In New York City, a statue of Thomas Jefferson has graced the City Council chamber for 100 years. This week the Public Design Commission voted unanimously to remove it. “Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history,” explained Adrienne Adams, a councilwoman from Queens. Assemblyman Charles Barron went even further. Responding to a question about where the statue should go next, he was contemptuous: “I don’t think it should go anywhere. I don’t think it should exist.”
When iconoclasts topple Jefferson, they seem to validate the argument advanced by defenders of Confederate monuments that there is no escape from the slippery slope. “First they come for Nathan Bedford Forrest, and then for Robert E. Lee. Where does it end? Is Jefferson next? Is George Washington?”
No historical figure is without blemish, they protest. And it’s unfair to condemn our ancestors using today’s standards. If owning slaves is the discrediting fact about Lee, how then can we excuse George Washington? As if on cue, TFG chimed in with a statement chiding the city for “evicting” the “late, great Thomas Jefferson, one of our most important founding fathers.” Not so important, apparently, that Trump felt the need to learn about him though, because the next phrase was “a principal writer of the Constitution of the United States.” Sigh. No, Jefferson was in Paris during the Constitutional Convention. He authored another founding document Trump hasn’t read. But never mind.
There is an answer—a reason why it’s right to remove Robert E. Lee from his pedestal in Richmond, Virginia, yet wrong to exile Thomas Jefferson from a place of honor in American life. It requires grappling with the full complexity of human beings and the mixed legacy of history. We must, as Shakespeare said “Take them for all in all,” that is, judge them for their entire lives, not just a part.
No nation can endure without heroes. They are part of what creates our national story and links us through generations. They are the inspiration for natives and immigrants alike. America in particular, as a creedal nation, needs unifying figures to provide the glue that other nations derive from ethnicity or religion. Fortunately for us, our founders can withstand scrutiny. But before turning to the defense of Jefferson and Washington, we need some clarity about the Confederacy.
People who defend monuments to Lee on the grounds that he played an important role in our history are confusing significance with honor. Lee surely played a huge role in our history, but as the leader of an army whose aim was to destroy the union. That made him a textbook traitor. As Ulysses Grant put it in his memoir, recalling his feelings upon accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
Is it fair to judge Lee by our modern standards? Perhaps not, but even by the standards of his own day, he is wanting. Much has been made of Lee’s supposedly agonizing decision to resign his U.S. Army commission because he could not “raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children. Save in defense of my native state, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.” But others, including Gen. Winfield Scott, who offered Lee command of the Union army in 1861, also hailed from Virginia, yet remained loyal, as did Virginian General George Henry Thomas, the “Rock of Chicamauga,” and an estimated 100,000 white southerners who fought for the Union.
Lee’s image has been sanitized and even beatified by purveyors of the “Lost Cause” narrative about the Confederacy. They’ve depicted Lee as an upright, chivalrous defender of tradition, a moral man, and a Christian. But, as Adam Serwer reminds us, this is a fable. Lee was a cruel slave master. In the words of Wesley Norris, one of his slaves who attempted to escape and was whipped, “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” As the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee enslaved all of the black Union soldiers he captured as well as free black Pennsylvanians his army encountered.
Lee strove to destroy the country and thus deserves to be remembered in infamy, not as a hero.
As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson enshrined the ideals that made this nation. Those words gave courage to thousands of bondmen, indeed, they were quoted by the revolutionaries in Haiti (though Jefferson’s administration did not recognize the revolutionary government there). Jefferson’s words formed our national identity as free people and marked a departure in human affairs. As the British statesman Edmund Burke remarked at the time: “It has made as great a change in all the relations, and balances, and gravitation of power, as the appearance of a new planet would in the system of the solar world.” Historian David Armitage estimates that at least half of the world’s nations today boast a document that can be called a declaration of independence. A 19th-century Hungarian nationalist, Lajos Kossuth, called the American Declaration of Independence “the noblest, happiest page in mankind’s history.”
Was Jefferson a hypocrite? Oh yes. One of history’s most flamboyant. He owned slaves and almost certainly fathered children with his dead wife’s half sister, Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman. But he never defended the institution (as Lee did), quite the contrary. He wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
Jefferson instructed that three things be mentioned on his tombstone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.” Religious liberty is a cornerstone of American life and he was rightly proud of the legislation that paved the way for the First Amendment. Virginia’s law disestablished the Church of England and provided freedom of worship for all Christian denominations as well as for Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. And, reflecting his personality, the Statute was even written with wit:
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do. . .
In other words, if God, who is omnipotent, chose not to coerce humans into any particular belief, we humans should likewise refrain.
Do we overlook Jefferson’s shameful private behavior? No, but we take him in full. His contribution to human liberty, despite his personal behavior, entitles him to a place of honor. There will always be an asterisk, but to say that statues honoring him “shouldn’t exist” as the New York City assemblyman did, is to dismiss the Declaration, the American anthem. As Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1859 to a gathering celebrating Jefferson’s birthday:
All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
As for George Washington, there would have been no nation to criticize or lionize without him. If Jefferson was the poet laureate of liberty, Washington was the living exemplar of republican virtue. Having led the revolution, he could have proclaimed himself king or dictator. Some urged him to do so. In response to a letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola of the Continental Army urging Washington to adopt the title of king, he wrote that the suggestion had been “painful” and continued, “if you have any regard for your Country, concern for your self or posterity—or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.” When King George III was told by the American artist Benjamin West that Washington intended to resign and return to private life after winning his country’s freedom, the king said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
He was. Many a revolutionary leader came after him. Most became despots in turn. None has achieved his greatness. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and established the norms of republican conduct as the first president. He balanced the egos of his brilliant, feuding cabinet members and created a nation.
Yes, Washington held human beings in bondage, and that was terrible. His ownership of slaves is a blight on his record. But the rest shines bright. No nation that has judgment—and gratitude—can fail to honor him forever.
Correction, October 20, 2021, 7:30 a.m. EDT: A sentence in this article as originally published mistakenly claimed that George Washington did not break up slave families; he sometimes did.