Canceling Thomas Jefferson

This matters, for, as Princeton’s Sean Wilentz told the commission in a letter, the statue in question “specifically honors Jefferson for” his role in penning the Declaration, which Wilentz describes as “his greatest contribution to America, indeed, to humankind.” Jefferson deserves to be honored for that contribution, which has served, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” as “the definitions and axioms of free society,” and as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” It is no accident that the most pernicious expositor of the pro-slavery cause, Alexander Stephens, loathed Thomas Jefferson and was keen to cast the Confederacy as having been founded upon “exactly the opposite idea” to those “entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution.”

Or, to put it another way: What was remarkable about Jefferson was not what he had in common with his contemporaries around the world, but what he did not. Taken in full, his is indeed a “nuanced” legacy, and yet there is no getting past the fact that among the achievements of his long public career were the elimination of the transatlantic slave trade to the United States; the creation of a free Midwest, which flowed from his proposal in 1784 to ban slavery in all the territories west of the Appalachians; and the provision of the moral ammunition that a later generation would use to stamp out slavery on the theory that “all men are created equal.”