members of the council are forced to look at a statue of a person that may have very well enslaved, whipped, sold, and raped their ancestors. To them, they don’t care that he hypocritically wrote words about freedom, liberty, and equality. They are revulsed by the statue; they should not be subjected to looking at it. It’s as if Jews were compelled to look at a statue of Dr. Mengele because his medical experiments on their ancestors may have resulted in advances in medicine.

There’s food for thought there, though the Jefferson statue can’t really be compared to one of Mengele for obvious reasons: Jefferson did a lot of good stuff, much involving the founding of this Republic. Mengele was an unmitigated horror of a man.

What to do? Must we dismantle the Jefferson Memorial and remove all his statues, including the bronze one in the Capitol Rotunda that was the model for the one in New York? And if he’s canceled for slaveholding, what do we do about George Washington, who had slaves? (So did ten other Presidents.) Do we take him off the dollar bill, remove the Washington Monument from the District of Columbia, and, of course, change the name of Washington D.C. itself?

According to the White House Historical Association, at least 12 Presidents owned slaves:

. . . .at least twelve presidents were slave owners at some point during their lives: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant.

That’s more than a quarter of U.S. Presidents, and several of them were distinguished in various ways. How do we regard them? Should we honor their accomplishments at all in light of the fact that they engaged in one of the more reprehensible behaviors possible: owning other human beings, treating them badly, and making them work without pay? Remember, even during this time slavery was not seen as “business as usual”, for there were many abolitionists, especially in the UK.

While you ponder this conundrum—perhaps the hardest case of conflict between public vice and virtue—have a look at this article in Bari Weiss’s Substack site. It’s by Samuel Goldman, described this way on the site:

Samuel Goldman is a national correspondent at The Week. He is also an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His books include “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America” and “After Nationalism.”

Goldman’s thesis is that removing Jefferson statues isn’t just an attack on the man, but an attack on the ideas he stands for (aside from slavery, of course). Click on the screenshot to read.

Goldman admits at the outset that Jefferson “didn’t live up to his own words, owning more than 600 people in his life, and, unlike Washington, didn’t have plans to free them. He “recognized his own hypocrisy,” but didn’t do anything about it. But Jefferson’s accomplishments, and the good he did, are also undeniable. And so, for Goldman, this brings up the important issue:

The question, though, is whether everyone implicated in slavery is ipso facto ineligible for public celebration. That standard doesn’t only exclude Jefferson but virtually every major figure in American history before 1861. And ruling these out of public discourse doesn’t only affect their personal memory. It also renders speechless the other Americans, like the Levy family, who’ve used their names, words, and careers as symbols to articulate their own aspirations for justice.

That’s why attacks on Columbus Day are as misplaced as removal of the Jefferson statue. The holiday and memorials in many cities aren’t really about the Genoese explorer who served a Spanish king. They are confirmations of the presence of Italian-Americans in public life, to say nothing of the courage and adventuresome spirit that led to the discovery of the New World.

The reduction of American history to an unbroken story of racial oppression comes at particular cost to Jews. Because we have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberal institutions, we are unavoidably targets when those institutions abandon or reject their liberal mission. A widely despised and persecuted people who thrived in America like nowhere else, Jews do not fit into the sharp distinction between oppressor and oppressed that characterized ideological “antiracism.” Therefore, Jewish experiences must either be ignored or reduced to a monolithic conception of white supremacy.

I’m not sure how relevant the Jewish issue is to the discussion of Jefferson, even though it poses thorny issues for the woke. Goldman does bring up the fact that the original Jefferson statue, sculpted by the French artist David d’Angers, was commissioned by a Jew, Uriah Levy, who was not only repeatedly attacked for his religion but, as a naval officer, helped suppress the slave trade in the West Indies. Yet Levy’s own legacy was mixed. As a Jefferson admirer, he restored a decrepit Monticello—but using more than a dozen slaves.

And you can answer the first question for yourself: is every American who was implicated in slavery ipso facto ineligible for public celebration?

Goldman says “no”. While he’s not absolutely clear about the statue removal, he’s crystal clear that there has to be some celebration of Jefferson’s ideas, and how do you do that without statues or any kind of public memorial? Can we celebrate good ideas completely disconnected from the people who had them?

Goldman’s conclusion:

Jefferson’s far from the first statue to fall, and it won’t be the last. But the plaster and bronze of which they’re composed isn’t the most important thing. What matters is the fate of the ideas in that Declaration in Jefferson’s hand. The ones that Lincoln described as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” and “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” That’s what Uriah Levy saw in Jefferson and what we should continue to honor today.

Again, how does one honor abstract ideas without mentioning the people who had them? Should we ignore Jefferson’s positive contributions by shoving his statues into dark corners because of his negative acts? And if you say, “yes,” what do we do about George Washington.?

As I’ve written before, I judge whether or not someone should be honored if both questions below are answered “yes”:

1.) Are we honoring the positive contributions that the person made?

2.) On balance, did the person’s life contribute more good than bad to the world?

#1 was a “yes” for the New York City statue: Jefferson was depicted holding a quill pen, clearly being honored for his writings.

#2 is the hard one. After all, holding down 600 black people as property is no small thing. Against that one must balance that Jefferson helped bring about a Republic that, though it’s denigrated by many these days, I see as the greatest experiment in liberty and democracy of our era. Jefferson wrote the document that helped bring that about, and, though he was in France during the Constitutional Convention, many of his ideas infuse that Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights—most notably the First Amendment. Jefferson kept slaves, and thereby supported slavery, but the net harm was largely to his own slaves.

When you balance America as a refuge for the oppressed, Jefferson’s role in the creation of America, and his role in creating our founding documents, I would judge, subjectively, that his life was on I conclude that we should honor the man as a way of honoring his ideas—the good ones.

