I have never seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” but I have heard the music. One does not have to listen too closely to understand Thomas Jefferson is as much a villain as Aaron Burr. However, history is messier than that. Jefferson deserves credit where it is due and damnation where it is not. His contributions must not be overlooked and it is important that no matter what your viewpoint is on him, he is not misrepresented. History is about people and people are complicated.
Jefferson was a slaveholder, a racist and a white supremacist. He also had a relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, an in-depth analysis of which can found in Annette Gordon-Reed’s “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” an important book for anyone interested in learning more. Reed’s book is famous for proving the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings before the DNA evidence and is still considered a definitive study on the matter. We don’t know how Jefferson felt about Hemings, but there are clues.
However, there is no historical evidence to suggest rape or evidence of Jefferson sexually abusing slaves. Sally was technically Jefferson’s wife’s half sister (he was a widower by this time), she was like Mrs. Jefferson in appearance and personality and she also passed for white. Relationships between master and slave were not always simple. Jefferson and Hemings were probably emotionally involved, as unsettling as that may be. To go back to Virginia from France on the promise of freedom required an immense amount of trust from Hemings. She was smart. She could speak French and read. Sally had seen a lot, even at her young age. In the case of the non-mutual liaison, it is more plausible she used the relationship to obtain a degree of agency with her master.
Jefferson’s personal history is spotty and his reasoning on race was extremely flawed. However, his contributions to education, engineering and political theory cannot fit a 10-page paper, let alone an editorial. He is undeniably omnipresent in our nation’s history. “One day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’” That was Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. Although the irony cannot be ignored, it was those words, Jefferson’s words, which inspired generations of Americans to fight for equality.
Without the Declaration of Independence we would have never had Seneca Falls, the 14th Amendment or a civil rights movement. Jefferson was also a huge advocate for freedom of (and from) religion, as well as separation of church and state. This distinction is the only thing protecting Americans’ reproductive rights today. He also was the first to establish a university built around a library rather than a chapel, replacing religion with reason in education.
This was unique for his time and should be in the mind of every student studying at a university like Hofstra. If you doubt his influence just look at what the president does on a daily basis, the way he attacks bipartisan institutions and the way it backfires. Those governmental defensive structures keeping the president in check, put there by founders like Jefferson, are the only things standing between you and a would-be autocrat.
In regard to the statue at Hofstra, I am indifferent. Frankly, it’s ugly (the bent leg is very weird) and students should always be able to choose who represents them. Casting our founders as idols ironically counters what our revolution was all about. It is important we argue and criticize them as they did with their predecessors.
As a person, I don’t like Thomas Jefferson. He was a bad president and a bad friend, however his contributions are undeniable. You don’t have to be a good person to do good things. Ultimately you decide, although your opinion should be based on the facts. If you are unsure of your feelings towards Jefferson because of his connection to slavery, I suggest reading Reed’s book for a full and honest picture. Many people in history are wrong on some things but right on others. It’s important to judge people according to the facts at hand.
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