First Principles: Thomas Jefferson is still an American icon

Last month, New York City’s Public Design Commission unanimously voted to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson holding the Declaration of Independence from the City Council Chamber due to Jefferson’s ownership of slaves.

While it is unfortunate and unsettling that a man who had written so eloquently of equality had failed to live up to those high principles in his personal conduct, a closer look at Jefferson’s life shows that it is too simplistic to dismiss his legacy as an American icon.

Like every individual, Jefferson experienced many personal contradictions. Although Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves throughout his lifetime and harbored the racial prejudices of his time, the issue of slavery was an internal conflict that he struggled with all of his life. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson referred to slavery as a “great political and moral evil,” and famously wrote that, “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, “At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition. In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories.” During his later service as the United States’ third president, Jefferson would go on to sign the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves in 1807.

That Jefferson was born into a culture in which slaveholding was commonplace yet still came to realize its moral evils is a testimony to how impactful the American Revolution’s principles of liberty and equality were on our nation’s Founding Fathers. And this is essentially what is at the heart of the problem with doing away with monuments to the founders because of their moral failings — We do not celebrate Jefferson for being a perfect man, but rather for his powerful articulation of the values that all Americans share in our nation’s founding document. Indeed, it was the principles of the Declaration of Independence that abolitionists and civil rights leaders would later go on to cite in support of the righteousness of their causes.

What is also at stake in the debates over removing monuments to our nation’s first leaders is the dissolution of patriotism that such actions may engender. Young Americans need national heroes whom they can admire if they are to develop a strong sense of pride in their country. This does not mean that we have to ignore these heroes’ faults, but in our present era, not enough Americans engage in the extensive reading of the founders’ writings that is necessary to develop a complete understanding of the historical and social contexts of their time, as well as all of the nuances of the founders’ views.

Too many young citizens are now under the impression that things went wrong right from the beginning of America’s history. If we want to raise generations of Americans who will believe that their country is worth making sacrifices for, they need to learn that although America was founded by imperfect men, it was nonetheless founded on perfect principles, and that it is for the rectitude of those American values that we celebrate the lives of the imperfect patriots who risked everything for the fulfillment of those principles in the American Revolution. 

Victor Gelfuso is a recent graduate of Richfield Springs Central School and a student at Siena College. Readers can contact him at vgelfuso@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook at Victor Gelfuso.

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