On Monday night, the Charlottesville, Virginia, city council voted to scrap a city holiday honoring Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States. They will replace it with a holiday marking the day Union troops entered Charlottesville and liberated the slaves. We should mark both days.
Jefferson has been controversial because he was a slaveholder whose slave, Sally Hemings, bore six of his children. The city of Charlottesville was shaken last year when white supremacists marched through town and one plowed his car into a group of protestors, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer. One woman responded to the vote by saying, “As a city that wants to move forward, that wants to do the difficult work of racial reconciliation, it’s important that we stop venerating racists.”
I think the difficult work includes trying to understand the complexities of human nature. Jefferson’s slaveholding may be repugnant but it was also widely accepted in his day. In addition to Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe also owned slaves. If we’re going to stop honoring Jefferson because he owned slaves, we’ll have to start trying to erase these Founding Fathers also. It won’t work.
It’s a bit ironic that Charlottesville passed the ordinance in the week that marks the anniversary of Jefferson’s defining document. Two hundred and forty-three years ago, Jefferson was writing:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Jefferson’s words became the basis for our form of government. They were aspirational, idealistic and revolutionary. They didn’t describe a government that was, but one that could be. We’ve been struggling to create his vision ever since.
It’s Jefferson’s concept of a government that is subservient to the will of the people that was so radical. And it was the idea that all people are equal that led to a Civil War to end slavery 85 years after he penned the Declaration. It’s his sense of fairness, liberty and equality that drives us today to find a more just nation. It’s not a struggle with an end.
Jefferson was a flawed man who failed to live by his own beliefs or didn’t apply them to the people he owned. Still, he gave us, as a young country, a core set of values that define us today. He clearly couldn’t live by those values and neither have we. We shouldn’t erase Jefferson because of his moral failings. We should celebrate him for his attempt to create something better than himself, even if he failed, because, really, his story is an apt metaphor for our history.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >