Thursday, November 17, 2016

Quoting Jefferson

"Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.’ . . . I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility."

UVA President, Teresa Sullivan


This is the unfortunate paragraph that has sent over 500 students and faculty at the University of Virginia scurrying to their safe spaces in horror. Mr. Jefferson's high opinion of the quality of future UVA students has had the effect of sending some of them to their fainting couches. Perhaps if the old man were alive today to see what has become of the student body of the school he founded, his exalted opinion of them would come crashing back down to earth. . .where it surely belongs. For us, the living, we must devoutly wish that UVA graduates do "not succeed to the government of our country."

The petition signed by the aggrieved parties at UVA objects to the use of a quotation by its founder not on the merits of what he said, but rather who he was, namely. . .a slave owner. The complaint is that although Jefferson was a great man, he also owned other human beings, so quoting him cannot be allowed because of the message of exclusion, and disunity which his past sins represents.

Ok. . .

Yes, by all means, let's throw out the wisdom and contributions of our ancestors whenever we discover them acting like men and women from the 18th century. I mean, how virtuous can they really be if they particated in an institution like slavery? No, men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington have nothing whatsoever to offer  enlightened 21st century humankind. No mention of their words, no matter how lofty, any longer has a place in polite society.

I feel quite confident in my conviction that the combined future output of the entire student body at UVA will not produce anything more lasting and durable than the Declaration of Independence. I feel sure that all the future scribblings of the 500 buttercups who signed this letter will not eclipse the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom for its advancement of liberty. But yeah. . .the bastard owned slaves. 

Our heroes often disappoint us. We wish they were more consistent. That a man who wrote, "All men are created equal" could own slaves jolts 21st century man. How could a man with such progressive attitudes towards government like Woodrow Wilson be such a bigot? How could someone who did so much for the poor and downtrodden in America like FDR be such a homophobe? The answer is, A. We are all deeply flawed, and B. We are all reflections of the times we grow up in. I hate to break it to the tender reeds in Charlottesville, but it is quite possible to have been a great and even indispensable man and to have been a slave owner in  the 1700's. The two are not mutually exclusive. We can at once acknowledge the greatest of Mr. Jefferson and ponder the inconsistencies in his life. Why was he such a spendthrift? Why was he so late in acknowledging the abuses of the French Revolution? Why did he lie about Sally Hemings? Why didn't he take up arms during the revolution? Why did he own slaves? But friends, I am here to tell you that without the man, the American experiment would have failed, and the delicate flowers in Albemarle county would be matriculating elsewhere.