Papering over the past doesn’t help anyone
Students at Hofstra University have started a petition to remove a Thomas Jefferson statue from the school’s campus. (The text of the petition, predictably, includes a “trigger warning” due to “mentions of slavery, rape, eugenics, anti-black racism,” because grown men and women apparently cannot read about unpleasant things without a Viewer Discretion Advised label beforehand.) The petition lists a number of sins about which Jefferson is guilty: slavery, rape, eugenics, white supremacy. “Jefferson’s values aided in the construction of institutionalized racism and justified the subjugation of black people in the United States,” the petition reads.
All of which happen to be true. There is no point in denying it. Jefferson, who stands properly regarded as one of the great Americans of history, was also a slave profiteer and a sexual exploiter of those he enslaved and a believer in the crackpot racialist theories of his day. It’s all in the history books, plain to see; it’s a matter of public record.
And yet his statue should remain; indeed it should, if possible, be given a place of higher esteem on campus. Thomas Jefferson, like the other great men of the Founding generation, was greater than his (many and substantial) faults; his significant moral failings were eclipsed by his staggering accomplishments from which we all continue to benefit today. We have, for instance, grown so used to the ethos contained within the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal, and they have a right to cast aside their government if they so wish—that we have forgotten how utterly (and literally) revolutionary it truly is. We have similarly become so accustomed to a culture of liberal education untethered from religious mandate that we are apt to forget that Jefferson blazed the path for such a system. These are not insignificant accomplishments.
It is understandably difficult for college students, particularly present-day, activist-minded college students—young, undereducated, ever-enraged, constantly offended, ceaselessly looking for a cause to champion and a hill upon which to die—to grasp how one might hold these two terribly conflicting aspects of a person in tandem: enslaver on the one hand, liberationist on the other.
The answer is: You just do it. An honest public reckoning of men like Jefferson will not gloss over his brutal shortcomings. But a productive and sensible reckoning will similarly not destroy every vestige of his memory for it, or banish him to the muted confines of a museum. Thomas Jefferson was not perfect; but nobody is. If we are to excise everyone from history who ever did or believed anything wrong, then it will surely not stop with the second president: We’ll have to memory-hole most of the founders, of course, but also a great many other American legends: Abraham Lincoln, say, who openly admitted that he would have kept slavery in place if it would have saved the Union; or Franklin Roosevelt, whose own political cowardice led him to oppose anti-lynching laws. (By progressive logic, the minimum wage—originally a tool of white racists used to price blacks out of the labor market—also has to go.)
Quite obviously it is a silly and histrionic exercise to try and sanitize history so that nobody is offended. Wrestling with the failures of our history is one of the chief aspects of the historical sense; whitewashing everything does nobody any good. Maybe the student-activists of Hofstra prefer to live in such a bland and useless world, but the rest of us would not.