Historians’ Thomas Jefferson Meltdown
I’ve been writing this week about the ideological wars on the Progressphiles listserv for Democratic Party data and technology professionals. A reader who is on H-France, a similar listserv for academic historians of France, passes on news of a similar meltdown on that list — along with the emails that brought this to pass.
It all began with this June 16 request sent to the list, which is followed by thousands:
In the piece, Prof. Daut calls on the French government to remove a statue in Paris depicting Thomas Jefferson. It takes some cheek to be a professor at the university founded by Jefferson, and to make that demand. It is also a strange way of imposing US culture war fights on other countries. Daut, who is black, writes:
Here in the United States we have over a half dozen statues of Thomas Jefferson. While these monuments are meant to highlight an ideal history of Jefferson as one of the United States’s “Founding Fathers,” they also remind those of us unwilling to forget that our country’s third president, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, was also an enslaver and by many accounts also a rapist. Because he founded the University of Virginia, the monument to him in my city of Charlottesville, is one we must live with. The question is how? Perhaps, UVA might think about placing a statue of Hemings beside that of Jefferson.
But there is no reason why France—already troubled by its own long history of slavery and empire—should lionize the man who wrote in the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then turned around and declared in Notes on the State of Virginia, “never yet could I find that a Black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration.” In fact, Jefferson can only be considered marginal to French history. During his time spent in France, he mostly carved out trade agreements, secured rights for consular officials, and cavorted about with his friend the Marquis de Lafayette. No, Jefferson does not belong in today’s global and multicultural Paris.
She proposes four figures, all people of color tied more directly to French history, who ought to replace Jefferson.
The next day, this response appeared on the H-France list:
Alec Shea, a PhD student at NYU, responded:
Then the gloves came off:
And shortly thereafter:
Then we begin to learn that Gruder is a bad person:
Then we learn that there is nothing at all admirable about Thomas Jefferson — that the entirety of his life and its meaning must be judged by his slaveowning:
“Horrified and disgusted” that anyone would question Prof. Daut! Blake Gutt (he/him) is a freshly minted PhD who labors in the vineyards of medieval France and queer theory, and does not wish to know anyone who believes that a man like Jefferson can be redeemed in any way. If you believe that there is anything to be said for Thomas Jefferson, don’t try to say it to Gutt, for he/him will not speak to you.
This is a person who teaches the next generation of history students.
More character assassination of Prof. Gruder, who in this passage from a fellow historian is called out as an example of white supremacy infecting the discipline of academic history:
Harvard historian Mary Lewis chimes in to fault Gruder for criticizing Daut:
You see what’s happening? Gruder’s original letter challenging Daut as one historian to another is now construed by other historians as a racist act!
This is when the moderator steps in to shut down the discussion:
You might understand that. After all, what can possibly be accomplished when academics are dogpiling a fellow academic with ad hominem attacks for simply questioning the contentions of another academic?
But that’s not why David Kammerling Smith shut down this thread. As he explained in a subsequent post:
Translation: Prof. Gruder was at fault for questioning Prof. Daut. There was no apology from the list moderator to Prof. Grudern, who was smeared as a running dog of white supremacy. It sounds to me like they’re going to rewrite the rules to prevent ideas like Prof. Gruder’s from ever seeing the light of day.
The H-France list, recall, has several thousand readers, according to the one who sent it to me. He passed the entire exchange on; I have only cited a few key entries. The reader says to me:
The thread raises more than a few matters of legitimate historical debate (history vs. memory, the historian’s role as arbiter of the relationship between past and present) but what particularly struck me were two things: its pile-on effect, as big-name historians like Jennifer Sessions, David Bell and Mary Lewis stepped in to set the tone of an emergent consensus, and the weird “incident report” that, apparently, will be its result. The language is rather tortuous but one can only suppose that this report, which is”to be reviewed by an ad hoc committee whose members speak from traditionally underrepresented communities” as a corrective to the “quaint, archaic sensibility” of the list’s existing rules, constitutes a woke veto on future debate within this particular precinct of the historical profession.
It is useful to see how the sausage is made, is it not? If you are wondering how it is that a generation or two of American young people have come to hate their country, its history, and its culture, this semi-private exchange among professional historians helps clarify.