By Kaihua Zhou | United States
Among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is one of the greatest. His accomplishments include largely authoring the Declaration of Independence, helping pass the Virginia Statue for Establishing Religious Freedom, and enacting the Louisiana Purchase. Many principles that conservatives and libertarians hold dear first took form under Jefferson. Jefferson extolled the virtues of limited government, stating that “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” America is fundamentally Jeffersonian in its outlook. It is almost impossible to imagine America without these signature accomplishments.
However, Jefferson is increasingly labelled as a hypocrite. In March 2018, student activists in Hofstra University protested Jefferson’s statue on campus. A number of liberal organizations such as Young Democratic Socialists of Hofstra denounced Jefferson as a white supremacist icon who justified slavery. This disgust has spread to Jefferson’s native Virginia. In the University of Virginia, a vandal defaced Jefferson’s statue, marking him as a racist and a rapist.
While it would be easy to dismiss these incidents as isolated cases of iconoclasm, they are part of a larger trend. In 1996, Stephen Ambrose, a celebrated historian, attended a panel on “Political Correctness and the University” at The University of Wisconsin. During the discussion, he discovered that one of his fellow professors, teaching American political thought, had purged Jefferson’s from her curriculum. When Ambrose inquired why, she simply responded that Jefferson owned slaves. What about Jefferson’s extraordinary accomplishments? They were erased merely for Jefferson’s status as a slaveholder.
How justified are these criticisms? It cannot be denied that Jefferson owned slaves, more than 600 of them at given moments of his life. Moreover, it cannot be denied that he held repulsive prejudices. He could not foresee free African Americans peacefully coexisting with Whites. Moreover, Jefferson denied the potential of African Americans to obtain the same accomplishments as whites. “Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid: and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
By contemporary standards, Thomas Jefferson was a racist. Despite such prejudices, there is much more to his legacy. What is too often forgotten in such denouncements is Jefferson’s anti-slavery efforts and views. Jefferson recognized that slave-owners were tainted morally by their practice: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”
Far from being an unapologetic white supremacist, there is a note of self-awareness in Jefferson’s tone. It’s possible to imagine Jefferson privately feeling a very human remorse for his hypocrisy. Such remorse led to action. Jefferson limited slavery, barring it far from the contemporary Midwest in the Northwest Ordinance of 1784. Such legislative foresight prevented slavery’s depravity from expanding further into the new nation. As a revolutionary in 1774, Jefferson attacked the royal British government for allowing the slave trade. As president, he acted on these noble instincts, passing the Act of 1807. This act concluded the slave trade in the United States, giving severe fines for illegally purchasing slaves.
Was Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite? Yes: his powerful mind was severely constricted by his era’s racial prejudices. Is this grounds for retroactive demoralization? If Jefferson’s primary accomplishments are insufficient to redeem him, what can? His anti-slavery views demonstrate that there is much more to his legacy than pure racism. This complex legacy deserves to be seriously studied by college students. Seeing Jefferson as “merely” a hypocrite or a racist oversimplifies the issue. He should be respected and celebrated, not worshiped or demonized. He was a hero, but also deeply flawed.
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