Wwell, I thought to myself when I heard that New York City Hall was taking down their massive statue of Thomas Jefferson – that’s loyalty to you. New York has always had monarchist sympathies. Perhaps, after removing the effigy of the Republican rebel, he will restore the statue of George III in Bowling Green and rename Columbia “King’s College”.
I was, of course, freakish. But the real reason for the Jefferson Statue removal is, if you think about it, just as strange. Until now, Jefferson is remembered for the fruitfulness of his mind, the brilliance of his pen, and the nobility of the principles he inscribed in the DNA of the nation he helped to create. But our present times judge everyone purely by the measure of race, and more or less condemn any white man born before World War I.
Jefferson was not perfect. He could be a terrible hypocrite. He gave the revolution its best lines, but didn’t really fight. He denounced factionalism while paying journalists to blackmail his rivals. He spoke of loyalty even as he maneuvered against George Washington. He denounced slavery but freed only 10 of the 600 human beings he possessed.
Of course, this last flaw is the one that haunts our generation. Dozens of books have been written on Jefferson’s record as a plantation owner, his relationship to Sally Hemings, the DNA of descendants of Monticello slaves (some of whom turned out to have Jefferson ancestors, although he did not be unclear whether it is from the third president rather than another parent).
This is all perfectly valid and, in its own way, interesting. But that’s not really the main story, is it? The reason Jefferson is famous, the reason we still visit Monticello and see the slave quarters, is that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Everything else is, or should be, incidental. Evaluating Jefferson solely as a slave owner is monomaniac.
Yet this biased approach to the past is now so prevalent that we hardly notice it. Last week I went to an exhibition at Tate Britain of works by William Hogarth. Hogarth was an ingenious printmaker and painter, with an eye for dandies, prostitutes, and figures of his time. The word “Hogarthian” has come to mean something like “rabelaisian” – earthy, bawdy, obscene, humorous. However, the authors of the wall text could only see one thing. Those drunken stumbling rakes – did you think the rum in their punch bowl came from plantations operated by slaves? And the lavish furniture in the background – how was it paid for, hmm?
Hogarth had no direct connection to slavery, but critics never let such things put them off. Jane Austen was a committed abolitionist, but the caretakers of her Hampshire home nonetheless felt the need to draw attention to the fact that she had bought tea and sugar, and that her ecclesiastical father (another abolitionist) would have inherited a plantation from a friend had the friend died early – which he did not.
You might think monomania is a weakness. A normal person, thinking of Jane Austen, thinks of romantic affairs rather than handcuffs. But don’t underestimate the appeal of a belief system that sinks everything into its particular doctrines. Marxists have managed to view everything from music to marriage through the prism of their sacred texts. Islamic fundamentalists do the same. They are gaining adherents, not despite this one-dimensional approach, but because of it. Many people seek simplicity and certainty.
These people may be a minority, but their fervor is intimidating – literally, in the sense that they attempt to frighten and intimidate the unconverted. How many active Bolsheviks were there in Russia in 1917? How many violent Salafists in Syria in 2011? How many Puritan fanatics in the early American colonies? In each case, the general population accompanied a tiny but fanatic fringe. In particular, the extremists won the support of those who shared their enemies: Russian Social Democrats who opposed Tsarism, nonviolent Muslims who disliked secular dictatorship, traditional Protestants who feared papism.
Today, in much the same way, commentators and academics on the liberal left accept critical race theory in its most intolerant form, not because they support it, but because they do not. don’t like to align themselves with the conservatives who are leading the charge against her.
Jefferson was an exceptional son of the Enlightenment. He believed in the primacy of reason and advocated free examination as the surest way to correct mistakes. He dreamed of a new republic based on scientific and rationalist principles, and, against all odds, he made his dream come true. America has now abandoned its precepts. No wonder his statue is scrapped.