If you walk along the Quai Anatole France a solitary figure may appear in the distance. Elevated above the Parisian skyline on that street, and resolute against the often hostile elements, is a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
His legacy and reputation are damaged more by the words of contemporary historians than his likeness is by rain, snow, and wind. Why are they so keen to erode the image of America's revolutionaries? Is Thomas Jefferson a deserving target for character assassination?
A minority of scholars assign the blame for the persistence of slavery after the American Revolution to the omissions of the Founders. Jefferson's bones in particular serve as a kind of human remains shield to deflect blame for the failure of successive generations to address prejudice. This misdirection by relevant authorities like Henry Wiencek, Stephen Ambrose, Nicholas Magnis, and Peter Onuf is ineffectual because their approaches contain at least six prospective mistakes.
The judgement of these individuals is as legitimate a subject for scrutiny as the words or acts of great thinkers whose roles in history are of incalculable value. Although we can see fault in the Founder's slave-owning, are there cogent reasons for us all to continue to summon the grace to excuse them, rather than sugarcoat the record of British Imperialism? What do Jefferson's detractors betray in their petulant attacks?
Firstly, some of these academics assert that Jefferson was wrong to direct the blame for slavery toward the figure of a King. In one sense this is reasonable. George III was not responsible alone, but nor was Jefferson. Given the venomous way this revision of history is written a reader could be forgiven for thinking he was. The very institution of monarchy is a paradigm of exclusion based on ethnicity and "breeding". Succession to the throne is contingent upon belonging to a family line, and the "purity" of that line. Jefferson recognised it as the purported top of the British "order of races", and that inevitably the value of people is measured according to their ascribed racial or ethnic departure from it. Choosing to regard people as lesser beings makes it easier to justify their servitude. Despite being white, British American colonials like Jefferson were also gratuitously denigrated. Referred to, amongst other things, as "ruffled dunces", they knew the sting of being considered low in the Imperial race rankings. Modern American critics evidently ignore this in their assessments, being so much better than their forebears that they can more readily identify with a malignant empire, and give it a pass.
Notwithstanding the comical usurpation in questioning Jefferson's judgement on the matter, or his precise targeting of the institution and symbolism of monarchy, historians need new interpretations of primary sources in order to sell their books or articles. It appears the point has been reached where the only new spin on Jefferson is that he was wrong, making the British inexorably right. That is really new. So new, in fact, it does advance history - all the way into the fiction section of Barnes and Noble. Historians sometimes seem to presume that their works render as perfect dioramas, when in reality they are about as convincing as paper doll chains hacked in a fit of pique from the available records. Regressive assaults on the architect of American exceptionalism are therefore sophistry. These sensationalist arguments are easy to propagate amongst a conditioned consumer audience. Those appealing to reason are unlikely to impress, and liable to be banished to some dusty, unfunded corner of the Internet. See?
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- Thomas Jefferson, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America", July 1774
- Henry Wiencek, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson", Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012
- Peter Onuf, lectures for his University of Virginia class "The Age of Jefferson".
- Nicholas Magnis, "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery: An Analysis of His Racist Thinking as Revealed by His Writings and Political Behavior", Journal of Black Studies Vol. 29, No. 4 (Mar, 1999), pp. 491-509
- Stephen E. Ambrose, "Founding Fathers and Slaveholders: To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?", Smithsonian Magazine, November 2002
- Henry Wiencek - Thomas Jefferson, 2012 public lecture (link opens a new window or tab) Kansas City Public Library recording, Community Audio, Archive.org (listen especially to the closing comments - rationale and motive for involvement in Jefferson scholarship)
Copyright © Roger Arley Smith 2016