The ugly parade of American nazism that took place at Charlottesville on August 12th could have happened anywhere: Anaheim, Detroit, Miami, Denver. I don’t know if the organizers consciously chose to take their hate right into the heart of Jefferson’s dream for America, but that was its effect on me. Like every other reasonably enlightened American I was horrified by what happened in Charlottesville, still more horrified by our current president’s coy flirtation with the darkest forces still awash in America.
We all know that Jefferson was an imperfect embodiment of America’s greatest ideals. He wrote that all men are created equal and owned them, too. There is no way really to resolve this. It just is. But we must not get stuck there. If we can put that aside for a moment—still within viewing range, but not central to this discussion—we can focus on the Magnificent Jefferson. He’s the one we need right now.
Jefferson was America’s greatest exemplar of the Enlightenment. He was essentially a pacifist. He took things always by their smooth handle. He believed in civility, order, due process, the rule of law, majority rule, generosity of spirit, and sensitivity to the sensibilities of those around us. He was more likely to write a letter or an essay than throw a brick or wander through the streets of Charlottesville holding burning brands. He knew we must sometimes disagree, but he always hoped we could, as he put it, "disagree as rational friends." In his first inaugural address, which I saw in manuscript last week at the Library of Congress, Jefferson wrote—and you can hear his passionate appeal—"Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things."
If you were a person so mentally and morally retarded that you called yourself a white supremacist, and you wanted to take your hate groups—the KKK, the Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis—to the heart of the American Enlightenment, where would you go? Philadelphia? To the fabulous new National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.? To the Library of Congress? To Harvard or Columbia or Berkeley?
The fact that this disgusting display of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, tribalism, and hate occurred in Charlottesville, home of Mr. Jefferson's University, threw me into a deep despondency. Not there, please not there, I thought. Even Richmond would be less upsetting to me.
When something happens in the world that I want to try to make sense of, sort out, put into some kind of helpful context, I invariably start to cascade through the historical rolodex in my brain to see what Jefferson might have to say. I think I know why you hearken to my interpretation of Jefferson and the Jeffersonian, but I want you to know that it works for me, too. Much of my adult life, the majority of my responses to the world over the last thirty years, have been filtered through the lens of Thomas Jefferson, a man who lived 250 years ago, but one of the most remarkable men who ever lived.
When the Charlottesvile incidents occurred, I immediately thought of two analogous moments in Jefferson’s life. The first was the Missouri Compromise in 1819-20. The second was something that happened soon after the opening of the University of Virginia in 1825.
The Missouri Compromise was about the balance of power between the slave-holding south and the industrial north. As the nation moved westward, the question was how to maintain the sectional balance. The south made it clear that it would leave the union if the north became ascendant and tried to tamper with slavery. Eventually, an ugly compromise was worked out in which Missouri was admitted as a slave state, but Maine was admitted at the same time as a free state. So the Senate would still be evenly divided, and slavery would be "safe."
During the most passionate period of the national debate the elderly Jefferson fell into despair. He wrote what was perhaps his most pessimistic letter to John Holmes. After fearing that the new intransigent sectionalism represented the death knell of the republic, Jefferson wrote, "I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of 1776, to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it."
Surely if Jefferson had been alive in mid-August 2017 he would have written something similar after the Charlottesville riot. How can it have come to this, 146 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 63 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 52 years after the Civil Rights Bill of 1965, and nine years after the election of the first African-American president in our history?
The other moment from Jefferson’s life came in 1825. Almost immediately after the University of Virginia opened, there was a student riot. It had the usual features: drunkenness, property damage, general roistering, and a bottle of urine thrown into a professor’s private quarters. Some of Jefferson’s hand-picked faculty were threatening to quit. When he heard about the incident the ancient Jefferson, now approaching death, saddled up and rode down the mountain to his academical village, gathered the student body in the Rotunda—Jefferson’s paean to the Pantheon at Rome—and tried to recall them to good sense. The students refused to listen to the aging patriarch. A witness later wrote, "His lips moved—he essayed to speak—burst into tears & sank back into his seat!—The shock was electric!"
Jefferson called the student riot "the most painful event of my life."
If Jefferson were alive today, he would weep for Charlottesville. He would weep for the lost promises of our republic.
He would weep for America.
"View of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville & Monticello" (1856), from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.