Students at Hofstra University are calling for the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States and author of The Declaration of Independence.
A student protest, dubbed “Jefferson Has Gotta Go!”, was held on March 30th at the Hofstra University Student Center. The event is sponsored by Democrats of Hofstra University and the Young Democratic Socialists of Hofstra, among others.
According to the event’s Change.org petition, “Jefferson’s values aided in the construction of institutionalized racism and justified the subjugation of black people in the United States.” It is further claimed that “[Jefferson] raped countless enslaved black women and children and forced them to deliver his biological children.”
None of these claims are true. The truth, in fact, runs in diametric opposition to these claims.
The values of Thomas Jefferson can be partially described through the political philosophy for which he advocated, Jeffersonian democracy. This philosophy calls for unquestioned opposition to aristocracy and corruption, the protection of the American yeoman or, in modern terms, the common man, and contained an ever-present insistence on virtue.
Taken by itself, one may be led to believe that while Jefferson was a tireless advocate for liberty, that advocacy was only on behalf of whites. This is, however, untrue.
On the specific charge of Jefferson’s aiding the construction of institutionalized racism, Jefferson in fact predicted such a thing would exist, and attempted to offer a solution for its prevention.
He was an advocate for the relocation of freed slaves, writing in Notes on the State of Virginia, “It will probably be asked, ‘Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?’ Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
Anyone with a clear and open mind can clearly see that Jefferson in no way supported institutionalized racism, and in fact attempted to offer solutions to prevent it once enslaved blacks were freed.
As far as the claim that Jefferson justified the subjugation of black people in the United States is concerned, Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” which he believed presented the most serious threat to the preservation of the American republic. Further, Jefferson believed slavery in opposition to the very laws of nature, evidenced by his writings in Notes on the State of Virginia and later in The Declaration of Independence, when he famously made the radical claim 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.” Jefferson’s words inspired some states, Massachusetts among these, to abolish slavery altogether.
The claim that Jefferson raped countless numbers of enslaved black women is, by far, the most egregiously false claim made by this group. To begin, it must be acknowledged that Jefferson did, in fact, father children by his slave, Sally Hemings. That said, there is no evidence he fathered children by or had sexual relations with any of his other slaves and, for that reason, only Hemings will be dealt with in detail.
Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died in 1782 at the age of 33. On her death bed, she begged her husband to promise her that he would never remarry. He obliged, and kept his promise until his death. As a way around this, though, Jefferson took a concubine in Sally Hemings. Hemings was his wife’s half-sister who was ¾ white, and likely bore great resemblance to her.
Since she was a slave, and was considered black under the law, it would have been illegal for Jefferson to marry her. Therefore, he could never break the promise he made to his wife, while still enjoying the companionship of Hemings. There is no indication that this relationship was nonconsensual and, in fact, Jefferson freed all of his children by Hemings, and Hemings herself was freed shortly after his death. Certainly a case can be made that Jefferson’s actions here were immoral, but to label him a rapist, certainly a rapist of countless women, has no basis in fact.
Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Philosopher, was a tireless advocate for the liberty of all people, and a man far ahead of the times in which he lived. Without Jefferson, there is little doubt that the United States would not be the great nation it is today. Similarly, Americans likely would not enjoy many of the freedoms currently guaranteed to them under the Constitution if it weren’t for the influence of Jefferson and his acolytes.
In a time when said freedoms are under direct assault from countless directions, we should be building more statues to honor the inimitable Mr. Jefferson, not tearing down the ones which currently exist based on the incoherent rants of individuals with no knowledge of history.