Talk about ingratitude. Students at the University of Virginia have become the latest young Americans to try to saw off the branch of the tree that they are sitting on. In this case, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.
An article written by the editorial board of the university’s student newspaper says that Thomas Jefferson’s image and name should be removed from the university’s buildings. The editorial tries to draw a link between Jefferson, the Ku Klux Klan and the people who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.
Of course, plenty of people have pointed out that these students are committing an act of double patricide. They are not only waging war on one of the people who founded this country. They are waging war on the man who founded the university that they are sitting in. Who knows whether these students would have a university to go to if Thomas Jefferson had never lived? Who knows whether they would have a country?
Unfortunately, some people dismiss such idiocy, pretending that they are mere student shenanigans. Students always say stupid things, goes this argument. Don’t pay attention to them — they’ll grow up. Other people claim that these are mere pockets of idiocy, and that although the Founding Fathers may be under assault, it does not signify anything wider.
An insidious trend
Such complacent arguments are completely wrong. The outburst of statue-toppling and other iconoclasm in 2020 was not an isolated event. It was an eruption of a trend that is now going on all the time. Remember that it was only last fall that our own council members here in New York voted to remove Jefferson’s statue from the City Hall because he apparently no longer represents “our values.”
Fresh examples come every week. Earlier this week, an elementary school in New Jersey announced that it was dropping Jefferson’s name from the school. Jefferson Elementary School in South Orange is going to be renamed after students at the school started demanding the third president’s name be removed from the school. The school will now be renamed after the first black woman to graduate from Columbia HS in Maplewood. As The Post reported earlier this week, the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education voted 6-3 to change the name, with board members criticizing Jefferson because of his slave ownership.
Of course, there are many things to say against this. Not the least of which is to note that it was students at an elementary school who campaigned to rename the school.
What do elementary students know about Thomas Jefferson? Only the same thing that the students at University of Virginia know about him. That he owned slaves. If they know anything else about him, it is probably that he had sexual relations with Sally Hemings, and that he fathered children by his slave. Even Monticello, where Jefferson’s reputation should be being safeguarded, pushes the line on Sally Hemings, indicting their own founder on DNA evidence from the 1990s that is contested by many serious historians.
But this one-dimensional, one-note interpretation of the life of Jefferson appears to have taken hold everywhere, from Monticello and the University of Virginia to cities and streets across this country.
There was a time when young Americans knew that Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, was the third president and one of the Founding Fathers. Today they know almost nothing about him except that he was a slaveholder, a racist and probably a rapist.
Ordinarily at such times, some of the adults would return to the room and try to wrest the American story back. They would explain to the elementary-school students and the university students that you cannot reduce such a heroic life to the one thing. Let alone the one thing — slave ownership — that everybody now agrees to be wrong.
The adults would educate students to know that if Thomas Jefferson had tried to push for abolition at the founding of the United States, then the United States would never have been founded. They would prove the fact that, for his day, Jefferson was a remarkably forward-thinking man. Though he did not think that slavery was a desirable thing, he thought that the creation of the United States was. And so he created it.
A historical fallacy
Naturally, it is very easy for today’s students to imagine that they would have done things differently. That they would have been magically anti-slavery in the late 1700s and have the most progressive views imaginable. They fancy that they would have held all of the views they hold in 2022 but would hold them while living in the 1770s. It is a silly historical fallacy. If these students had lived in Jefferson’s time, then most of them would have held views that would have been far more embarrassing than anything Jefferson ever said or did.
But worse even than this repeated defamation of Jefferson is the destruction this simple-minded attitude causes in this country. It is a destruction that we have been warned about before.
In his farewell address to the nation, Ronald Reagan warned about precisely this. Even then, in 1989, the 40th president used his last speech from the Oval Office to warn about the mis-teaching of American history. He told American adults that if they failed to communicate the American story, that was a great crime against the young. And he told the young that if their parents didn’t teach them what it means to be an American, “let ’em know and nail ’em on it.”
Most importantly, he warned, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” Today this country is forgetting what we did, and so, of course, we are forgetting who we are. This, in turn, will lead, as Reagan warned, to “an erosion of the American spirit.” That erosion is precisely what is going on today at schools and universities across this country.
That is why it cannot be ignored. That is why it must be stopped.