Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Thomas Jefferson: American Visionary

In the summer of 1994, Thomas Jefferson was put on trial. With William Rehnquist, then-chief justice of the Supreme Court, presiding, the mock trial organized by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York indicted Jefferson on three counts: He undermined the independence of the federal judiciary, lived in the lavish manner of an American Louis XIV, and disregarded the Bill of Rights. "You must judge him not by the standards of the present day," Rehnquist told the crowd of jurors at the event, "but by those that he himself espoused." After hearing testimony from history professors for both the prosecution and the defense, the jurors reached a verdict: not guilty.
One wonders if the jury would reach a different verdict today. The founding fathers and other national icons often seem to be perpetually on trial—and none more so than Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president. Architect of the American creed of unalienable rights and liberty, Jefferson nonetheless owned dozens of slaves, likely fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemings, and freed only seven of his slaves (all members of the Hemings family); he wrote in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, of his "suspicion" that blacks "are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind"; and he never assumed a leading role in the cause to end slavery. For many scholars and an increasing number of Americans, this is enough evidence to convict Jefferson of being a "creepy, brutal hypocrite" and "deeply racist," in the words of legal historian Paul Finkelman. Several state chapters of the Democratic Party, whose origins can be traced back to Jefferson’s Republicans, have dropped the names of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinners to "align with the values" of modern-day Democrats. In 2015, dozens of students at the University of Missouri demanded the removal of a Jefferson statue on campus that symbolized "the dehumanization of black individuals who Jefferson himself viewed as inferior."

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