When I was a graduate student at a New York university, Thomas Jefferson was detested by the faculty, while his bête noire Alexander Hamilton was not. Given their animus to anything Southern, and their heresy hunts for “racism,” I was not surprised. As expected, his slave-holding was a target. But what really rankled “conservative” professors were his attempts to stymie big government capitalism as represented by Alexander Hamilton. His insistence on individual liberty was attacked by said professors–“rhetorical finery” as one put it–as an obstacle to the establishment of a federal government organized for profit. This smoothly running operation was not just for the ordinary citizen to increase their means, but it was also intended for politicians. What is today attacked as “special interest” politicians, who governed on behalf of the businesses they had investments in, was lauded by these academics. In point of fact, they were correct about Jefferson as an impediment, as he denounced such selective representation as violating the idea of politicians selflessly representing everyone.
One would think, given the Occupy Wall Street ethos afflicting this generation of college students, that these aspects of Jefferson would be lauded. But this week at the college he founded, students and professors argue that any comment by Jefferson is racist due to his slave-holding. With this extension in mind, 500 students and professors have signed a petition demanding that he no longer be even mentioned in emails.
What kick-started said petition was UVA president Teresa Sullivan’s attempts to establish some calm after the election of Donald Trump. To soothe the protesting students, she quoted Jefferson in an email:
“Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.” She concluded by encouraging them to “embrace that responsibility.”
But not only have students and professors have demanded that all references to Jefferson cease, they also regard anyone who even mentions him favorably in emails to be racist.
The real Jefferson, however, was conflicted about slavery. One one hand he did make racist comments about them, adhering to the “paternal, caring” rationalization which slave-holders used to justify their rule: that blacks are inferior to whites in the “endowments of body and mind,” and that they are “incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” On the other hand, he sought a way out of keeping them in bondage. In 1782, he drafted legislation allowing owners to free their slaves. Two years later, he advocated for the abolition of slavery in the newly-opened western states. Although this motion was not carried by Congress (it failed to pass by one vote), they eventually followed parts of his proposal by passing the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which abolished slavery in the Northwest Territory. As President, he proposed a law that would cease the import and export of slaves, which was passed by Congress.
But students and professors have now constructed a neat trick designed to stymie such efforts to present the man’s complexity. By rendering all quotes by him to track back to his racism, and those who quote him favorably to be guilty of said charge, the petition-signers have constructed yet another speech code. Quoting Jefferson even in a neutral manner now contaminates the speaker with the dread charge of racism.