Marching on Jefferson

Annette Gordon-Reed in the NYRB:

…the national tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville last week struck at every aspect of my being—a black person, a friend, an American, and a scholar who has devoted many years to studying Jefferson, slavery at Monticello, and, by extension, Charlottesville. I knew instantly why the men holding tiki torches felt the need to make their case for white supremacy by walking toward the statue of Jefferson that stands in front of the Rotunda he designed for the university he dreamed about and then founded. I also knew instantly that there was a reason the much less remarked upon “counterprotesters” surrounded Jefferson’s statue to keep the tiki torchers from reaching it, staking a defiant claim, in the face of superior numbers, to ideas about human equality and progress that they correctly perceived were under siege that night.

On the one hand Jefferson was a slaveowner, one who never freed a single slave in his lifetime, and freed only five in his will; one who had at least one sexual slave, who had children of his, who were also slaves. She (Sally Hemings) was his wife’s half-sister: their mutual father was John Wayles, and Hemings’s mother was of course Wayles’s slave. Jefferson was deeply entwined with slavery and with the ideology that attempted to justify it.

On the other hand Jefferson wrote the words that undermined that ideology.

The Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence, with its words proclaiming self–evident truths about the equality of mankind and the pursuit of happiness, has inspired people the world over. Every marginalized group in the United States seeking inclusion looks first to Jefferson’s words to claim equal citizenship in the United States. Blacks have been in a dialogue with Jefferson and the Declaration from the beginning of the republic. It is not for nothing that the Declaration is called America’s creed—even when we know that is far more aspiration than reality.

Samuel Johnson was very harsh about that gap between the aspiration and the reality – more because he disliked the aspiration than because he abhorred the reality, but he was right all the same. (What he said: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”)

The day following the confrontation at Jefferson’s statue, the torch-bearers and their supporters went to another part of Charlottesville for the event that had brought them to the city: a rally to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who fought a war against the country Jefferson helped to found. Not surprisingly, there were mixed views about the Sage of Monticello even in the Confederacy. While some applauded his states’ rights philosophy, they abhorred the language of the Declaration, recognizing its inherent and destabilizing power.

Today, a time of intense focus on the personal and of misplaced faith in the importance of sincerity, we question whether Jefferson really believed the words “all men are created equal,” as if ideas are only as important and powerful as the personal will of the individual who utters them. The Confederates knew better than that. Ideas can have a power and life of their own. They weren’t taking any chances. They saw Jefferson as a public man who had put ideas into popular discourse that could be used in opposition to the society they hoped to build. The Confederates took him at his word, thinking it important to mention him by name and repudiate what they took to be his views. Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone Speech” said that Jefferson was wrong, insisting that blacks were not the equals of whites and, therefore, slavery was A-OK.

That’s the contradiction we’ve lived with for two and a half centuries. We’re a long way from resolving it.

7 Responses to “Marching on Jefferson”