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The meaning of Thomas Jefferson
And why we need reminding
(Regular readers will notice some overlap with previous posts, but recent events have made the ideas timely, I think.)
Thomas Jefferson hasn’t been getting much love lately. His statues have been toppled; his name has been scrubbed from schools; his descendants have called for his memorial in Washington to be dismantled. And now New York City is planning to remove him from its council chambers.
The trend is understandable. Jefferson’s egregiously unequal relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman with whom he had several children, makes him an obvious target for supporters of the Me Too movement. Anti-racists are repelled by a powerful white man who held hundreds of black men, women and children in bondage. For one who exhibited such behavior to be honored in public places is more than many people these days can bear. Some of them acknowledge Jefferson’s contributions to the establishment of the American republic, yet conclude that his sins place him beyond the bounds of acceptability.
Yet it is precisely because he was a sinner—and still accomplished what he did—that Jefferson is worth memorializing. Every generation displays a certain moral narcissism: an assumption that its code of right and wrong is the only correct one. In this thinking, the default setting of human enlightenment is whatever the current generation holds to be true. If previous generations believed and behaved differently, that was because bad people were allowed to set the standards. If those bad people had not held positions of power, enlightenment would have arrived sooner.
But this is not how the world works, and it’s not how progress occurs. There is no default setting of morality; progress comes not through the removal of barriers to enlightenment but through the construction of new versions of enlightenment by people no better or worse than people today.
Jefferson is a prime example. We take for granted that humans have rights, and that the right to equal treatment is one of these. But when Jefferson asserted this principle in the Declaration of Independence, the concept was radical, indeed revolutionary. Jefferson’s principle—and his succinct wording “All men are created equal”—became the touchstone of the human rights movement from then until now. That Jefferson himself didn’t live up to his ideal didn’t diminish the power of his vision.
In fact, if Jefferson had lived up to his ideal, he never would have been able to assert his vision in such a prominent way. Jefferson was chosen to draft the Declaration in large part because he was a Virginian. Massachusetts had been the hotbed of agitation against Britain, but Virginia had the greatest population of any of the colonies, and the Continental Congress needed to demonstrate that Virginia was fully on board with independence. “Reason 1st,” said John Adams, explaining to Jefferson why he must write the draft: “You are a Virginian, and Virginia ought to appear at the head of this business.”
In the eighteenth century, Virginians of means owned slaves; for Jefferson not to have owned slaves would have marked him as eccentric and unfit to represent his colony in the Continental Congress. He never would have had the chance to write his revolutionary manifesto.
Progress comes not all at once, but step by painful step. Successful progressives are never utopians; they always have one foot firmly in their own era. Otherwise no one would listen to them. If Abraham Lincoln had been an abolitionist, as committed to racial equality as Frederick Douglass, for instance, he never would gotten anywhere near the White House, and he wouldn’t have issued the Emancipation Proclamation. If Lyndon Johnson had not made his peace with the segregationists who controlled Texas politics in the 1930s and 1940s, he never would have become the president who signed the Civil Rights Act that packed off Jim Crow. If Barack Obama had been much quicker to embrace gay marriage, he wouldn’t have been the chief executive in place to hail the Obergefell decision by referencing Jefferson: “Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal. The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times—a never-ending quest to ensure those words ring true for every single American.”
Besides reminding us how history works, public recognition of the accomplishments of individuals like these serves a second purpose: to push us to do better. Most of us aren’t heroes; we’re simply people. The knowledge that progress comes through the efforts of people as flawed in their own ways as we are can be inspiring. Progress is always slow and often faltering; our vision is cloudy. Doubtless our descendants will shudder at evils we let slide. They’ll ask why we tolerated homelessness, why we accepted a rate of infant mortality higher than in much poorer countries, why we spent a fortune on preparations for war, why we dithered while the planet cooked.
If they do ask these questions, it will mean that generations between ours and theirs did the hard work of finding homes for our least fortunate, guaranteeing access to prenatal care, devising peaceful methods of resolving international disputes, breaking our addiction to fossil fuels. In other words, those generations will have continued the expansion of human rights—to housing, health care, physical security, climate security—begun by people like Thomas Jefferson.