Slippery Slope is Real- Jefferson

In 2017, when Donald Trump predicted the removal of Confederate monuments would lead to attacks on George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he was roundly ridiculed in the media. This blog is not particularly enamored with the 45th President, but look where we are today. Everyone from rioters in the streets to US Senators are calling for monuments to our Founders to be removed.

It was never just about Confederate monuments. We can all agree that memorials to the Confederacy have no place on public grounds. Rather, this was always about a radical revision of American history. The demand that all historical figures be measured by our modern sensibilities. Those who do not meet the current politically correct standard must be removed.

Questioning the “woke” mob will only expose you to social media harassment and ridicule. Rather than debate, there is pandering to these newly designated cultural assessors. A descendant of Thomas Jefferson called for his memorial to be removed in the New York Times(he called himself a direct descendant, but Jefferson has none, but I digress.)

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many contradictions, and like everyone, he had flaws. But he is absolutely essential in telling the American story. He gave us our creed; crafted words that changed not only our history, but the history of the world. He was the first to admit that the sentiments were not his alone, but he was able to mold the many liberal ideals of the enlightenment into a statement that could transcend mere politics. The foolishly convenient calls for his removal from our national story, even by members of his extended family, are grounded in a fallacy. The erroneous belief that we possess all the answers, that our interpretations are just and final. History does not belong to the self-righteous few. Jefferson belongs to us all.

Expunging Our Past

Progressive historians like Charles Beard… went to great lengths to discredit the work of America’s first published historian, George Bancroft.  The Nationalist school of American history revered our Founders and proclaimed American exceptionalism.  Beard argued that America’s founding ideals were nothing more than a clever disguise for our true inspiration, greed.  The New Left revisionism that pervades historiography today is a mere continuation of Beard’s fundamentally flawed concept- America really isn’t that great….

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Neo-Nationalism is a historical school of thought… that strives to reconcile two wildly opposed views of America’s past.  Common ground is sought within the discipline- social, political, military historical study working in concert to preserve the common threads that bind all Americans together…

The overriding message should be that historical figures are human and not infallible. We can honor their great deeds and learn from their most human mistakes. 

Needlessly provocative works like the NY Times’s 1619 Project blur the lines between political activism and historical discourse.

Sadly, our fears of the slippery slope of iconoclasm have been realized as monuments to our Founding generation are being destroyed by mobs of ignorant people more concerned with political convenience than history.

We must stop this current craze of tearing down and erasing our history because the historical figures did not possess our modern sensibilities. 

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  • America’s founding ideals are exceptional- and are standards that are difficult to attain- our history is comprised of the struggle to uphold these ideals.
  • The Founders were extraordinary men- but not infallible… we have to learn from their example- good and bad.
  • The history of America is not the story of class struggle- the silent masses played a vital role in our history and their stories should be told- but not through Marxist constructs.
  • History should be popular.  Our past must be understood by the citizenry- historical studies targeted only at academics cannot be how we measure the discipline.  There is a way to make history insightful and enjoyable.

It Will Happen to Jefferson

Jefferson is the obvious target…

It may start with the Confederate flag… but this movement to radically alter our history will continue.  Narrow minded academics like Paul Finkelman will fan the flames of discontent and dangerous media pundits will use tragedy to rally the uninformed to their nefarious cause.

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Jefferson is frustratingly complex and it is easier to… simplify his transgressions-  he owned slaves, therefore he must be bad.  We recognize the horrors of slavery today- but this doesn’t satisfy the new generation of moral police.  Regardless of what Jefferson did for our country, he owned slaves and that was wrong.  They believe America’s true greatness exists in spite Jefferson.  Our Creed did not need articulated apparently- and the thousands of freedom fighters throughout history who have spat Jefferson’s words at tyrants- they would have found them on their own.

