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Canceling Thomas Jefferson

Self-righteous students seek Jefferson’s removal at the university he founded

A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of the Rotunda on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber, file

Canceling Thomas Jefferson
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The University of Virginia’s school newspaper has called for the removal of all references to the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. According to the editorial:

Moreover, we reject how the University’s physical environment—one that glorifies racists, slaveholders and eugenicists with statues and buildings named in their honor—upholds an enduring culture of white supremacy. There is a reason why Charlottesville’s local Klu Klux Klan Chapter hosted its inauguration ceremony at Jefferson’s Monticello tomb. There is a reason why white supremacists gathered with torches around Jefferson’s statue on the north side of the Rotunda. There is a reason why they felt comfortable marching through Grounds. Our physical environment—from statues to building names to Jefferson’s overwhelming presence—exalts people who held the same beliefs as the repugnant white supremacists in attendance at the “Unite the Right” rally. These buildings must be renamed and memorials removed.

For the sake of consistency, perhaps the university itself should be demolished, if built on such unjust foundations. The property could be sold, and the income distributed as reparations. The core of such absolutist demands, the toppling of monuments, the erasure of names, the attempted atonement for past sins, is at least partly Christian in origin. Transgressions occurred, and now there must be expiation. But Christianity understands the true expiation for sins can only be accomplished through Christ. All of us must rely on divine mercy as we, hopefully, strive to do what is right, however feebly.

Christianity understands that in this fallen world, after Christ’s sacrifice, and before His return, we live in an interregnum when we cannot achieve a perfect or absolute justice. Demanding such perfection is to claim for ourselves a purity that we cannot attain, and to unleash potentially terrible demons. Totalitarian revolutions, as in France in 1789, Russia 1917, Germany in the 1930s and Iran in 1979, are fueled by this demonic spirit.

The spirit of such revolutions is clear: All that was before was wicked. We of the present generation uniquely embody justice and will erase the past. We ourselves occupy the pinnacle of truth and righteousness.

Except we don’t. We are as captive to our times and its assumptions as Jefferson was to his. In Jefferson’s boyhood in rural Virginia, he would not have heard anyone questioning slavery. Pennsylvania Quakers began to organize publicly against slavery when Jefferson was a youth, but they were nearly alone. That Jefferson by the time of the Declaration of Independence had come to anti-slavery views is remarkable. That he failed to free his slaves, partly owing to his personal profligacy, is his sad failure.

But that failure does not nullify his tremendous achievements, chiefly his articulation that all humans are created equal and entitled to life and liberty. He was not clueless about the repercussions of this affirmation, which made slavery’s abolition in America inevitable. It also laid the foundation for civil rights for all Americans.

We are as captive to our times and its assumptions as Jefferson was to his.

Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Note to student editors: Jefferson’s legacy belongs far more to MLK than preening white supremacists.

Jefferson’s “promissory note” is America’s standard for judging itself. And it has inspired freedom movements around the world for more than two centuries. Today it inspires protesters in Hong Kong, Belorussia, Burma, Cuba, and countless other nations where people suffer under tyranny. That “promissory note” is among the most liberating of any declarations in secular history. It is also rooted in Christian anthropology and assumes that each person is equally God’s image bearer.

University of Virginia student editors, who evidently cannot see beyond the horizon of their own small universe, seem to assume that the concept of human equality dropped from the sky. And they alone, with a few other enlightened souls, can interpret and apply it correctly. They, of course, must be considered innocent. Idealogues and extremists often think this way.

But Christians know that no subset of persons in any time uniquely owns the righteous truth. These student editors, who in their demand for human equality are Jefferson’s ungrateful heirs, will be long forgotten while Jefferson’s accomplishments, despite his sins, endure across centuries.

Speaking of sins, Charles Lane of The Washington Post recently observed that while Canada is busily apologizing for schools that abused native children long ago, it is accelerating euthanasia against the disabled. He asked: Who will apologize for the current generation?

It’s always a pertinent question: What are our sins today? Though far more difficult, our own sins merit our first reflection, and our repentance.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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