TURNER: Jefferson’s legacy is worth defending
U.Va.’s founder contributed to the cause of human freedom
At the risk of offending 469 University faculty colleagues and students who protest University President Teresa Sullivan’s practice of quoting University founder Thomas Jefferson “in light of Jefferson’s owning of slaves and other racist beliefs,” I would submit another Jefferson quote:
“This institution [the University] will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson did not want to suppress “error,” but to allow competing claims to the truth to do battle in the intellectual marketplace of ideas. We call that “academic freedom.”
Facts affirm the wisdom of Jefferson’s vision in this instance. Censoring Sullivan’s references to Jefferson would impoverish our students and faculty alike, and — as is so often the case with censorship advocates — it is premised upon ignorance.
When Jefferson inherited slaves upon the deaths of his father and father-in-law, it was unlawful in Virginia to free slaves without permission of the governor and his council based upon extraordinary service. In 1769, Jefferson drafted a statute permitting manumission of slaves — a rule finally enacted in 1782.
In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson denounced King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere… ” The language was deleted to keep South Carolina and Georgia from walking out of the convention.
Among his other antislavery efforts, Jefferson drafted an amendment to prevent the importation of new slaves into Virginia that was enacted in 1778 — and proclaimed that all children born to slaves in Virginia after 1800 would be born free, and “should be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts, or sciences according to their geniuses… ” That radical proposal was never introduced, because the votes clearly did not exist. Jefferson wanted to have it ready, knowing public opinion would eventually change.
Like virtually every other national leader of his generation — including many who, like Jefferson, spoke out passionately against the evils of slavery — Thomas Jefferson was a racist. But he was a reluctant racist. In a Feb. 25, 1809, letter to Henri Grégoire, Jefferson clarified:
“Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to the negro by nature . . . . But whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”
As a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1787, Jefferson drafted rules for the governance of the Northwest Territories, Article Six of which read: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted… ” If the language sounds familiar, that’s because seven decades later the authors of the Thirteenth Amendment selected Jefferson’s language to honor his courageous struggle against slavery.
Today we face the sad spectacle of nearly 500 misinformed University professors and students seeking to ban the thoughts and words of Thomas Jefferson from our community. Will they demand next that the Law School remove the Thirteenth Amendment from textbooks because it embodies Jefferson’s words? Will they censor the writings of Aristotle because he, too, was a racist?
George Washington owned far more slaves than Jefferson and never once spoke out publicly against slavery. Washington did free his slaves in his will, but only after he and Martha died. Jefferson did not free his slaves in his will, because he was deeply in debt and Section 54 of the Revised Code of Virginia of 1819 prohibited the manumission of slaves until creditors had been fully compensated. Freeing his slaves upon his death in 1826 was simply not a legal option.
Some of the most respected American presidents of the 20th century were racists. Racism is a manifestation of ignorance, and all human beings are ignorant about many things. Some of the most visionary scientists of the ancient world were both racists and sincere believers that the Earth was flat. Should we ban their positive contributions from our schools because of their ignorance in other areas?
The answer to ignorance is not censorship, but education and enlightenment. Let us not censor those who would seek to suppress the views of Thomas Jefferson, but rather subject their thoughts to the intellectual marketplace and allow each member of our community to draw his or her own conclusions in their search for the truth.
Perhaps the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society would be willing to organize and host such a debate — I’ll be happy to take on the three most prominent champions of censorship, so long as I get equal time and adequate rebuttal time.
Robert Turner is a Law professor and editor of “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy.” He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.