Self-Soothing by Way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History

Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love.
— Thomas Jefferson

My beloved mentor in the humanities, Everett C. Albers, taught me the most important of all lessons: "Judgement is easy, understanding is hard."

You probably have been following the recent spasm of righteousness on some of our college campuses. Some students wish to erase all traces of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, because he was a racist who undid what little integration his predecessors had managed in the federal government; because he was a sexist, who actively worked against women's suffrage. Some students wish to have statues of Thomas Jefferson removed from the campus of the University of Missouri, because he was a racist, a slaveholder, and a sexual predator (if you read the Sally Hemings story in the darkest possible way). Some students at Oxford University wish to erase all traces of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, because he was a racist and an imperialist.

And so on.

It is true, by our standards as exemplars of perfect enlightenment, these men were all racists and indeed apartheidists. I have a close connection with two of them: Jefferson, whom I have been studying for thirty years, and Rhodes, whose scholarship I freely accepted back in 1976, and under whose financial legacy I studied for four wonderful years at Oxford University. I know the life and achievement of Woodrow Wilson less well, but I have read a handful of books about him over the years.

I regard this growing trend of purification rituals as wrong-headed and misguided for a number of reasons. I'll list them as briefly as possible.

1. What will they say of us? Sometimes I try to anticipate what the righteous ones of the future will say about us? I met a petrochemical engineer a number of years ago. We talked for several hours about oil as a miracle carbon. I asked her what the epitaph of Western Civilization would be. She said. "They burnedoil." This morning I'm wearing shoes, socks, boxers, trousers, and a shirt, not one item of which was made in the United States. If I could trade each item of clothing back to the factory of its manufacture, I doubt that I would sleep well tonight. I'm with Jesus, John 8:7, "let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

2. The whole man theory. As Jefferson wisely explained to his daughter Martha (see above), every human being is a mixed bag: enlightenment and blind prejudice, generosity and narcissism, benevolence and malevolence, good day and bad day, clarity and blind spot, outstanding in some ways, deplorable in others. Think of Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Benito Mussolini, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, for example. In selecting our culture heroes, we have to assess the whole life and the entire achievement.

Jefferson was a racist and a slaveholder. These factors should weigh heavily in any rational assessment of his life and character. But we must also place in the balance his magnificent labors as a benefactor of humankind: decimal coinage, the rectangular survey grid system, separation of church and state, the University of Virginia, the organizational principle of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, the design for the Capitol at Richmond, VA, fundamental work in paleontology, the Declaration of Independence, and the software of the American dream.

For all of his faults--and they do not begin and end with slavery--is Jefferson, in the final analysis, a benefactor or a degrader of humankind? On balance, how shall we evaluate him? Looking at his whole 83 years, his mass of writings, his range of practical achievements, his acts of greatness and his weakest moments, how shall we finally assess him? 

3. Hamlet's view. When the aging courtier Polonius tells Hamlet he will treat the visiting theater group "according to their desert," Hamlet responds passionately: "God's bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping." -- Precisely. Where does this erasure of the past, more reminiscent of Stalin's USSR and Orwell's 1984 than of an enlightened democracy, end exactly? George Washington was a slaveholder. Lincoln had race views that would get him razed from Mount Rushmore by the narrowly righteous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said remarkably ugly things about African-Americans when black men got the vote but white women did not in the wake of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer. Theodore Roosevelt was at times a warmonger. His views on American Indians are so dark at times that one hates even to read them in a scholarly arena. John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, (where does this list end?) broke their marriage vows. Martin Luther King was a womanizer and he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush evaded military service during the Vietnam War. Presidents Obama, Clinton, and GW Bush smoked dope. JFK dropped acid in the White House!

The only political figure I know who seems to have passed the righteous test in full purity is Jimmy Carter. That alone should give us pause. Where does this wave of righteous expurgation end?

4. 'Tis better to wrestle than erase. My mentor Ev Albers believed that the duty of the humanities scholar is to examine and explore, to try to put any text or historical act or individual in its context, to try to understand how things shook out as they did and not otherwise. The duty of the humanist is to explore the past for its complexity, richness, unresolvedness, nuance, paradox, and problematic nature, and not to engage in the lazy enterprise of making glib judgments. Judgement is easy, understanding difficult. It does no good to portray Jefferson as a lover of liberty who unfortunately was born into a world of slavery, but who treated his slaves well and tried to change the world of Virginia and the United States to the extent that he could; and equally it does no good to portray Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite who talked the language of liberty and equality, but who was quite content to breed slaves for the marketplace, and who dismissed African-Americans as physically and mentally inferior. One could make either argument plausibly enough, for there is a huge and not always consistent body of evidence in Jefferson writings and actions. 

But surely we gain more by wrestling with the paradoxes in Jefferson's life, illuminating, clarifying, teasing out nuance, attempting to understand his own (changing) thinking about race and slavery, his own strategy for preserving his reputation as an apostle of liberty while buying and selling human beings, who, as he freely acknowledged, "did him no injury." After spending thirty years thinking and writing about Jefferson, I am not at all sure I understand his relationship to race and slavery. I'm not done trying. But I refuse simply to condemn him before I fully understand him. 

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable complexities of our heritage. Jefferson's greatest biographers have said that the contradictions and unresolved principles in his life (1743-1826) are also the contradictions and unresolved issues in the American experiment. To understand ourselves, we must try to understand him. To judge him in a simplistic and self-satisfying way, means that we are short-circuiting our attempts to understand ourselves. 

It would be insane, I think, to refuse to name an elementary school Martin Luther King, Jr., because he broke his marriage vows, or plagiarized his dissertation. It would be equally insane to remove Jefferson's statue from the campus of the University of Virginia or the University of Missouri or William & Mary. Much better to use the "offending" icons as a text to discuss, debate, wrestle with, maybe even throw eggs at on occasion. But to remove those statues because Jefferson has disappointed us, US!, is to lose an opportunity for a very serious conversation about the dynamics that produced the America of 2016. 

The Culture of Outrage represents a very dreary path in our pursuit of happiness and justice. In my view, on the whole, all things considered, Thomas Jefferson (as well as Woodrow Wilson, though I'm not quite as sure about Cecil Rhodes) must be seen as a net benefactor of humankind. But I would not remove a statue of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, or for that matter Pitchfork Ben Tillman from its pedestal. Better to deliberate and debate, perhaps at the top of our lungs, than to erase that which we think we have transcended. 


Further Reading:

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
by Joseph Ellis

Thomas Jefferson: America's Paradoxical Patriot
by Alf Mapp, Jr.