On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we should take our cue from the Tulsa Star, a now-defunct black newspaper. Its masthead from 1920 included statements of religious and political faith, including a paraphrase from the Declaration of Independence: “‘All men are born equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” It went on to state: “We believe in the principles of true Democracy as promulgated by the patriot, Thomas Jefferson, and without fear or favor we will be found at all times fighting for an honest, impartial application of these principles to all men regardless of race or color.”
It’s notable that such a statement of allegiance to Jeffersonian principles appeared at a point in our nation’s history when segregation and discrimination remained entrenched—and enforced, in some places, by roving gangs wearing white sheets. But it was also the time of the “New Negro,” a time of assertiveness after black men had proven (once again) their fighting abilities on the field of battle, this time in World War I. A new class of businessmen and writers was making its mark on Harlem. And the NAACP was working with the nation’s best legal minds in an attempt to put the words of Jefferson’s Declaration into action and move the country toward observing the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution.
The Tulsa Star’s statement expressed the ideals of the era’s black leaders. They knew that Jefferson had been a slaveowner. Yet Jefferson was for them the “Apostle of Liberty.” Nonetheless, they understood that apostles are not perfect.
In the secular sense, per Merriam-Webster, an apostle is “a person who initiates a great moral reform or who first advocates an important belief or system.” Jefferson’s words in the Declaration inspired a worldwide movement for freedom and equality, including 19th-century abolitionist movements. When blacks filed suits for freedom in the post-Revolutionary War period, they drew upon the Declaration’s stirring words.
It wasn’t until decades after Jefferson’s words were written on the Tulsa Star’s masthead that federal laws ensuring racial equality were enacted. As Shelby Steele has related from his own boyhood, in some regions blacks had to rely on personal networks just to find a restaurant, hotel, or bathroom. I did not understand the reality of such disparate treatment until the late 1980s, when, on a trip to the Atlanta Zoo with my son’s preschool class, I was told by one of the caregivers, a middle-aged black woman, that at one time she was not allowed to enter that zoo. Though I had known long before then that segregation was the law in the 1950s and early 1960s, her remark brought this history home to me.
The ideals associated with 1776 came under fierce attack in 2019. A special issue of the New York Times, announcing the 1619 Project, set the nation astir, getting not just academics but ordinary citizens questioning the American Founding. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s creator, presented a twisted biography of Jefferson in an attempt to undermine the nation’s aspirational principles. Unlike the editors of the Tulsa Star, Hannah-Jones viewed Jefferson as the hypocritical head of “forced-labor camps” who fathered the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. She maintained that the United States was a “slavocracy” built on the backs of slaves.
Attacks against Jefferson are nothing new. In the late 1990s, historian Annette Gordon-Reed continued a project begun by Fawn Brodie of smearing Jefferson in works that abandoned standards of historical scholarship, including altering evidence. Gordon-Reed deleted critically important words from one of Jefferson’s letters, ignored other evidence, and berated readers as racists if they questioned her claims. Even after DNA testing showed only a slight possibility that Jefferson had fathered one of Hemings’s children, and several prominent historians determined that the circumstances made that likelihood minuscule, Gordon-Reed, who will be honored with the opening of Annette Gordon-Reed Elementary in her hometown in east Texas, continues to perpetuate the allegation.
Even the nonprofit that maintains Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, follows along. As I discovered during a recent visit, the Monticello website’s claim that “Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Hemings’s children” is repeated in displays and by tour guides. Though the tour’s themes, displays, and educational materials already heavily emphasize slavery, our tour guide added verbal harangues. She lectured us about the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s words about all men being “created equal” at a time when women, black men, Native Americans, and the poor could not vote.
The drumbeat of such vilification is bound to have an effect. In 2020, after the death of George Floyd, Jefferson became a prominent target in what some have called the “1619 Riots.”
Outside a Portland, Oregon high school, a statue of Jefferson was pulled down with bungee cords, its empty base spray-painted with the words “slave owner.” Hofstra University moved its Jefferson statue to an out-of-the-way place on campus. In Decatur, Georgia, after a protestor held up a sign calling Jefferson a rapist, a statue of Jefferson holding a pen above a writing table near the courthouse had to be removed. Proposals to rename schools bearing Jefferson’s name proliferated around the country. In November, Jefferson’s statue was removed from City Hall in New York and exiled to the New York Historical Society.
The attacks on Jefferson monuments are more than attacks on Jefferson the man. They are attacks on our American principles. It is no coincidence that those calling for the removal of Jefferson’s likeness are often the same people who reject longstanding American principles and embrace critical race theory, which teaches that rights emanate from the government and are determined by group membership. The principle of equal rights—which animates laws that make it illegal to deny public accommodation based on race—are now under threat.
In the past two years, the outlook that underpins critical race theory has spread broadly in American life. Some medical professionals and political leaders have put nonwhite groups at the head of the line to receive Covid-19 vaccines. Such irrational and harmful practices—determining access to medical treatment by group characteristics—arise from the Marxist ideology propelling critical race theory.
Those who favor such policies believe that they will always be the beneficiaries of them—but they should think again. When rights are endowed by the state, and not—as in Jefferson’s Declaration—by the creator, they can be removed on a whim. We have seen this happen in history. Those who have lived in Communist regimes have experienced it personally.
The images of toppled Thomas Jefferson statues may prefigure a nation succumbing to what my parents and relatives fled from and what American civil rights leaders fought to eradicate. We should heed the words of the Tulsa Star—not those of the 1619 Project. And we should return the statues of Jefferson to their pedestals, so that his image can remind us of his words and the principles for which they stand.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.