Thomas Jefferson told us in his own words that all men are created equal, then lived his life by the opposite principle. It's time we stopped glossing over that hypocrisy
In November 2021, the New York City Council voted to send Thomas Jefferson packing:
The statue, which is a plaster replica of the original, according to the city, was removed from its pedestal Monday. The process took several hours, and the 7-foot statue was transported in a wooden crate to the New-York Historical Society, where it will be on a long-term loan.
The Jefferson statue was commissioned by Uriah Levy, one of the first Jewish officers in the U.S. Navy, in gratitude for Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom in the armed forces. The bronze original stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and this replica had pride of place in New York’s City Hall for 187 years—until now.
I’m a lover of history, and in general, I believe the past should be preserved. What’s more, the cause which this statue commemorates is an indisputably worthy one. However, I think the City Council made the right decision. It was time for Jefferson to go.
A truly damning hypocrisy
Without a doubt, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most brilliant of America’s founders. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, an epochal document in the history of statecraft. He was a strident critic of religion, compiler of the de-supernaturalized Jefferson Bible, and one of the architects of church-state separation, a cause that’s near and dear to my heart.
He was boundlessly curious and a lover of science and knowledge, turning his home into a museum of the greatest discoveries and inventions of the day. These are traits that I wish more American leaders possessed.
But Thomas Jefferson was also a slaveholder who held more than six hundred human beings as property during his life. His beautiful plantation estate of Monticello, which I’ve visited, relied on the labor of enslaved people to grow the crops, to cook food, to perform work like blacksmithing and carpentry, to drive his coach, and to be domestic servants in the house. Of these hundreds, he freed only two during his lifetime and five more in his will. The rest were auctioned off upon his death to pay the debts of his estate.
The genetic evidence is that Jefferson fathered at least six children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings. We’ll never know the nature of their relationship, but given the power imbalance between them, it’s impossible to call it consensual.
What makes Jefferson’s participation in slavery especially glaring are the immortal words from his own pen:
“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.”
For some slaveholders and colonizers, perhaps you could offer the excuse that they were men of their time, that they were only putting into practice the beliefs that everyone in their society held, and that we can’t expect them to have known better. Perhaps.
But you can’t use that line of reasoning to defend Jefferson. He told us in his own words that he did know better. He wrote that all men are born equal, that they have an unalienable right to liberty. Then he lived his life by the exact opposite principle, treating men, women and children as possessions to be bought and sold, forcing them to obey his will under threat of torture and death. That is a truly damning hypocrisy. It’s not the hindsight of a wiser future, but the standard he himself advocated that condemns him.
As president, Jefferson also signed into law a bill banning the international slave trade, which he described as “violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa.” While this is to his credit, it also further underlines his hypocrisy: since he knew that slavery was wrong, why did he practice it in his own life?
We don’t owe anyone a statue
No one is going to erase Thomas Jefferson from the history books. For better or for worse, his role in history is indelible. But that doesn’t mean we owe him perpetual veneration. It’s completely defensible to conclude that people who enslaved other human beings aren’t worthy of commemoration, no matter what else they said or did. No one is owed a statue.
However, conservatives seem to disagree. In response to the statue removal, National Review published an unsigned editorial which laments that New York City is “canceling Thomas Jefferson“:
Like many people from his region, he did, indeed, own slaves (and, unlike George Washington, he did not free them upon his death). And, like many people of his generation, he possessed some unpleasant private views. But it is not for any of that that we celebrate him. We celebrate him because he authored the Declaration of Independence — a magisterial document, which, both at home and abroad, has served as a beacon of hope and liberty…
Jefferson deserves to be honored for that contribution, which has served, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” as “the definitions and axioms of free society,” and as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
NR says that the Jefferson statue celebrates him for his achievements, not for his misdeeds. But both come from the same person! It’s impossible to draw a clean line dividing one from the other. To memorialize him with a statue, which sends the implicit message that he was a great man who should be admired, is necessarily to condone or at least overlook the evils he participated in.
The NR editorial argues that Jefferson’s contributions to human liberty outweigh his crimes against it, but that’s not an opinion everyone else is required to agree with. I can only imagine, if I were a Black person, what kind of feelings it might provoke to sit beneath the statue of an enslaver every day.
Neither golden idols nor holy writ
The editorial concludes with this:
Those who have orchestrated his unceremonious removal ought to be careful, lest, in a fit of Jacobin pique, they tear down his self-evident truths into the bargain.
This is a comically absurd complaint. They’re asserting that the abstract concept of liberty is inextricable from Thomas Jefferson the person, and that if we get rid of the latter, we risk also eliminating the former.
To make this argument is to say that the founders’ ideas don’t stand on their own merits. Democracy, human rights and liberty can only be preserved by treating the founders as deified saints we have to bow down and worship, lest they withdraw their blessings from us. This is a gross misunderstanding of what America was meant to be.
The founders aren’t golden idols, and they didn’t seek to be treated as such. If they have a message that deserves to be remembered, it’s that they weren’t infallible, and their writings and ideas aren’t holy writ. If their ideas are good, we can keep them, and if their ideas no longer serve us, we can and should change them. That’s why they left us a living Constitution that can be revised and amended, not a dead book of dogmas to be echoed for all time.
The removal of Jefferson’s statue isn’t just about one man. It’s part of a bigger reevaluation of the way we look at history.
For centuries, Western society has whitewashed the crimes of “great” men. We hail them as brave explorers because they “discovered” places where millions of people were already living; as heroic warriors because they bloodily slaughtered and subjugated those people; as hard-working capitalists because they built wealth on the backs of enslaved humans; or as wise statesmen because they wrote laws that enshrined all these injustices as the order of the day.
It’s long past time that we took steps to redress this balance and to broaden whose voices we hear when we look back at history. When his life is viewed in that light, Thomas Jefferson may no longer appear as great as he once did. And if so, so what? What would be so terrible about that?
We don’t need to have our gaze permanently fixed on the past for moral lessons, letting the failings of our ancestors define us forever. Like children leaving the nest, it’s time we stepped out of their shadows. We should keep the best ideas that came down to us from history, but we shouldn’t be content to stop there; we should always ask how we can continue to improve. We should start looking to the future, and we should ask ourselves who we want to become.