It was only a matter of time before one of the greatest Presidents and statesmen this country ever had, Thomas Jefferson, came under the Knife of Offense because he owned slaves. And indeed, that was a terrible form of oppression, one that caused Jefferson himself some cognitive dissonance, but he kept his slaves till he died, and of course fathered children by one of them. But he also called slavery an “abominable crime.” Many famous people engaged in morally repugnant activities, but I think we have to understand them, though not excuse them, as adhering to “regular behavior” at the time. And we shouldn’t, I think, let these flaws completely efface the good works such people did.
But now, as reported by The Washington Post, reason.com, and the University of Virginia (founded by Jefferson) student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia students have told the University’s president that they didn’t like his use of a Jefferson quotation in emails to the faculty
Several professors on Grounds collaborated to write a letter to University President Teresa Sullivan against the inclusion of a Thomas Jefferson quote in her post-election email Nov. 9.
In the email, Sullivan encouraged students to unite in the wake of contentious results, arguing that University students have the responsibility of creating the future they want for themselves.
“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,’” Sullivan said in the email. “I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.”
The temerity of President Sullivan! And if that weren’t enough, she’d quoted Jefferson before. From the Post:
It wasn’t the first such email quoting Jefferson that Sullivan had written to the student body. As The Washington Post’s Susan Svrluga reported, a week earlier she sent one out after someone scrawled the word “terrorists” on the door of a dorm room where two Muslim students resided.
In that letter, Sullivan advocated peace on campus, writing, “Thomas Jefferson was the first American president to wrest power from an opposing party, yet he also provided a potent precedent for the peaceful transfer of power and the healing of a divided nation.”
Well, there’s nothing in either email about slavery, but merely quoting a slaveowner (who happened to have written the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom) was enough to arouse the Perpetually Offended. Noelle Hurd, an assistant professor of psychology at the University, drafted an open letter to the President, which was cosigned by 469 people:
Dear President Sullivan,
We are writing in response to the e-mails you have sent out to the university community in regards to civility in the current political climate. We appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge the issues facing our community and to encourage unity and inclusivity. We also wanted to take the opportunity to provide you with some constructive and respectful feedback regarding your messages.
We are incredibly disappointed in the use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. Other memorable Jefferson quotes include that Blacks are “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind,” and “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” Though we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we also realize that many of us are deeply offended by attempts on behalf of our administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.
In the spirit of inclusivity, we would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotes undermines the messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity that you are attempting to convey. We understand desires to maintain traditions at this university, but when these traditions threaten progress and reinforce notions of exclusion, it is time to rethink their utility. Thank you for your time.
I presume that means that we should no longer quote the Declaration of Independence, for it too was written largely by Jefferson. And remember that Darwin, though an abolitionist, saw blacks as inferior to whites, so we shouldn’t quote The Origin, either, should we?
As the Post further reports, at least one signer said that quoting Jefferson was sufficient to “undo progress.” I don’t believe that for a minute; it’s just cant from the Regressive left:
Politics professor Lawrie Balfour, who also signed the letter, said that a simple mention of Jefferson is enough to undo progress — a cycle that’s oft repeated during her decade and a half with the school.
“I’ve been here 15 years,” Balfour told the Cavalier Daily. “Again and again, I have found that at moments when the community needs reassurance and Jefferson appears, it undoes I think the really important work that administrators and others are trying to do.”
Here’s Sullivan’s in response to the letter (my emphasis):
In the long-standing tradition of open discourse, UVA faculty, staff, and students are free to express their opinions, as they did in a letter to me last week. I fully endorse their right to speak out on issues that matter to all of us, including the University’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy. We remain true to our values and united in our respect for one another even as we engage in vigorous debate.
Words have power. To quote any person is to acknowledge the potency of that person’s words. In my message last week, I agreed with Mr. Jefferson’s words expressing the idea that UVA students would help to lead our Republic. He believed that 200 years ago, and I believe it today. Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from the University.
We respond to the challenges of our times, and equity and inclusion are urgent leadership issues today. UVA is still producing leaders for our Republic, and from backgrounds that Mr. Jefferson could not have anticipated in 1825, when he wrote the words that I quoted. Today’s leaders are women and men, members of all racial and ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ community, and adherents of all religious traditions. All of them belong at today’s UVA, whose founder’s most influential and most quoted words were “. . . all men are created equal.” Those words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power, they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.
I think that’s a good response. Remember that morality has changed, as Steve Pinker documented so well in The Better Angels of our Nature. What is considered unacceptable by today’s lights was often acceptable in the past. That doesn’t mean that if someone thought hard and long about slavery back then, and witnessed it, that they should have been okay with it. What it means is that morality is not only biological but cultural, and the cultural part, which changes over time, is transmitted to us from our parents, peers, and other important figures. If they tell us that slavery is okay, as many did in Jefferson’s day, then we’ll be brought up thinking that it’s okay, and it would be hard to think your way out of it—just as it’s hard to think your way out of long-inculcated religious beliefs and moral strictures. Now that we’ve realized that slavery is not okay, it has become unacceptable to own slaves or speak about other groups the way Jefferson did.
We have to remember these issues before we begin demonizing figures of the past. And we have to balance their indoctrination by their milieu against the genuine good that people like Jefferson did. It’s simply unacceptable to ban any quotes by Jefferson because they undo progress. They don’t. One can hold progressive views on some issues (i.e., Jefferson’s views on religious freedom, which are now part of American law) and ones now seen as immoral on other issues. Words like those below are the crying of spoiled children, even if they be faculty; and they’re a failure to recognize that the world, especially when we consider the values of the past, is complicated.
For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotes undermines the messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity that you are attempting to convey.