LETTER: In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

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LETTER: In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

Alexander Adames recently wrote an article titled “The Misguided Exaltation of Jefferson: Students should refrain from venerating Thomas Jefferson” for The Cavalier Daily. The basis of the article is that because Jefferson owned slaves in his private life, Jefferson should not be admired as a great man with deep respect. It disturbed me to read this article, for it seemed that he was establishing a ridiculous standard for admiration, simultaneously rejecting proper historical approach.

One of the most important issues with this article is that Adames sets a standard far too unreasonable and arbitrary in dealing with historical figures. First of all, the crux of his argument: “if someone openly praises [a historical figure] as a person, he is suggesting appreciation for everything about the man, including his personality and practices”. This is an absurd assertion because when one respects and admires a figure, he or she does so based on that figure’s particular characteristics of his or her life. Admiring Jefferson or thinking that he was a great man does not mean or entail agreeing to the institution of slavery. Nobody admires Jefferson for being a slave owner. When people say that they admire Jefferson, there is an excluded but implied additional statement, “Except his ownership of slaves”.

Let’s replace Jefferson with another historical figure to help the explanation. If people say, “I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a person and think that he was a great man”, are they admiring and endorsing adultery? Definitely not. They are admiring Martin Luther King, Jr. based on many of his qualities such as courage and charisma, but excluding his identity as an adulterer. It was simply hasty of Adames to conclude that people’s admiration of a figure does not involve any type of psychological selective process.

Secondly, Adames’s arguments are rooted in his idea that every historical figure must be judged with the prism of modern morality. According to this logic, every single person ofyesterday and of previous eras and generations does not deserve respect, for the very mentality of those persons would have been unenlightened, un-modern, racist and sexist to our standards today. However, this should not happen in our interpretation and analysis of history. While sociology is a generalizing science, trying to discover generally observable social trends, history is an individualizing and concrete science that rarely makes generalizations, studying human events in accordance with the time and order, putting emphasis and carefully considering every context of the particular time period.

Therefore, context matters. I strongly believe that Jefferson’s relationship to slavery must be given adequate examination before being condemned as a racist solely based on Adames’s reason that “Jefferson remained a slave owner despite other notable individuals being vocally against slavery”, for while we take it for granted all the modern liberal principles such as the notion that slavery is blatantly wrong and the notion of racial and ethnic equality, the people of the past did not and could not even casually envision these seemingly self-evident ideas. Society that Jefferson lived in was very different from now and the values that society believed in was entirely and unimaginatively different. The idea of racial equality – which is different from the idea that slavery should be outlawed – still had long way to go and the abolishment of slavery was definitely not a widespread and popular idea.

Adames presented Thomas Paine as an example of individuals who openly opposed slavery, but could he and negligible population of abolitionists represent the societal opposition to slavery, which burdens Jefferson to free his slaves? Those like Thomas Paine were extreme numerical minority concentrated in New England where slavery was out of fashion due to the fact that the economy there did not require slave labor. The South and the North were arguably two culturally different nations, ideologies and clashing economies and in Virginia, the state with the greatest number of slave population, plantation-based agriculture was the industry that enabled the state to sustain itself. Jefferson had neither the choice nor the luxury of freeing his slaves and shutting down his farm. He also did not have the condition provided for him to easily voice the horrors of slavery in contrast to Paine who had far greater ease in criticizing the landed aristocrats far away down in the South. The acts of Paine other abolitionists are certainly commendable, but they cannot represent the society of the time and be used as evidence against Jefferson to prove that he was extraordinarily racist compared to these people.

Everyone, by our standards, was racially prejudiced at the time and Jefferson was one of the more liberal-minded people in terms of slavery. Jefferson believed that a nationwide emancipation of slaves should be processed in a democratic fashion with slave owners letting their slaves go voluntarily. As a fervent advocate of individual rights, he thought that it was improper for the federal government to forcefully free slaves, depriving slave owners of their property. He was also concerned with his speculation that a massive, sudden emancipation will cause chaos, which may lead to racial hatred and rebellion like that of Haiti. He thus proposed better treatments for slaves, gradually weakening the brutality of slavery and the system itself.

If we are to condemn Jefferson as racist, ignoring the fact that the concept of racism developed later than Jefferson’s time, then how are we to classify all other people? Extra-racist? Extra-extra-racist? Should we demolish all statues of all figures before Jefferson’s time across the world because they were extra-extra-extra-extra-racist, by their fault of not being born during or after the Age of Enlightenment that shaped Jefferson’s relatively liberal views on slavery?

I know that people who are especially keen on political correctness, like Adames, are ready to raise the red flag if they spot one, but it seems he raised his red flag too hastily. I am quite sure that he has a lot of figures in his mind whom he thinks are great men and women and whom he admires, and every one of them will have some problems. I fear that he was setting an unfair standard for Jefferson for being Jefferson. While you may disagree that Jefferson was a great man, can you truly say that those who venerate Jefferson are misguided? I say no.

By Spencer Park
Spencer is a first year in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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