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Jefferson critic Annette Gordon-Reed… is discerning enough to see advocacy gone too far.  She recently told InsideHighered.com –

“I understand why some people think his statues should be removed, but not all controversial figures of the past are created equal, I think Jefferson’s contributions to the history of the United States outweigh the problems people have with aspects of his life. He is just too much a part of the American story … to pretend that he was not there.  There is every difference in the world between being one of the founders of the United States and being a part of group of people who fought to destroy the United States.”

American Iconoclasm

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

Kyle Sammin correctly surmises in a recent edition of  The Federalistthat historical figures are imperfect- the millennial demands of  removing every monument and memorial to historical figures who do not satisfy their modern sensibilities is both foolish and destructive.  Though many of his comments following the Charlottesville violence were divisive and insensitive, Trump’s fear that removing monuments to Confederate generals may lead to the destruction of memorials to our Founders were not far from reality.  Trump’s implication(inadvertent)  is that there is a slippery slope with historical revisionism–    Click on links

These links are the steady progression of arbitrary historical revision… being driven by a generation of social justice warriors completely lacking any semblance of humility.  So-called activists who are convinced they are not only morally superior to their grandparents, but to all previous generations.  This is hubris at its most blatant and dangerous.  Politicians, like Nancy Pelosi pander to these intellectual pipsqueaks by joining in this fool’s chorus- moral redemption through historic erasure.

As previously stated in the pages of this blog… there are more appropriate places for Confederate symbols and monuments than government buildings and public squares.  This is a reasonable debate and it should continue.  The slippery slope of historical revisionism is real and we are well on the way down it.  Sadly, legitimate leadership is required during such a crisis of conscience.  We have Donald Trump…

Historical Revision in Perspective

At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record.  This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history.  But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.

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Gordon Wood, Brown University professor of History.

As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare.  If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust.  Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was?  Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom?  Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia?  All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.”   To hell with what came before…

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There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people.  Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond.  In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors

Best Biographies of Jefferson

There is excellent Jefferson scholarship… available to interested readers.  Current scholars seem bound by political correctness to debase the Jeffersonian legacy with tales of slave concubines and youthful indiscretions.  Look to the work of the established Jefferson scholars to find the elusive inroads to one of America’s greatest, but most enigmatic minds.

Jefferson and the New Nation by Merrill D. Peterson– At over 1,000 pages, there is no more detailed one volume biography of Jefferson.  Peterson was a history professor at the University of Virginia for over 30 years and specialized in analyzing Jefferson’s impact on the American character.  Peterson passed away in 2009, but his research remains vital in understanding Jefferson’s mind.

Thomas Jefferson; A Life by Willard Sterne Randall– The calm before the Sally storm, Randall’s biography focused primarily on Jefferson’s diplomatic career.  Largely lost in the deluge of revisionist biographies that emerged in the late 90′s, Randall’s volume provides new interpretations of Jefferson’s political life.

Jefferson and His Time; Vol. 1  Jefferson the Virginian by Dumas Malone– No history library is complete without the definitive Jefferson biography.  A massive undertaking of six volumes spanning Jefferson’s life, Malone is definitely the final word.  Volume 1 traces Jefferson’s youth, education, marriage, and the construction of Monticello.  A deeply personal look into Jefferson’s character, this book examines his life prior to his public career.  No Jefferson scholar is more maligned by the revisionists than Malone.  The vitriol used against Malone’s work is evidence of his influence.

Jefferson and Religious Restraint

How strange it is to hear evangelicals… claim Thomas Jefferson as one of their own, when in his day, he was accused of being an infidel by the Christian clergy.  Jefferson left little doubt about his religious beliefs in his voluminous personal papers.  It is his place in our history and especially our founding that drives advocates of all stripes to want Jefferson’s opinion on their side.  We must remember, Jefferson was not an atheist, far from it; he believed in personal religious freedom and public restraint.  Jefferson did advocate the separation of church and state,

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“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”     Jan. 1, 1802

It was the public attacks on his beliefs… that prompted Jefferson to write Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786.  It is a simple proposition, letting your neighbor worship as they wish, even if that means not worshiping at all.  Jefferson said it best,

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”    Notes on the State of Virginia 1782

Jefferson was fascinated by theology… and could talk about it for hours on end.  A deeply personal project was the Jefferson Bible.  He analyzed the New Testament and removed what he considered to be “so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture” along with any mention of miracles or the supernatural (always the scientist.)  Jefferson was interested in the moral philosophy of Jesus.  The Enlightenment taught Jefferson to seek the rational path to moral clarity.

