When a group of Hofstra University students recently began calling for the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Sondra and David S. Mack Student Center to be removed, those who aren’t history buffs might have done a double take.
Most people, after all, aren’t Jefferson historians, and haven’t sifted through the thousands of notes and manuscripts he wrote and published during his 83 years.
Most know that he was our third president, and that his words were immortalized in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .”
But he owned slaves — many slaves, the Hofstra students pointed out. A petition created on Change.org, by Jaloni Owens, notes that Jefferson “owned nearly 600 slaves in his lifetime, proudly embraced eugenics and raped countless enslaved black women and children and forced them to deliver his biological children.” Many who read it will likely be tempted to do their own research.
Paul Finkelman, a historian who teaches at the Hamline University School of Law, said in an interview with PBS that Jefferson shaped America and its political culture, calling him an icon who, through his writing, voiced what people in the 18th century hoped their country could be.
But Finkelman noted that Jefferson sold more than 80 slaves from 1785 to 1795, and he could not envision an integrated society. Many think he had six children with a slave who was his longtime mistress, Sally Hemings, but he kept all of them enslaved. History tells us that Jefferson began the forced affair when Hemings was just a teenager.
In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” a book published in the 1780s, Jefferson belittled African-Americans based on his observations of slaves. They have “a very strong and disagreeable odour,” he wrote. They cannot reason as well as whites, he said, and “they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
Whites, he wrote, have “a more elegant symmetry of form.” Blacks are just as brave as whites, Jefferson acknowledged, but only because he believed they lacked forethought, concluding that they “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
At a news conference last August, after white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, President Trump asked whether statues of George Washington and Jefferson would be taken down next because they owned slaves.
These men have important places in history, but if their statues remain, there must be recognition of their lives in their totality. Dr. Alan Singer, a Hofstra professor and the director of the university’s social studies education program, compared the Jefferson statue to that of Christopher Columbus in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in January that new historical markers would be added there, and that a new monument would recognize indigenous peoples.
Much of the racism embedded in America’s past, Singer said, has been erased from our history books, and he recommended that plaques be added near Hofstra’s Jefferson statue to explain that he was, in fact, a slave owner.
A hard look at the social studies curriculums from elementary school to college is necessary in order to detail more than one side of our history. Jefferson was a national leader. He is a glorified figure in history, a man who was, we are told, ahead of his time. When it came to his views of non-whites, he clearly was not, however. Young people should know that.
There were a number of men who challenged the evils of slavery at the time that Jefferson lived, including our second president, John Adams, who did not own slaves, and who called for the gradual abolition of slavery. So it would be wrong to say that Jefferson was simply a man of his time, that he didn’t know any better.
Humans are imperfect. As we dig into history, we find that a number of the most beloved figures in American history, whose names are emblazoned on street signs, community centers, schools and airports, were full of foibles. We must not ignore them, but rather reflect on them, so we ourselves might come to form a perfect union.
In a statement, Hofstra said that it “supports our students’ right to engage in peaceful demonstrations about issues that matter to them. We look forward to continuing a civil exchange of ideas and perspectives on the subject.”
We should all support that debate.