110 thoughts on “The problematic Thomas Jefferson

  1. Why do we even have statues? When someone is helpful, kind, builds a school, or does some other kind deed for the good of society, why do need to erect a statue in their honor? As a child starting school, I even wondered back then why we build statues that serve no functional purpose. And they’re put on these tall, huge pedestals like they’re some sort of “god.” Why???

    1. Looking at it through the lens of no free will:

      Statues are built because it could not have been otherwise. Similarly, people did things that are deemed good or evil, but they too could not do otherwise. Today we ponder what to do about these statues (some have come to a position already) this too could not be otherwise.

      This is the paradox of a free will skeptic’s should.

    2. I believe it’s to remind everyone that progress is made by the hard work and ingenuity of real people with great ideas and that one should strive to be such a person. As a child, I recognized that it is easy to take for granted the life we have and the society and institutions that had to be created. There’s a tendency to treat such things like air, always been there and always will. Thinking about real people who made it all happen is a partial antidote. Of course, this doesn’t resolve the current dilemma where we recognize that every such revered person also did bad things.

    3. Why honor anyone? Don’t name anything after anyone. Excellence and achievement are “whiteness” and therefore bad. We should recognize and reward poor performance. Any wokester at any BLM protest could do what Jefferson did.

      Why have art of any kind? Why portraits? Why photographs? Why books with authors’ names on them?

  2. This madness will not end until there exists sufficient will from a sufficiently large percentage of the still-rational citizenry (those who are resolutely anti-woke) to stand against the dictates and the dogmas of what the Chinese call dismissively the baizuo. Recently, to name yet another example, Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College decided to remove the name of Linnaeus from its arboretum in the name of “anti-racism.” As many Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have noted,, the tactics of the wokesters and the wokerati have much in common with those of the young Maoists during China’s Cultural Revolution.

    1. What you said. +
      As a flawed human (there is no other kind) I try to hold Ideals but know there are few times I can approach them.

  3. I would add an additional criterion: Was what the man did wrong by the standards of his time? When Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the only place on the globe where slavery was illegal was Europe. While many American States abolished slavery in Jefferson’s lifetime, owning slaves was hardly exceptional, and while anti-slavery public opinion was growing it cannot be said to have been a dominant position. What Jefferson did as a legislator and executive was head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, even in the Continental Congress. I object to the new iconoclasm not because I feel our ancestors were perfect, but because their detractors are so clearly dishonest and hypocritical. (What about existing slavery in the third world today?) It’s not that they think slavery was wrong, but that they also think democracy and Western ideals are wrong, and they want to trash them along with the statues.

      1. Indeed. Europe may have been the only place on the globe at the time where slavery was illegal but it was hardly an obscure back-water. Jefferson was a learned man and would undoubtedly have been well aware of the ideas of European intellectuals on the subject.

        I have a lot of sympathy for the view that no-one is 100% pure and good and it is appropriate to celebrate historical figures when we are confident that we are just celebrating the good things they did and that these outweighed any bad but Jefferson does present a stiff challenge to this principle.

    1. On the other hand, fermenting rebellion against the King was definitely wrong by the standards of the time. Had they not won, Jefferson and Washington and their fellow insurrectionists would have met with very sticky ends – possibly literally – and history would probably view them in much the same way as it views those responsible for the South’s secession that started the American Civil War.

    2. Jefferson & his committee on the Declaration, however, were officially declaring the universal freedom of all members of Homo sapiens, thus necessarily including the very slaves they owned. This was a high variety of social & moral hypocrisy if they did not intend the ideal to be realized. Manumission was legal in Virginia Law in Jefferson’s day.

  4. While Irena Schulz (#1) poses a question that makes sense, I beg to differ from her answer. Over time, statues remind us of history. Remind us of oppressors like Thomas Jefferson we once deemed great enough to dedicate a statue to.

    By the way, Jefferson’s slave-ownership mirrors his times, or perhaps not the times so much but what was common prectice; which is (somewhat, but…) not quite the same as perservering in this practice at all costs; and the fact that he impregnated his property may well be rape, and it surely borders on rape, given the imbalance of power. But is it per definition rape? Did he threaten to whip her if she wouldn’t comply? Did his silence imply she had no say in the matter?

    The real issue seems how we (I’m from Holland, a country of slave traders) look at the past.

  5. I say the answer is actually a very simple one and I have said it before. Also I have spoken against Historian just a bit on this issue in the past. But people should actually read our history and learn for yourself – do not just let other’s opinions make it for you.

    You cannot judge history of yesterday through your views of today. To do this, and many do, is a distortion of the true facts. As a very good historian has said in the past, If you are going to do that you just as well not make the trip. If you allow the facts of slavery to cloud your education on the history you will not learn much. That is what not making the trip is all about. You must put your mind as close as you can to the period you are learning about and save the judgement for another day. Your standards on slavery today will blind you to your own history and you cannot learn in this way. You will remain ignorant about the history that is yours. As the post says, if you throw Jefferson under the bus, how many others must go? If Washington goes, you have just eliminated the father of our country and in rank, the second most important president we have had. Certainly Washington had flaws, not as many as Jefferson and he was much more important in the overall but where do you draw the line with this judgement thing? Forget it and actually learn about history.

    1. What about someone like Columbus? He was judged a cruel and harsh ruler, even by his contemporaries.
      Should we change Washington DC into, say, Washington Federal District?

  6. Let me enter a word in praise of civic statues. Seattle has a notable statue of a giant troll eating a
    small Volkswagen car. On Södergatan in Malmö, there is a wonderful procession of bronze musicians called the Optimistorkestern. My particular favorite statues are at the Place Stravinsky in Paris, next to
    the Centre Pompidou: a fine picture can be found under “Stravinsky Fountain” at Wikipedia. [I would place a picture here, but the images from my computer’s snipping tool don’t transfer to this website.] We are fortunate that the offense brigades have not yet taken offense at these statues. But none of them carry a specific Social Justice message in the approved verbiage, so perhaps they will not escape denunciation in future.

