When I was employed in education we used to refer to people who had something to say about a lot of subjects, but knew little of substance as being a river a mile wide and an inch deep. Donald Trump’s river is an inch wide and an inch deep. Mr. Trump suggested in a press conference on August 15 that people should consider taking down statues and tributes to both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners. Mr. Trump’s reference was a combative one against the desire to remove Confederate era statues and symbols still standing in the U.S. today.
Charlottesville, Virginia is a city steeped in history. Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, a stone’s throw from downtown, and died at Monticello, just outside town. In 1819 he founded the University of Virginia in the city. Jefferson spent time working on creating a country in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and served in France, but always knew he’d return to his home turf.
Jefferson was a difficult man to analyze. He was a walking contradiction. Whenever I need a quote, on either side of an issue, I first check to see what Jefferson said, because I’ll likely find something to fit any point.
Mr. Trump is right to suggest that Jefferson owned slaves. He owned them his entire life. When he died he freed several, but did not release them all, possibly because they were mortgaged and he could not do so. He continually had money problems. It is now confirmed knowledge that he fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. While owning slaves, Jefferson called it a “moral depravity.” He wrote that slavery was a threat to the survival of the United States and should be abolished. He did feel that blacks were inferior to whites and with abolition; the former slaves would need to be deported to Haiti or back to Africa. He said slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, but vowed to keep his property until legislation emancipated them. One of those “only from the mouth of Thomas Jefferson” quotes is this: “Slavery is like holding a wolf by the ear. We can neither hold him nor let him go.”
But, we didn’t build monuments to Thomas Jefferson because he was a conflicted slave owner. We built monuments to him because he and a small handful of others created our nation. Another Jefferson quote has served as the foundation of our experiment in democratic, representative government. The U.S. was not founded on religion, or on an economic platform. Nor was it founded on any tangible objective. Our country is unique because it was founded on an idea, and that idea was Jefferson’s idea: “All men are created equal.” It is apparent that Jefferson merely planted the seed. Originally he meant white, male landowners were created equal, but the seed was such that it grew and we have, through the years, amended and expanded that meaning to be much more inclusive. During the Civil War the idea had grown to include black men, and then in the twentieth century we added women. Today we are proud to include LGBT citizens as well. Cherished will be the day when “all men are created equal” means simply all humans and our thoughts and actions match the original idea that brought us together as a nation.
There have been bumps and setbacks along the way to realizing this ideal. The Civil War was one. The Confederacy voted to leave the union and wage war against the remaining states to defend their right to own and abuse other people. They chose to initiate a war that would kill 620,000 Americans, 360,000 Union soldiers and 260,000 Confederates. Those who led the charge were among those who renounced the U.S. and fought to divide our nation. At war’s end, Gen. Robert E. Lee of the South thought there should be no monuments to the war. And, for quite a while there were none. It wasn’t until the 20th century that statues of Lee, other Rebels, plus a variety of memorials began to be built–many as late as the 1960s. They were not built to commemorate the history of the Confederacy. They were built to dredge up hatred and stick a thumb in the eye of those who were first given equality, but then saw it whisked away with Jim Crow laws starting in 1876. Those Confederate statues and Rebel battle flags that were/are flown over Southern government buildings were designed as a reminder to black Americans that they were still not equal in the eyes of the defeated Confederacy. Those monuments were built to once again divide us.
That, Mr. Trump, is the answer to your question about the line we draw on who gets a statue and who does not–the uniters get a statue and historical recognition, the dividers do not. It’s really a simple concept, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, even though they were imperfect individuals get a yes because they were the ones who originally united us as a nation. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson get a thumbs down due to being dividers.
Mr. Trump, your river needs to become a lot wider and a lot deeper before you deserve to hold the esteemed office in which you currently sit.