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What Jefferson's Critics Miss

Thomas Jefferson laid the foundation for a more perfect union.

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Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1805 (Public Domain)

They want to take down Thomas Jefferson's statue at the university he founded.

And why not? The "statue wars" make no sense. 

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In the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing and BLM protests, tearing down statues became America's signature sport. While in one glance it appears to have tapered off—San Francisco seems to have grown weary of the more radical elements of the new racial-justice movement and given up on efforts to destroy a mural of slaveowner George Washington in one of its schools—Cornell University more recently removed a statue of slave-freer Lincoln and a copy of the Gettysburg Address from its library. 

Things don't make sense.

In particular, it makes no sense that the statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed from City Hall in New York City, where it stood for 187 years. The unanimous vote to dump Jefferson was the work of the city’s Public Design Commission, which deemed the Founder (who once lived a street or two away from City Hall) unfit because, more than 250 years ago, he owned slaves. 

“It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing that we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence, and were not worthy of freedom or right,” declared city council member Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus. 

In 1776, slavery was legal not only across the American colonies but in England, the source of most American legal precedents and common law. England only abolished slavery in 1833 even as the American Civil War was brewing. And it, along with other European nations, kept its hand in the lucrative Atlantic slave trade for many years thereafter. Slavery was endemic across the classical world, woven deeply into the economies of the Romans and Greeks (Jefferson read both Latin and Greek), never mind those of the Middle East. Slavery in Brazil, at the hands of the Portuguese, existed until 1888, long after Jefferson's death and the American Civil War. Neither America nor Thomas Jefferson invented slavery, racism, or discrimination.

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Jefferson was a slaveholder, alongside most of the Founders—even Hamilton, reborn as the "good Founder" at the hands of woke historical-sugar-coater Lin Manuel Mirada, traded in slaves. But it is all too convenient to forget Jefferson the political founder. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to which, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his biography of Jefferson, “established the concept of human rights, for the first time in history, as the basis for a republic.”

It was Jefferson himself who called forth the first nation built on human rights, and while not prescient enough to include blacks from the beginning, did include in the founding documents the means to later incorporate blacks into the already existing framework. 

In modern parlance, Jefferson wrote the code running underneath the United States matrix. In stating "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," he got it almost right, failing only to include black people in the category. If you want to expand the computer analogy, Jefferson wrote the code right, he just defined his variable wrong.

Doing that, despite the world of slavery around him in the 18th century, is beyond prescient—it is an achievement that changed the world. Martin Luther King Jr. called Jefferson's work a “promissory note” to all Americans. Jefferson's extraordinary ability to see beyond the world in which he lived was summed up by President Franklin Roosevelt, dedicating the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, who said Jefferson "lived in a world in which freedom of conscience and freedom of mind were battles still to be fought through—not principles already accepted of all men.”

The people running the city council in New York have no understanding of who Jefferson was or what he did. In their childish game of racism "gotcha," they have claimed another statue. Did they in any way advance the cause of freedom? No, but Jefferson did. 

Will someone erect a monument to their having taken away the statue in 250 years' time? No, because insignificant changes do not add up to anything. Changing the name of a school, or tearing down a statue, does not change history. That is why everyone is still “raising awareness” about the same problems, decades later.

What we see in wokeness is the difference between small minds and great minds, the former of which ignore their own flaws to pick at others', out of time and out of context. We see the difference between people who whine to tear things down and people who can see beyond their own world to a better one.

Wokeness cannot see enduring, magnificent, world-changing ideas apart from the personal flaws of their creators. It is unable to see what Jefferson saw, the possibility of men greater than him building on his work to create that more perfect union. 

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