Erasing Thomas Jefferson: Ignorance of Historical Context

May 9, 2019 Updated: May 9, 2019


Recently, I wrote an article about the removal of Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” from two famous American sports venues on grounds of racism. A primary point I made was that one could logically expect to see ongoing attempts to remove other and more prominent Americans from the public arena.

A friend just forwarded a news item from several weeks ago that validates my statement. It tells the story of students at Hofstra University demanding that the university dispose of a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

One of the students in favor of giving Jefferson the heave-ho asserts that the statue represents “a legacy of racism and bigotry on college campuses.” I would suggest that what a statue represents is, to a certain degree, subjective, and that the student activist’s perspective on the statue is rather esoteric.

An image of Jefferson can only represent “a legacy of racism” to one who chooses (and yes, it is a conscious choice) to define everything in terms of racial content. Viewing history through the lens of racism, one will see racism everywhere, for racism was ubiquitous.

But do the ditch-Jefferson activists really believe that the leaders of Hostra have racist reasons for giving Jefferson a place of honor on their campus? Is Jefferson honored for having been a slaveholder? Do the activists suppose for two seconds that the Jefferson statue is intended, however subtly, to endorse or excuse slavery or any of the less extreme but still odious manifestations of racism? To attribute such base motives to Hostra’s officials is not only absurd, but monstrously mean-spirited, unjustifiable, and slanderous.

A more benign and accurate explanation for the lasting imagery of Jefferson at Hofstra and so many other places, both private and public, is that millions of Americans acknowledge his immense contributions in advancing our most cherished ideals—individual liberty, God-given rights, and limited government. As one of our republic’s most far-seeing and philosophical founding fathers, Jefferson played a key, indispensable role in throwing off chains of Old World tyranny and laying the groundwork for a system of government that left most (not all) Americans freer than most individuals have been throughout history.

Did Jefferson have feet of clay? Of course. Was he guilty of deeds clearly recognized as unconscionable today? Absolutely. But this is where historical context matters. If we adopt today’s predominant moral standards as absolute, then earlier generations who hadn’t yet risen to today’s standards will, by definition, be morally defective individuals. If, on the other hand, we recognize that all sorts of evil were once the accepted ways of the world, then perhaps the question becomes: Relative to the time in which he lived, was Jefferson a force for progress or an anchor to a grim past?

We tend to forget today how awful much of human history has been. Slavery, serfdom, abject poverty, starvation, brutal monarchs and emperors, disease, and short life expectancies—all these and more were the legacy that history had bequeathed to the United States’ founding generation. The vision of government expressed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—that government was to serve the people—was a revolutionary departure from the age-old practice of people serving the government. The ideas that government’s only legitimacy derives from the inalienable rights of the governed, and that people should amend or abolish any government that trespasses on our rights, continue to inspire us today.

Indeed, it is the timeless principle articulated by Jefferson that “all men [humans] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that animated the civil rights movement and infused it with its powerful moral authority. While Jefferson didn’t take his principles to their logical conclusion in his personal life, every American today, regardless of race, gender, etc., is freer than his ancestors due to the shift in values and ideals to which Jefferson gave such clear expression.

Yes, it took millions of people, not just Jefferson, to bring about a freer world, but Jefferson was a leader of that moral and intellectual awakening; hence, the high regard with which he is rightly held by those who prize individual liberty today.

The founders, including Jefferson, were well aware of the divergence between the loftiness of their ideals and the moral debasement of slavery. They knew that they had compromised principles by accepting a continuance of slavery as the awful price to keep the original 13 colonies united and so make it possible to free the United States from the yoke of British imperialism. They knew that they hadn’t achieved the full liberation of the human race from oppression and believed that future generations should and would make the necessary changes.

What the young protesters at Hofstra and so many other campuses today need to learn is that history is a motion picture, not a photograph. In an ideal world, there would be no slavery. If 1776 were the starting point of civilization and we were to draw a blueprint for a just world, obviously nobody would want slavery to be a feature of that world. But in the actual world of 1776, slavery was a well-entrenched evil. While the founders gained a greater degree of liberty for white Americans than a nation’s people had ever enjoyed before, they didn’t secure the blessings of liberty for black Americans.

The idea of citizens having government accountable to them instead of ruling over them represented immense, real, unprecedented, and lasting progress. It was the start of something good, but not the culmination of history’s long, too-slow march toward liberty. Thank goodness, history didn’t stall out and leave us with a permanent curse of slavery. Instead, due to the intellectual and moral revolution advanced by truly progressive thinkers like Jefferson, we Americans started the journey toward universal liberty and equal rights with the Revolution of 1776, and later generations of Americans strove mightily to continue that journey.

Our society finally, at great cost, managed to cast off the evil of slavery. Today, we continue to make progress (never fast enough for most of us, but progress nonetheless) in eradicating vestiges of racism from our society. Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in charting the way forward for us. It is that for which we admire and acknowledge a debt of gratitude to him.

What Hofstra does with Jefferson’s statue is up to them. I hope, though, that those denouncing Jefferson learn to acknowledge his achievements. To the extent that today’s young activists are crusading for greater freedom, justice, and equal enjoyment of rights, they are standing on Jefferson’s shoulders and advancing on a path that he helped to blaze.

Whether they realize it or not, Jefferson was instrumental in securing their freedom to speak out.

As such, today’s protesters are among the many beneficiaries of that great thought leader. If, on the other hand, what the anti-Jefferson protesters really want is a mega-state that tells us what to think and do, then they are Thomas Jefferson’s enemies in more ways than the merely symbolic.

Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics and sociology at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson is an economist, who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.