  7. When I think about whether to remove a statue or rename a building because person X did something bad (even though they were important or also good), in most cases I experience an internal conflict so that it is hard to decide. I can wrestle internally with all manner of pros and cons, but I also know that whatever decision I come up with my opinion would be reasonably opposed by lots of people.
    But when I think about whether we should replace an old statue or re-name a building to honor a more contemporary person (person Y) because they were good (and much less encumbered from the sins of the past), I discover its much easier to say ‘yes’. Especially if they had two X chromosomes and/or were a person of color. This being because I think we should try to do that more often.

    So maybe the decision tree should not be so much about whether we should expunge honorifics toward dead white men who would be seen as anachronistic today. Maybe we should be thinking more about extending honorifics toward those who better represent our current ideals and values.

    1. “Maybe we should be thinking more about extending honorifics toward those who better represent our current ideals and values.”

      YOUR current ideals and values are not shared by a substantial portion of your fellow citizens.

      Just wait a few years, and most of our buildings will be named after Donald Trump.


    2. People like, for instance:

      Had long-lasting, hugely impactful effects on the USA and the world. The fact that they were imperfect and were aligned with the zeitgeist of their own times should not preclude them from honor; and to do so, in my opinion, is foolish.

      We honor them for the same reason we honor, for instance, (imperfect, womanizing, sexually harrassing) MLK Jr.: Because of the words they/he spoke, the deeds they/he did, and their long term legacy.

      I can think of vanishingly few modern (post-FDR) figures of similar stature or influence (aside from, say, MLK, Gandhi, and Mandela and maybe Lech Wałęsa or Vaclav Havel). And we celebrate these people, and rightly so. Not because they were saints (they were/are all flawed humans who did less-than-woke things) but because of the good they did.

      If the standard is perfection, then we honor no one. And that seems to be the Woke agenda: Excellence and achievement are “aspects of whiteness” and therefore bad. No one should be honored. Everyone should get identical rewards. Everyone gets a trophy — and the same trophy.

  8. #2 is the hard one. After all, holding down 600 black people as property is no small thing. Against that one must balance that Jefferson helped bring about a Republic that, though it’s denigrated by many these days, I see as the greatest experiment in liberty and democracy of our era.

    I think, as a model of democracy, the USA is a disaster. Even the one we have in the UK is superior in some respects and we still have a monarch.

    Some of the problems are:

    – the political party system is a duopoly and both parties are beholden to corporate interests to a greater or lesser extent rather than the people

    – the electoral system is absurd, with the Republican candidate winning the popular vote only once this century, but providing the president three times. Furthermore, the electoral process seems to be run by partizan interests in many cases leading to attempts to rig the elections such as gerrymandering and disenfranchisement of sections of the population by nefarious means.

    – The judiciary is politicised. Judges are frequently chosen based on political views rather than competence. Their political views shouldn’t matter but laws are sometimes framed so badly that there is room for a judge to apply a political interpretation. This is most obviously apparent where the constitution is concerned.

    – There’s no provision in the constitution that forces the chief executive to keep a cat in his or her official residence.

    1. I dunno. I am not sure we’ve done so badly. We’ve survived almost 250 years, and a major civil war. (And that’s longer than any other current political regime.) If we founder now, it won’t be because of our political system, it will be because we no longer believe in those values which are required for any free system, first among them honesty. It is, of course, almost proverbial that politicians lie, but we now seem to have abandoned even the pretense that there should be honesty. Politicians lie reflexively, and are seemingly applauded for doing so. Trump did so, and so does Biden. If we fail, it is our own fault, and the institutions won’t matter.

  9. I think the basic argument of the ‘Woke’ is that because ‘all’ Whites benefited from slavery, directly or indirectly all current Whites are personally accountable for it.

  10. Many of the founders were slaveholders because they grew up with slaves. Slaves were a means of wealth and power. It provided the financing for their education and political careers. The possibility has to be considered that if Jefferson had dismissed all his slaves, he would have had to reduce his political profile and abandon his ambitions for high political office, even while he knew he had a lot to give. I doubt that he worried much about simply living an easy life on the backs of slaves. So, there was a dilemma. By stepping away from his appointment with destiny, he might have left the future of the United States to others with much less ability. Perhaps we would have ended up with a very different, perhaps, weaker society. This, must have been the calculus in the minds of all of them. And they all seem to have chosen to continue with the status quo.

    1. One of the first things to understand about Jefferson is that he was an idealist through and through. So pay attention to what he said, not what he did. That is true of all idealist. You are correct to remind everyone that he grew up in a culture of slaves and slavery. Probably the first thing he saw as a baby were slaves. The people who took care of him as a baby were the slaves. You don’t think his parents had to do that stuff do you? There were more slaves in Virginia in those days than any other place in the country. Ask yourself, where did Sally Hemings come from? She was the product of the same thing she became with Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson’s wife’s father created Sally by screwing around with his slaves. When Jefferson married, he inherited Sally and many other slaves in the marriage. This was all part of the southern life.

  11. I think it’s easy to the iconoclasts too much credit by pretending this is a debate about ideas, pretending that it’s about weighing the legacy of some particular long-dead guy who wasn’t a saint. But has been important to a group of people for a long time, part of how they tell their story, what makes them a nation.

    Maybe it’s about something closer to conquest. Want to know why the capital of Zimbabwe is named Harare? Why we are supposed to call India’s richest city Mumbai, its name in the language of its working class? It’s got nothing to do with whether the Marquess of Salisbury was a nice guy or not. It’s got nothing to do with whether the Portuguese corrupted the name of some local deity. It’s got everything to do with the people who have taken charge wanting to remind their outnumbered opponents (who think they, and their ancestors, built the place) that it’s not theirs, anymore.

