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What To Do About Jefferson


As we deal with our racist past and the white supremacist statues across the country, things start getting difficult when we move beyond those who have obvious consensus as horrible people, such as traitors in defense of slavery. One of those is Thomas Jefferson. This is a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, founded public higher education in this nation, advanced liberal democracy immensely, was a president (albeit a pretty ineffective one), and….was a slaveholder and active proponent of genocide against Native people that only got worse as he aged. Meanwhile, we have his face blasted into a South Dakota mountain and a beautiful memorial for him in Washington. It’s not as if we haven’t know this for a long time. This Smithsonian piece from 2012 blows up any remaining myths that Jefferson was some kind of relatively benevolent slaveholder. He was not a benevolent master, not at all. At least one descendant of Jefferson says we need to take down the Jefferson Memorial.

In fact, as a memorial to Jefferson himself, it’s almost perfect. And that is why his memorial in Washington should be taken down and replaced. Described by the National Park Service as “a shrine to freedom,” it is anything but.

The memorial is a shrine to a man who during his lifetime owned more than 600 slaves and had at least six children with one of them, Sally Hemings. It’s a shrine to a man who famously wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence that founded this nation — and yet never did much to make those words come true. Upon his death, he did not free the people he enslaved, other than those in the Hemings family, some of whom were his own children. He sold everyone else to pay off his debts.

In fact, some of his white descendants, including his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, my great-great-great-great grandfather, fought in the Civil War in defense of slavery. My great-grandmother lived with him at Edgehill after she was born there in 1866. That is how close we are not only to Jefferson but also to slavery. When we visited her as children, there was only one dead man between my brother and me and Thomas Jefferson.

I am the sixth-generation great-grandson of a slave owner. My cousins from the Sally Hemings family are also the great-grandchildren of a slave owner. But the difference is that our great-grandfather owned their great-grandmother. My family owned their family. That is the American history you will not learn when you visit the Jefferson Memorial. But you will learn it when you visit Monticello: There’s now an exhibit of Sally Hemings’s bedroom in her cavelike living quarters in the south wing, a room my brother and I used to play in when we were boys.

A tour of Monticello these days will tell you that it was designed by Jefferson and built by the people he enslaved; it will point out joinery and furniture built by Sally’s brother, John Hemings. Today, there are displays of rebuilt cabins and barns where those enslaved lived and worked. At Monticello, you will learn the history of Jefferson, the man who was president and wrote the Declaration of Independence, and you will learn the history of Jefferson, the slave owner. Monticello is an almost perfect memorial, because it reveals him with his moral failings in full, an imperfect man, a flawed founder.

That’s why we don’t need the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate him. He should not be honored with a bronze statue 19 feet tall, surrounded by a colonnade of white marble. The time to honor the slave-owning founders of our imperfect union is past. The ground, which should have moved long ago, has at last shifted beneath us.

And it’s time to honor one of our founding mothers, a woman who fought as an escaped slave to free those still enslaved, who fought as an armed scout for the Union Army against the Confederacy — a woman who helped to bring into being a more perfect union after slavery, a process that continues to this day. In Jefferson’s place, there should be another statue. It should be of Harriet Tubman.

It’s a compelling argument. Monticello (and Montpelier for Madison) does a great job of centering the slave story, much to the discomfort of many white visitors. You cannot visit these places without being reminded over and over again of the hypocrisy that the people who led the foundation of our nation were also brutal slaveholders, Madison even worse than Jefferson. The Jefferson Memorial provides none of that context. It is a beautiful piece of architecture and inspiring, but inspiring for what? And all the talk of his slaveholding doesn’t even allow us to get that he was worse of genocide against Native people than most people as well, with really no meaningful difference between him and Andrew Jackson. And certainly, a giant monument to Tubman would be more than welcomed from me.

These are tough decisions. But they are also what it means to wrestle with both the past of American racism and its present.

…..There’s also the question of what to do with George Washington.

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