If you walk along the Quai Anatole France a solitary figure may appear in the distance. Elevated above the Parisian skyline on that street is a statue of Thomas Jefferson. His legacy and reputation are damaged more by the words of contemporary historians than his likeness is by the elements. Why are they so intent upon eroding the image of America's revolutionaries? That rumbling sound you can hear is fifty‐six signatories to the Declaration of Independence turning in their graves.
The judgement of these commentators 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 obvious fault in the Founder's slave‐owning, are there cogent reasons to continue summoning the grace to excuse them? The alternative is to sugarcoat the record of British Imperialism. Is this the intention Jefferson's detractors betray in their petulant attacks? The venomous way this revision of history is written is redolent of the mutilation Oliver Cromwell's corpse received at the hands of barbaric English monarchists. These writers have the benefit of the freedom of expression the Founders secured for them. It is just better if that right is used to make intelligent arguments rather than to recite eminently fashionable nonsense. If these men were as powerful and racist as they are made out to be, would slavery still be with us now? How could it ever have ended if they were intent on preserving it for reasons of racial hatred?
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 for them to hide behind. They are deflecting blame for the failure of successive generations to address prejudice. The misdirection by celebrated authorities like Henry Wiencek, Stephen Ambrose, Nicholas Magnis, and Peter Onuf is ineffectual because their approaches contain at least six terminal mistakes.
Firstly, some of these academics assert that Jefferson was wrong to direct the blame for slavery toward the figure of a King, but 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. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of anything more racist than monarchy. Jefferson identified the King as the purported top of the British "order of races". He knew 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, and the British Empire was all about servitude and subservience to the Crown. The fact Royalty persists as an institution is an indictment of the British nation.
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. They are so much better than their forebears that they can more readily side 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 will render as perfect dioramas. 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 more likely to be banished to some dusty, unfunded corner of the Internet. See? If you hate what has been written here, do not read the rest.
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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)
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