  12. C’mon. It is wrong to judge a historical figure of the past by the knowledge and ethics of today. Judge them in their own time and by the knowledge and ethics in wide acceptance then.

    1. Jefferson is honoured with statues and street names etc., precisely because he is/was considered to be the architect of a fine ethical ideal. If he failed to live up to that ideal himself it is at least pertinent to question whether he deserves to be revered to the extent he has been. As to the standards of his day, there is every reason to suppose that, as an intelligent and well-read man with an interest in human liberty, he could see and understand the conflict between what he advocated and his own ownership of slaves.

  13. Another thought: We honor the philosophers of the antiquity for, among other things, the foundations of science on which we still build today. But they all, whether Greeks or Romans, belonged to societies that considered slavery absolutely normal and in which women were at best 2nd class citizens. Do we now have to remove the busts and statues of Plato, Aristotle and Seneca, for example, from all universities and teaching institutions?

    1. If we haven’t killed ourselves off by destroying the climate in 200 years, we’ll probably be judged harshly for destroying the climate.

      1. Enslavement, eh? Strong word. Would there be fewer or more Aurocks, red jungle fowl, goats, sheep, swine, etc. if they were domesticated (as today) or if they hadn’t been? How has their DNA done in the struggle for survival?

        Is it better to live free of fear of starvation, predation, and (to a large extent) disease (not to mention extinction) or to die by: Disease, predation (being eaten alive often), slow chronic predation (parasites), starvation, or a combination of them?

        Beware the naturalistic fallacy.

        1. Thanks for the cautionary advice. In return I ask you to consider factory farming, the fur industry, horse racing, dog racing, zoos, and circuses. Are these not examples of animal enslavement? (I acknowledge that some circuses have eliminated animal acts.)

          1. You stretch the definition of “slavery” beyond the breaking point.

            Making up new meanings for words is a logical fallacy.

            I am not defending factory farming. We (my family) spend a lot extra to buy humanly farmed meat, etc. Of course, we (humans) can do better. (And, as Pinker has pointed out, at book-length) are have and we are.)

            But branding all human use of (other) animals as “slavery”, as you seem to be proposing, sounds like religious fervor. (Something I have frequently noted among vegetarians and, especially, vegans.)

            The others (aside from zoos), I do not patronize. Zoos can provide important educational and species-preservation functions.

            Why not include pets? Wouldn’t they rather be roaming free? What about personal use of riding horses?

            Merriam Webster:

            Definition of slavery

            1a: the practice of slaveholding

            b: the state of a person who is held in forced servitude

            c: a situation or practice in which people are entrapped (as by debt) and exploited

            … the unit has freed more than 26,000 workers nationwide from debt slavery. Under the practice, common in the Amazon, poor laborers are lured to remote spots where they rack up debts to plantation owners who charge exorbitant prices for everything from food to transportation.
            — Vivian Sequera

            Many members of my own family, including my mother and father, fled their work as sharecroppers in the South. They left for good reason: the profession offered no future and was little more than wage slavery.
            — Will Allen

            2: submission to a dominating influence
            slavery to habit

            3: DRUDGERY, TOIL

            You might squeak in under (3); but that’s not what you are implying and it’s pretty weak: Just a metaphor.

    1. Earlier in his life he may have been able to do something about his slaves but of course he did not because it was his life. Later he had no real say in it because he no longer owned his own slaves. He was so far in debt the slaves, like all of his property belonged to someone else. The only way Jefferson ever considered freeing any slaves was if they were shipped out to another place, back to Africa or Hatti or someplace. He did not believe they could ever be free and live in the U.S. He treated his slaves about the same as other slave holders in the south. No better or worse. He had very little to do with the slaves in the field. The foremen took care of that. Sally may have been a willing partner as much as a slave could, I don’t know. Jefferson freed a couple of her kids, maybe four but he never freed her.

  14. By that logic, that anyone in the past not living up to today’s standards was bad, shouldn’t it just be declared that as far as anyone can tell, all people in the past were bad and we should all be ashamed that they were our ancestors?

    1. Indeed. In my opinion endless debates about how awful people were *in the past* is short sighted and conceited. Had any of us lived in those times we might easily have sided with the majority views… slavery was legal and moral, women were chattels, men acknowledged the superiority of their ‘betters’ automatically.

      Times and morals have changed – and will change again.

    2. When I think of the way stone age people threw sticks and stones at one another, and that you all are the result of that, it just makes me sick.

    3. Not really clear what you mean when you say ‘by that logic’. There is nothing, though, that leads automatically from a re-evaluation of Jefferson to the idea that we should all be ashamed of all our ancestors. We erect statues to people of the past because we revere something about them. It is of course childish to think that anyone is completely good and, not always relevant to judge people by today’s standards and beliefs, but if the thing we revere them for is at odds with what we later come to realise they did, then it is perfectly reasonable to reassess our reverence. In Jefferson’s case we admire his championing of an ideal of human equality that he fell far short of upholding (and at a time when the notion that enslaving African men and women was very clearly being challenged as morally unacceptable by people whose ideas Jefferson would have been aware of).

      It is not easy to calculate whether the good that Jefferson is responsible for outweighs the debit side of his life but the two are clearly relevant to each other and it is certainly appropriate to at least reconsider our attitude to him and the extent to which we wish to publicly celebrate him, especially given that a sizeable minority of the American population descend from the enslaved population and many still suffer disadvantages that trace back to the fact that all men were NOT treated as equal.

      Whether any of us would have behaved differently or better had we lived in Jefferson’s time is irrelevant. We erect statues to men and women because they were exceptional not because they thought and acted the same way as everyone else of their time.

