Photo by USCapitol on Flickr
In New York City Hall, a replica statue of Thomas Jefferson, who was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, looked over the city’s proceedings for 187 years — until the city’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously to have him removed. The argument behind this removal rests heavily on the third president’s slave-holding status.
According to CNN, Councilmember Adrienne Adams, who is co-chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, argues that, “Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who owned over 600 human beings. It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing that we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence and were not worthy of freedom or right.”
In his book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson stated that he held that Black people were less intelligent than white people. He also questioned if this was a direct effect of many years of enslavement or if it was inherent. This is both racist and ignorant. Perhaps in his lifetime, Jefferson may have been less likely to encounter educated Black people. Instead, many Black people he interacted with in America were uneducated slaves. According to Cornell, “In most southern states, anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. The slaves themselves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes.” If one has no access to conventional education, it is difficult to showcase it.
However, Jefferson’s thoughts on race were more complex. According to Adrienne Adams, Jefferson did not believe African Americans “worthy of freedom or right,” yet during his lifetime, Jefferson attempted to halt the act of slavery, which he called both, a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blight.” According to The Jefferson Monticello website, in 1778, Jefferson wrote a law for Virginia that “prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.”
A few years later, Jefferson attempted to ban slavery in the Northwest. In addition, Jefferson held that the abolition of slavery was not the duty of the federal government but something that would need to happen over time with the permission of slave owners. Despite his many attempts to cease slavery, the slave trade continued to thrive and slave owners were too prosperous to wish to give up their slaves.
On top of this, Jefferson believed that slavery was in direct contradiction to nature. According to him, all people deserve the right to personal liberty. However, Jefferson himself owned 600 slaves and only freed 10, which seems severely hypocritical. One can assume that Jefferson had his reasons for this contradiction. If he had freed all his slaves, he would have bankrupted his family and sent hundreds of human beings out to fend for themselves in a discriminating Virginia. It is possible that he believed he was caring for these souls, who he deemed intellectually less than the white man.
Many people have differing opinions on Jefferson and whether or not he should be “canceled,” due to his contradictory history, especially after he provided so much for our nation. Jefferson was indeed racist and a slaveholder. He was also a pillar for the founding of the nation and attempted to abolish slavery throughout his life. It can be argued that the United States would not be what it is today without Jefferson’s intellect and drive. Slavery is a terrible, inhumane practice that should never be accepted anywhere. It should never have existed in the United States. Jefferson attempted to end it bloodlessly and failed. Instead, an estimated 750,000 Americans lost their lives over this issue, something that would have completely torn the newborn U.S. apart had it occurred during the unsteady years of Jefferson’s lifetime.
While standing here in 2022, we judge him by our society’s standards, but for his time, he was progressive. He tried his best but failed miserably. Should we tear down and desecrate the memories of historical figures, who we now deem unworthy? Should we cancel them? Perhaps America is becoming a country ripped apart by guilt for past grievances, unable to look towards the future.
Victoria Foley is a fourth-year Political Science major with a minor in Politics, Law, and Society. VF964426@wcupa.edu