The other day, a group of people toppled a statue of Thomas Jefferson from its perch in front of Jefferson High School in Portland. One toppler explained that he felt it was improper for a statue of a slave owner to grace a high school attended by many African Americans.
If people at the high school want to remove the statue permanently, and even change the name of the high school, that’s understandable. Jefferson owned slaves and may have fathered a child with a slave, whom he held as property at the time. If I were an African American attending Jefferson High School, I’d feel at the very least conflicted about having a guy who used to own and hold in bondage people like me greet me as I came to school every day.
However, as Americans continue our nearly 250-year-long attempt to reconcile the founding of our country by men who owned slaves, it would be a mistake to erase Jefferson from socially acceptable history. As the lead drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson has done more to provide the philosophical underpinnings for human freedom and equality than any other political actor in history.
The key clause of the Declaration is worth revisiting:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
To modern Americans, the concepts of the Declaration, if not the words themselves, are ingrained in our political psyche. But when they were written, they constituted a shocking break with the history of human civilization and governance. Historically, most individuals, especially individuals who weren’t aristocrats, had no rights to speak of. They certainly didn’t have rights superior to the wishes of whomever governed them, and they had no role in choosing who governed them. Government existed to enrich those who governed, often at the expense of the governed.
The Declaration inverted the theory of government that had held sway for most of human history. Not just America but countless other countries and billions upon billions of people came to be governed in systems more or less designed to foster their well-being, and by people they had some role in selecting. Today, even autocratic regimes feel obliged to pretend to be democratic and rights-observing.
Much of American history involves trying to align the reality of our government with the ringing ideals of the Declaration. The Civil War, the civil rights acts and even Black Lives Matter protests are largely attempts to put into better practice Jefferson’s words. Those who seek equality, freedom and democracy, which I daresay includes a significant majority of Americans, would be worse-off without the Declaration and without Jefferson.
Jefferson, like the country he helped found, is an imperfect exemplar of the things he wrote. It is a crucial part of our history that he and other founders owned slaves, and that he, like all other mortal humans, was far from a faultless, heroic figure. But as we continue to alter our government to align with our principles, as the Declaration says we have the right to do, it would be harmful to the cause of freedom, equality and human flourishing to turn our backs on the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. History tells us the alternative is far worse.