  15. “Do we take [Washington] off the dollar bill, remove the Washington Monument from the District of Columbia, and, of course, change the name of Washington D.C. itself?” – there’s a hell of a lot more stuff that will need renaming in that case.

    Personally, if a statue or monument was erected in celebration of the good achievements of the person it memorialises, as understood at that time, then I’m with Randall at #4 and we should let them stay up and educate ourselves about history. It is never going to be an easy judgement, and so there are no simple solutions to the problems our host raises. But some form of secular/political iconoclasm is best avoided – the mistakes of the past are educational too. Better that kids in the future wonder why Washington/Jefferson/whoever have so many memorials given their known flaws than that they ask “Who was Washington?”

    1. Wikipedia says:

      In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt’s traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god

      adding, “Public references to Akhenaten were destroyed soon after his death”.

      Akhenaten is probably not an example to emulate.

  16. Jefferson is history, and we shouldn’t erase a nation’s history (good or bad).

    The comparison with Mengele is absurd: Mengele’s deeds were vastly worse than those of most doctors; Jefferson was “about average for the day” on his bad points (holding slaves) and vastly above average on his good points (DoI, Virginia Declaration, etc). That’s actually a pretty good score sheet.

    MLK had no problem lauding Jefferson’s vision in his “Dream” speech, he just wanted the nation to live up to it.

    1. Fortunate for you I suppose, you do not have to contemplate the life of an ancestor enslaved on a plantation. Otherwise, you may not think that Jefferson had a pretty good score sheet.

      1. Just about everyone’s ancestors were mistreated at times. My ancestors were not slaves, but they were serfs — so, bonded to the land, working dawn-to-dusk in fields owned by someone else, getting a rest on sundays plus having about 4 or 5 “holy days” off each year, but otherwise non-stop work in the fields, always having to struggle to put enough food aside to survive the winter. This was the experience of the vast majority of mankind, from the invention of farming until very recently. This is not as bad as slavery, but it’s also vastly worse than everyone (including blacks) lives today. And so what? Why is it that big a deal how ones ancestors (who one has never even met) were treated? No black person in the US today was ever a slave on a plantation. Sorry to be blunt, but the whole discussion of this sort of thing is the US today is getting utterly absurd (and it’s infecting the UK).

        1. Indeed! My dad left school to work at the local coal mine aged 14 (although he didn’t go underground until he was 16). Perhaps he lost his “white” privilege at the end of each shift, when he emerged covered in coal dust?

          I spent my first five years living in a mobile home (trailer); maybe I should be like the white, one-legged, homeless dude living in a bathtub that John McWhorter conjured up in our host’s next post. In which case I’ll be contemplating my privilege until I die. And with no hope of redemption…

    2. Why do you suggest that anyone is erasing history? Reappraising whether any particular historical person merits our reverence is surely part of the process of historical study. If a reappraisal of Jefferson leads us to question whether we still wish to erect statues to him that does not erase him from history it just throws a new perspective on how we view him. I certainly don’t advocate a spree of ripping down all of the statues of the ‘great men’ of the past because they don’t chime with modern ideas of right and wrong but I don’t think that this means that we should never question what exactly it is we are admiring and the extent that it is still appropriate to do so.

      1. “to question whether we still wish to erect statues to him that does not erase him from history”

        We are talking about removing statutes, not erecting new ones.

        1. Yes, quite true; perhaps I should have said “…wish to retain statues”. Either way, history is not erased by the removal of a statue. To take a more extreme example, statues of Stalin have been removed from across the former Soviet Union. Would you say Stalin has been erased from history? Surely not!

  17. This is a hard problem, of course. My solution is to keep such statues but amend the text on their plaques to reflect both the good and bad that the person did. It is useful to remind people that even those we revere sometimes did bad things in their lives. At the risk of making such messages overly long, perhaps some context could be added as well. In Jefferson’s case, we could remind readers that many rich people owned slaves at that time.

    The biggest problem with those who want to remove statues, and Wokeness generally, is that they are attempting to hide the truth rather than bring it out for discussion. By removing the statue, they are telling everyone that everything has been decided and there’s nothing worth talking about. If they had their druthers, they would execute Jefferson and make it illegal to mention his name again. That’s not respectful of history or society. Instead, let’s talk about the good and the bad that Jefferson did. There is no need for a final disposition. Every generation can edit the plaque’s text if they are so inclined.

  18. “…he had a relationship with and impregnated one of those enslaved people, Sally Hemings, and fathered at lest a couple of her children.”

    Were the woman today involved in something akin to this to insist that the man had behaved honourably, that she was fully willing in all this, despite the unequal power position at the time, no longer existing now, is it still the law throughout the US that the man is guilty of rape despite the woman’s protestations?

  19. Let me add that as a librarian, Jefferson holds a special place in my heart for his seeding of the Library of Congress.

        1. Thank you. I think my problem is with the WordPress reader app on my smartphone. There must be a time lag between the time I submit my comment and the time that it “sticks” to the website. It seems that if I leave the app too soon after submission, the signal dies in cyberspace and doesn’t make it to the WP server.😕

  20. There is one aspect of the Jefferson debate regarding whether or not he is a person to be honored by contemporary society that has received little attention. What is more important: words or deeds? Although Jefferson can be praised for the Louisiana Purchase and his advocacy for religious pluralism, he is by far known as a defender of liberty, so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Of course, his actions as a slaveholder should be well known. Most of his writings after the Revolution contradict the sentiments of the Declaration. As he grew older, he became more and more racist. Although he always referred to slavery as an evil, as he grew older his racism became apparent to the extent that he characterized Blacks as biologically inferior to whites. He also became an advocate of the delusional scheme that somehow the demise of slavery would be accelerated by allowing the institution to spread throughout newly acquired territory by a process he called “diffusion.” Somehow, he believed that allowing slavery to spread would thereby make the concentration of slavery less, which would motivate slaveholders to emancipate and colonize the enslaved. It makes no sense. Also, by the end of his life, he became paranoid about what he perceived as much too much power in the hands of the federal government as opposed to the states. Indeed, he wrote to correspondents that secession, although terrible, was not as bad as the concentration of federal power. So, in the last years of his life, he had become a bitter crank.