You don’t have to look very hard to learn… about Jefferson’s religious beliefs.  They are found in his personal papers and private correspondence.  This is the essence of Jeffersonian religion–keep it to yourself.

“Our particular principles of  religion are a subject of accountability to God alone. I inquire after no man’s, and  trouble none with mine.”

Jefferson and a New Historical Focus

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Revisionists perpetuating the allegation that Thomas Jefferson… fathered all of Sally Hemings’ children now believe history is on their side.  The pressures of political correctness have relegated reasonable discourse on the issue to the fringe.  A scholar who questions the findings of writers like Annette Gordon-Reed, must be prepared to be labeled a racist.  The discipline of history demands that consensus never be granted immunity, regardless of social convention or political correctness.  A fair evaluation of the evidence provides reasonable doubt in the revisionists’ narrative.  Thus far, they show little interest in fielding these questions:

  • Where was Sally ?  Jefferson was at Monticello nine months before the birth of her children (so was the rest of his extended family) but there is almost no evidence showing she was there.  Sally was Patsy’s handmaiden and reasonable historical inference would place them together- including the periods when Patsy did not live at Monticello.
  • Can we really trust the “conception windows?”   There is no way of proving that Sally Hemings carried her children full term.  Birth records from the 19th century make it difficult to see six full term pregnancies for one woman. What about the more than 20 windows when Hemings did not conceive?
  • Is the oral history truly reliable?  Madison Hemings was the only child to claim Jefferson was his father.  His descendants will not submit to DNA testing.  Eston Hemings descendants have the male Jefferson gene, but have never claimed to be descendants.  Confused yet?
  • Can we stop talking about secret passages?  It is well documented that revisionists have misquoted or ignored critical evidence proving no servants could have entered Jefferson’s bedroom without being seen. 
  • Are we ready to acknowledge the inconsistencies in the DNA testing?  There were 25 Jefferson’s who possessed that Y-chromosome within 100 miles of Monticello.  Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ brother and his five sons,  need further scrutiny. 
  • Why did Sally stop having children in 1808?   Jefferson took up full-time residence at Monticello in 1809, shouldn’t there be more children?  Jefferson was 64 years old when he allegedly fathered Eston Hemings in 1808. 
  • Can we throw Callender’s reputation back on the ash heap of history, where it belongs?  There is no proof he ever visited Charlottesville, the DNA test proved there was no ‘Tom’ Jefferson conceived in France, and no one can identify a shred of credibility in his reporting. 

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Religious Freedom Within Reason

Thomas Jefferson was the author of religious freedom in America… as the First Amendment borrows its language from his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.  Like all men of the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed it was built upon the individual.  The individual was born free to worship, or not, in anyway he saw fit.

“…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

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Jefferson clearly draws the line between the public citizen and his private religious beliefs… the freedom to worship remained a private decision- not to be propagated in the public sphere.  Jefferson acknowledged the dangers of a state-sponsored religion, but he also realized that religious zealotry could threaten civil liberties.

 

He cautioned his friend, James Madison:

“The declaration that religious faith shall be unpunished does not give immunity to criminal acts dictated by religious error.”

On Immigration

Jefferson discussed immigration to the United States in 1805:

“Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?”

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America was growing and Jefferson approved:

“We contemplate this rapid growth, and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do to others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits, to the multiplications of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and value its blessings above all price.”