Thomas Jefferson – a man who counts among his accomplishments authoring the Declaration of Independence, serving as the third president of the United States and, more problematically, owning some 600 slaves in his lifetime. Despite his ownership of these individuals, historian David Brion Davis notes, “[Jefferson] was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.” Yet modern research, including DNA testing, would seem to indicate a more complex picture.
A student petition and accompanying protest, planned for March 30, bore the colloquial title “Jefferson Has Gotta [sic] Go!” It was created with the goal of removing a statue of the founding father from its current residence in front of the David S. Mack Student Center, a place it has occupied since it was donated in 1999. The effort is being led by activist Ja’Loni Owens, whom frequent readers of The Chronicle will recognize for their editorials that focus primarily on racial issues. They outline their reasoning for this protest in a Facebook post for the event: “[Jefferson] owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime. Jefferson preyed upon many of these slaves, especially those who were young women and children. Jefferson was also SUPER into eugenics. He shouldn’t be idolized or honored.”
Owens would seem to be drawing their conclusions from what can be understood as the “revisionist” scholarship on Jefferson. This view of the third president is perpetuated in part by Paul Finkelman, a historian and the current president of Gratz College. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed entitled “The Monster of Monticello,” Finkelman discusses the paradoxical nature of a man who had over 600 slaves and still penned such lines as “all men are created equal.” His portrait of Jefferson is one of a man he calls “cruel,” a figure who merits condemnation by modern standards.
Yet despite this compelling view of the former president, and ample fact to support these claims, it is not the only study of the president in existence. There is also the “emancipationist” view, put forth by professor Douglas L. Wilson (among others), which sees Jefferson as a product of his time, alleging that he opposed the notion of slavery all his life, merely using it in a fashion similar to his contemporaries. Contrary to what Owens and their constituents might believe, there is also evidence to support this view as well.
Where Owens and the protest seem to go awry is perhaps in their failure to acknowledge the duality of Jefferson in a way that is politically correct and astute. Owens’ long list of Chronicle editorials would seem indicative of their immense frustration and anger at the abhorrent history people of color have endured in the United States. Yet instead of using their voice in a constructive, unifying way, as Martin Luther King Jr. may have done, they seem intent – intentionally or unintentionally – on merely railing against the white population as a whole, alienating many who could and want to be their steadfast allies.
The rhetoric of their Facebook post, and opinions voiced in The Chronicle, make their protest of the Jefferson statue ring somewhat hollow. For instance, in a November 2017 op-ed, they wrote, “the Second Amendment is an enabler and justification of white violence and is an impediment to black liberation in America.” Their piece here ignores the desire of the framers, in a post-Revolutionary War era, to avoid a similar threat, instead crafting a far-reaching and largely unsupported claim that proponents of the Second Amendment are in some way against people of color. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of individuals identifying as “black” own guns, a right afforded to them in the Constitution. Yet this statistic doesn’t further Owens’ line of thinking, and thus it is seemingly ignored.
It is here that I personally state that the statue of Jefferson should remain standing, not because I am in any way against Owens and her constituents, but rather because I feel that they are omitting large swaths of scholarship on the former president to further their personal political agendas. This is a view echoed by many on Hofstra’s campus, including Mitchell Ulrich, a freshman political science major. As he puts it, their “goal is justified by an exacerbated need to cleanse every inch of campus with what [they] believe to be immoral. The statue isn’t glorifying, nor was the statue being glorified. Barely anyone knew what the statue was before this whole debacle.” Ulrich goes on to note that the statue is in no way celebrating Jefferson’s troubling views, but rather his strides toward freedom and independence.
While I by no means seek to silence this protest, I do find that their conclusions largely stem not from Jefferson, but from perfectly legitimate outrage over America’s history of slavery and racism. The man they’re protesting once said: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” It is a constitutional right to vocally dislike an individual, though I would challenge any protestor to objectively look at the statue that offends them. Jefferson’s gaze is cast over two things: one, a residence hall bearing the name “Alliance” and two, the horizon. One concept cannot triumph without the other.
The views and opinions expressed in the Editorial section are those of the authors of the articles. They are not an endorsement of the views of The Chronicle or its staff. The Chronicle does not discriminate based on the opinions of the authors. The Chronicle reserves the right to not publish any piece that does not meet our editorial standards.