    I do not consider Jefferson a person worth honoring. Obviously, others disagree. To Black people, he should be a repulsive figure. I don’t think a few stirring words outweigh the harm he did. This debate illustrates why I have argued that there is no “true” history. Depending on time and circumstance, Jefferson can be evaluated many different ways.

    For a concise but I believe accurate summary of Jefferson’s views on slavery and race, I recommend Dennis C. Rasmussen’s “Fear of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founding,” published in 2021, chapters 10 through 12.

    1. Words and deeds are both important, but we should honor people only for their deeds. Words, music, paintings, etc., can be appreciated without knowing their authors.

    2. It would be hard to point to many white people in 1826 who did not consider black people to be their inferiors (biologically or culturally). Many abolitionists thought this; but fought slavery anyway. The idea was uncontroversial at the time.

      Which is another bit of evidence for how we have advanced since those days.

  21. I think if people are going to erase Jefferson because of slavery, they will also have to erase almost any historical figure who lived before the 18th century, including Plato and Aristotle (and Mohammed!), who supported slavery as well. We cannot judge Jefferson according to modern standards, because owning slaves was typical in his time, and most of us would probably support this social norm as well if we had lived in his time.
    What we should ask ourselves is if he was better than average for his time, and in this sense I think he was. His intellectual accomplishments in the defense of freedom of religion and democracy are almost unrivaled in history. And to compare him to Mengele is just absurd. Mengele was very bad even for the standards of his time, and he did not make any intellectual contributions to humanity as far as I can tell.

    1. Yours Truly, you say ‘erase’ in this comment and ‘cancelled’ in the one below. Perhaps the heart of the current revaluation of Jefferson indicates a desire not to HONOR him. He, his works & deeds, will not be scoured from U.S. memory, though his public statues may be removed. I would add that a democracy needs such renovation. (irony to follow:) T. J. himself wrote ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s nature manure’ (1787).

  22. suggestion for one scoring protocol: number of slaves times number of years owned can give some perspective. include number of slaves bought, sold, inherited, how employed. For illustration purposes only. Say, President A at the age of 30 owned 150 slaves, a cotton/tobacco plantation, purchased and sold. President B. inherited 2 slaves, domestics and emancipated them shortly after inheriting. A and B can be judged subtly rather than crudely zero sum. Cancel culture continues to prove it has not nuanced judgment. and often not even sensible judgment that will withstand the test of time.

  23. Another point: saying that he should be cancelled because black people had ancestors who were oppressed by him is a weak argument. Since we all share a common ancestor, I too can claim that my ancestors were enslaved in the remote past. I probably have ancestors who were kings as well. Using your remote ancestors to make moral arguments is extremely flawed.

    1. What should also be considered is that many black Americans have slaveholders among their ancestors, probably proportionally more than white Americans.
      Even if miscgenation with slaves is considered rape or statutory rape, that would not change the facts of descent.

  24. Slavery was not actually invented by white European men in the 16th century. It has been part of human history since long before historians were invented; it is still going full-tilt today, and it is mostly not white Europeans who are keeping it going.

    If we are going to condemn Jefferson for owning slaves, and the British and other Europeans for transporting them, then we should equally condemn the Africans and Arabs who enslaved them in the first place, and sold them into the most lucrative markets. Shouldn’t we?

    1. But we don’t have any statues of African or Arab slavers erected to honour their contribution to the concept of human liberty! Of course we should (and do!) condemn slavery whenever and wherever it occurs but the controversy about Jefferson is not simply about condemning him for keeping slaves but about whether the fact that he did, negates his contribution to the ideal of human equality and the universal rights to liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness for which he has traditionally been lionised.

  25. Given that we don’t have free will, do we really need to honor people just because they had good ideas? You can appreciate the Golden Rule, or the idea of “the veil of ignorance”, without knowing their authors.

  26. The difference is that none of other slaveholding societies had this in their foundational document: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These other societies, whatever you may think of them, cannot be accused of the most blatant hypocrisy. On the other hand, perhaps slaveholders were not hypocrites, but rather sincerely believed that Blacks were not truly human and, therefore, did not fall within the scope of this statement. Which explanation do you prefer?

    1. But Jefferson isn’t being cancelled because he was a hypocrite. He’s being cancelled because he owned slaves. So why not treat all former or current slave-holders equally, whether they’re hypocrites or not? (And there are plenty of nations today who pay lip-service to sentiments similar to those in the US Constitution while turning a blind eye to the modern equivalent of slavery within their own borders).

    2. Obviously they did not consider blacks to be among the men with equal rights, and yes they considered them to fall outside the statement. Nor did they consider women to have equal rights, women didn’t even get a vote.

      By today’s standards we can condemn both of these (today, only a heinous bigot would deny either). But holding historical people to today’s standards is pretty silly (what next, condemning them because they didn’t speak in favour of gay marriage?); absolutely everyone would fail such tests. The only sensible standard is how they measured up compared to society at the time.

      And yes, by today’s standards, one can condemn them for regarding blacks as inferior to whites (yes, they thought that, nearly everyone of the time thought that). But what evidence available to them said otherwise? This was before Darwin, before common descent was established.

      They weren’t really “hypocrites” (least, no more than everyone is), they were just trying to make sense of things as best they could with the evidence they had, and doing so imperfectly. We know somewhat better now.

