- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2018


Thomas Jefferson was a complicated guy.

So smearing his statue, as vandals just did, with the red painted words of “Racist + Rapist” at the University of Virginia, the college he actually founded, fails to take into account the complicated twists and turns of his beliefs, the pragmatic nature of his political leanings, the ultimate efforts he made to ban slavery from a significant portion of America.

This is the real history of Jefferson — the one, apparently, the vandals didn’t learn.

Not only did Jefferson pen some of the most beautiful and inspiring words ever recorded in human history, the Declaration of Independence, but he also — listen up, uneducated youth of America who like to vandalize more than study — penned a little document called the Ordinance of 1784. What’s that?

That was Jefferson’s idea for settling the properties north of the Ohio River, the Northwest Territory, as they were called. He wanted them split into 10 states, and then allowed equal rights, equal footing to the states already in the Union — so long as they remained slave-free.

That’s right. No slavery allowed.

Jefferson’s plan didn’t pass, partly because some states didn’t want to give up their slave rights.

But there he stood just the same, fighting, in essence, for the rights of the blacks — fighting for the freedom of slaves. And again, yes, even as he owned slaves himself. Why did Jefferson own slaves in the first place?

He was born into a family who owned a large plantation that was based on slave labor. So perhaps he was conditioned at an early age to see how slave labor was closely tied to his family’s economic success, and then, during his political years, recognized that a large part of the country faced the same economic reality.

Maybe. Either way, that doesn’t excuse the fact he owned slaves in later life.

Still, history is rarely cut and dry, and Jefferson, by both word and deed, was a complicated individual who seemed to walk a precarious line between principle and pragmatic politicking at times. On the one hand, he was a pure “for the little person” type of leader, opposing the Big Government policies put forth by the likes of Alexander Hamilton. On the other, he didn’t do away with the National Bank while president — the very bank he once opposed as an evil example of federal overreach.

On the one hand, he repealed the much-hated whiskey taxes. On the other, he raised tariffs on imports.

On the one hand, he tried to forge a new 10-state region with a No Slavery rule.

On the other, he went home to his own slaves and, as modern history seems to show, fathered between one and six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

But “Racist + Rapist,” as these vandals summed on his statue — on what would have been the day of his 275th birthday, no less?

That’s just ignorant. It fails to take into account the truths of not just Jefferson’s life, but the lives and culture and societal acceptances of a time that’s very different from modern America. How easy it is to Monday morning quarterback here. How tempting it is to broad-brush the past for present political gain.

Jefferson was not a perfect man by any means. But he was an American patriot who penned one of the greatest documents in world history, and who went on, as both politician and president, to lay a foundation for the freest society in world history. The freest society in today’s world for a diversity of individuals, by the way — from blacks to women to minority populations subdued by other governments.

Neglecting Jefferson’s good to score cheap and easy shots, while defacing a piece of historical property, no less, is a dishonest revisionism. These vandals ought to put down the paint and hit the history books. What they could learn would be both eye-opening and empowering.

• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @ckchumley.

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