      1. No, not every white thought that Blacks fell outside the statement. This is why during the late 18th century northern states began to pass emancipation ordinances. It is also why during this period that there was a spate of emancipations by southern slaveholders, including acquaintances of Jefferson. He chose not to be one of them. It was only starting around the 1820s that slaveholders became very united in characterizing slavery as a “positive good” because of supposed Black inferiority. In other words, during the early decades of the Republic, there were southern slaveholders (although a distinct minority) that through the emancipation of their enslaved people took positive action to end slavery. There should be more statues of these people.

        By deft-of-hand, you have reversed the topic of this post. The issue is not whether people such as Jefferson should be condemned. The issue is whether Jefferson deserves to be honored. It is the job of historians to evaluate him within the context of his times. It is the job of contemporary society to determine whether he should still be honored through memorials. That’s what the debate is about.

        1. Being an abolitionist didn’t necessarily entail believing in the full equality of blacks. Few held to the latter then.

          And yes, I do think that Jefferson deserves to be honoured, the DoI and the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom are sufficient to make him worthy of honour — despite the fact that he was also a man of his time, with some of the same now-deplorable attitudes of many of his contemporaries.

  27. Like all the others being cancelled these days, both Jefferson and Washington were men of their times. Both were born to families that owned slaves. Jefferson inherited slaves from his father and his father-in- law. Does no one consider that Sally and Tom might have loved each other?

  28. Grant was just barely a slave owner. He opposed slavery from an early age. We only know about his owning a slave because of the record of his freeing the man. Was this slave a gift from his slave-owning in-laws? A man Grant bought in order to free him? Or a lapse in his usual ideals. Hard to know at this point.

  29. Another point I would make about Jefferson specifically is his exact place among the founders. We should note that Jefferson did not fight during the revolution – known more as the cause. In fact he kind of got run out of his office as governor of Virginia at one point and many disliked his performance at that time. He also was not around at Constitution time and had almost nothing to do with that. He made his bones earlier in Virginia and during some service in the Continental Congress. He came back from shopping in Europe in time to accept the position of Sec. of State and Frankly he was a poor choice and quit after 4 years. I only remind folks of these things because sometimes it seems as Adams use to say, this guy gets credit for everything. I do not judge and condemn the guy because he was a slave holder. To do this today after 250 years of change and culture is close to rediculous. Just about everyone in Virginia at his time and age were of the same concerning slaves so to pick him out makes no sense. He was a poor farmer compared to many and was dead broke when he died. His kids, his white daughter got nothing because he had nothing to leave.

  30. Tonight I happened to pick up Herndon’s Lincoln, the biography of Lincoln by his law partner, William Herndon. Herndon quotes an unnamed friend of Lincoln’s on the subject of biography:

    You should not forget there is a skeleton in every house. The finest character dug out thoroughly, photographed honestly, and judged by that standard of morality or excellence which we exact for other men is never perfect. Some men are cold, some lewd, some dishonest, some cruel, and many a combination of all. The trail of the serpent is over them all! Excellence consists, not in the absence of these attributes, but in the degree in which they are redeemed by the virtues and graces of life. (p. viii)

    1. Good book. It is Herndon who pointed out that Lincoln, after he became an adult, almost gave up reading. The one exception of a book he read and re-read was the racist “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation”, a work that ranked races on their imagined embryological advancement. Lincoln also apparently read that ugly piece of scientific racism “Types of Mankind” by Nott and Gliddon, with an essay by Louis Agassiz along the lines of “Vestiges”. Lincoln admired Agassiz and invited him to visit the White House. Lincoln practically quoted these works them in his most racist moments. If it weren’t for the Lincoln Cult . . . Lincoln must go, as must racist Benjamin Franklin (who in 1755* looked favorably on the elimination of native Americans and on the banning of African immigration to America) and Franklin D. Roosevelt for his roll in the intentional race-driven fire-bombings, with hundreds of thousands of civilians incinerated, of Japanese population centers during WW2.

      *Benjamin Franklin. 1755. Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. Boston: S. Kneeland. 10 p. (download at archive-org)

      1. I’ll only reply to your (and Herndon’s) notion that Lincoln didn’t read much after becoming an adult. This is false. He continued to read right until his assassination. He read with relish the dialect & demotic humor of ‘literary comedians’ such as Orpheus C. Kerr & Artemus Ward; he memorized all manner of poetry, British and U.S., and loved to recite them at will; and, most of all, he read and re-read Shakespeare, taking to heart entire scenes from his favorites (‘I think nothing equals Macbeth’).

        1. Yes, I think it is Carpenter in his Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln who quotes Lincoln to the effect that he considered a friend someone who brought him a book he’d never read before.

  31. I believe that had Jefferson never lived the US would have been founded on pretty much the same contradictory principles. Perhaps it would be best if we just accept that he played prominent roles in the Nation’s history that could and, I think, would have been filled by others, and stop all the national self-flagellation.

  32. I make it a principle not to judge people unless I’m sure that I would have behaved better had I been in their place. This leaves a lot of people smarter than I am, which certainly includes Jefferson, off the hook.

  33. In other news-Christopher Hitchens was incredibly lucky. He didn’t live to see his beloved Jefferson dragged through the mud.
    Having a statue of someone doesn’t mean you hold them as perfect human, or moral guide on everything. The point is completely lost in our judgmental culture of today.
    Just as surely we will get called self centered greedy bastard one day for using hundred dollar smart phone made by workers in slave like conditions that should each $ 10,000.

  34. Considering the outlook of most men from Jefferson’s time, place, and class, we should be thankful he was a hypocrite. The other plausible alternative would have been a Jefferson who wholeheartedly defended slavery, like many Virginian aristocrats who knew where their interests lay. We should certainly fault Jefferson for not doing even more against slavery, but in American history how many anti-slavery documents were as influential as the Declaration of Independence? Lincoln would be the first to attest to its power. The Founding Fathers were once looked upon as gods. Now many view them as demons. Will the proper balance ever be reached?

    On this topic, Sean Wilentz has just published an article for the online journal Persuasion, titled “Why I Oppose Removing a Statue of Thomas Jefferson.” Read it here:

    1. I have followed the writings of Sean Wilentz because he is a very combative historian, not unwilling to engage in verbal combat with historians that oppose his views. His position on Jefferson is part of a larger debate among historians that borders on the acrimonious (at least for academics) that revolves around the question as to whether the Constitution that emerged from Philadelphia in 1787 strengthened or weakened slavery. Historians have argued this question for decades, but it has heated up of late because Wilentz has claimed in a recent book (“No Property in Man”) that the Constitution was anti-slavery in its intent. It would take too long to present the pros and cons of the debate, but I disagree with Wilentz. I agree with those historians that view the Constitution as written in 1787 did little to put slavery on the road to extinction. But, again, the debate is hot and it is unlikely that a consensus will ever be reached. Therefore, it is not surprising that Wilentz opposes the removal of the statue from the chamber of the New York City Council.

      1. Ah yeah, the revolution “strengthened” slavery canard.
        The British empire abolished slavery in the 1830s. That is, AFTER many of its American colonies.
        So the colonists went to the trouble of the bloodiest war man they had seen to that point, with 1% of their total population killed-just so in the end they preserve they could preserve simply by remaining in the empire.

  35. Humans have a need to create, to celebrate the sacred, to record aspects of our histories and cultures. Humans also have a need to destroy, to punish heresy and to deny the humanity of blasphemers. Statue and monument constructions are mostly driven by humanity’s creative and celebratory impulses. Statue and monument destructions are mostly driven by our need to destroy art that reminds us of our flawed natures or which we consider blasphemous. There is almost no circumstance when such destruction is justified. If a community doesn’t like the message in a piece of historic public art, it can create new art with new messages. Creation should always trump destruction when history is involved because we don’t own historic art, we are its temporary guardians.

  36. Story: New York City Hall votes to banish Thomas Jefferson statue
    He was a shocker.
    Deeds not words.
    Funded his French wine cellar at Monticello through his slaves.
    As President did nothing to stop growth of slavery thus hurried the ship on towards calamitous Civil War
    Which solved not a lot, heralded slavery mark 2 for another century.
    He was “important” historical figure but not warrant a prominent statue.
    Like Columbus was definitely no hero of “Western” values.

    1. Wse999, “Western values” like other values, have evolved over time. There are lots of books about how values have changed all over the world, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, by our modern notions of better and worse. Wonderful books. Some of the posters here can probably recommend one or two that all of us might enjoy reading and that will enlighten us on this aspect of human history.

  37. In following the discussion on this, I quickly lost the plot – to me, the point is the interpretation of art work – namely, a copy of a Jefferson statue. I noted this on the other discussion as well. As such, it is irrelevant if an object of art – a statue, an engraving, a painting – is merely sitting there. If a person idolizes Jefferson, or asserts that artwork of him is to memorialize him as a “hero”, that is their own problem. What written material is relevant to a piece of art? It is not clear to me.

    I claim that statues in the United States, such as MLK Jr., who has a tarnished record in treatment of women, memorialize the person’s ideals, not their personal lives – and not idolatry. The Lee statue memorialized the leader of the losing side of a battle, and with it slavery, so what sense did it make to keep it?

    But even so, the democratic process and free press coverage make any possibility – tear down, destroy, replace with something, replace with nothing,.. even ugly graffiti or vandalism – more valuable than any piece of art, for we do exactly what we do on this post – think it over, discuss.

    … how accurately can anyone claim that maybe a famous person fathered a living person’s ancestors in an undocumented way as a rapist, so therefore we have to remove representations of that famous figure to eliminate any psychological trauma? Isn’t it possible when tracing a lineage tree back in time that _anyone_ will hit a branch with reproductive inconsistencies e.g. intercourse out of wedlock, rape, or other unsettling events? Jefferson was also a slave owner so that would increase the problem for him…

  38. Here’s my particular problem with “removals” like this. It has nothing to do with whether he was a perfect person, because in fact, most historical figures have some dark skeletons in their closet, or were less than perfect in some way. The problem is that we are “forgetting” important parts of our history. LIke it or not, the founding fathers were white, and most of the immigrants up until the 1920s were also White Europeans. Yes, our country is more visibly diverse (when I say visibly diverse, I’m acknowledging that mixed race persons who appear to be white have been around since the beginning of history.) Also, this has nothing to do with Confederate statues being removed. Confederates were revolutionaries who wanted to split apart from the USA, as such, their status to me is not the same as a founding father.

    I don’t know very much about the context of Jefferson’s slave ownership, or anything about the treatment of these slaves. I also know that there are much more problematic figures than Jefferson, included among them is Andrew Jackson, founder of the modern Democratic Party.

    What we lose when we remove these statues is PERSPECTIVE. What will happen over time is that people will forget about the negative as well as the positive. You can’t erase history which already happened! You can only alter people’s perceptions of it. We cannot realistically live in a world where everyone is expected to be perfect, and if we expect that, we will not be able to find anyone to do the job(s) we need to get done.

  39. “Minority members of the council are forced to look at a statue of a person that may have very well enslaved, whipped, sold, and raped their ancestors.”

    1. Where is the evidence for the claim that any council member that ever served is or was an ancestor of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson? I might have missed it, though it might be difficult to show – or perhaps it is obvious that they should most likely be descendants, simply by their race.

    2. The probability that any council member was an ancestor of Jefferson’s slaves was not asserted as a reason to act upon the statue in the statement of Mr. Barron (as I recall). My impression was more of a general objection on the basis of Jefferson’s known relation with Ms. Hemings and use of slave labor – not that he or anyone else in the council knew they had relatives owned and abused in the charge of Thomas Jefferson, and expressed psychological trauma as a result of the statue.

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