Virginia Faculty Denounce The University President’s Quotation of Thomas Jefferson In Post-Election Email

official_presidential_portrait_of_thomas_jefferson_by_rembrandt_peale_1800university_of_virginia_seal-svgWe have previously discussed how students and faculty are stripping away the names and quotations of Founding Fathers and presidents from schools because they were slave owners or due to proven prejudices or biases. I have been critical of the trend at schools like Princeton where the faculty and students have discussed the removal of the name and images of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from buildings and school programs under a deal signed with protesters who objected to Wilson’s support of segregation, which was legal at the time. The move adjacent Wilson who is credited as one of Princeton’s most important figures and past presidents was shocking to many academics. Now, the University of Virginia is experiencing the same debate with its founder, Thomas Jefferson. University President Teresa Sullivan is under fire for simply quoting Jefferson in an email to students and faculty on the presidential election. Faculty have written her a letter denouncing any use of any quotation by Jefferson due to his ownership of slaves.

In her email, Sullivan encouraged students to come together after the election and added

“Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes’ . . . I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.”

Some professors in the Psychology Department and other departments were shocked by the quotation of Jefferson, even at the University of Virginia.  Asst. Psychology Prof. Noelle Hurd drafted the letter that some 469 students and faculty signed. It stated in part:

“We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it . . . For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Among the signatories were Politics Prof. Nicholas Winter, Psychology Prof. Chad Dodson, Women, Gender and Sexuality Prof. Corinne Field, College Assistant Dean Shilpa Davé, and Politics Prof. Lynn Sanders.

lauriebalfour-square-150x150Politics Professor Lawrie Balfour (right) explained that Jefferson is viewed by many as a consistent detriment to nurturing a supportive environment at Virginia:   “I’ve been here 15 years. Again and again, I have found that at moments when the community needs reassurance and Jefferson appears, it undoes I think the really important work that administrators and others are trying to do.”

I respect the motivations of faculty like Professor Balfour but I have to disagree with their conclusions.  I do not agree that barring quotations from the drafter of our Declaration of Independence and one of the most influential American thinkers advances an educational purpose.  Historical figures are not perfect humans and slavery is rightfully viewed as a disgraceful part of the history of many of our founders.  We can learn from those terrible institutions just as we can learn from their other contributions.  Understanding history demands such perspective.

220px-thomasjeffersonstateroomportraitJefferson is a particularly interesting case study on slavery.  He was one of the most conflicting founders on the subject.  Jefferson spent much of his life trying to rid the country of slavery (an advanced view for his time) but he also kept hundreds of individuals under the bondage of slavery.  He inherited dozens of slaves and acquired more through his marriage to Martha Wayles.  Yet, he was a critic of Britain for its role in the colonial slave trade and was key in banning the importation of slaves to his native Virginia.  He sought to criminalize the slave trade and fought with other Southerners on the wording of the Declaration of Independence over the recognition of slaves as people entitled to equality.  His relationship with  Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, adds to this conflicted history.  

From the perspective of his time, Jefferson was viewed as a progressive on the subject, if not a heretic, by his white contemporaries.  In the end, however, scrubbing history of quotations and references to people like Jefferson is to ignore both his accomplishments and his failings.  Professor Balfour insists that she is not saying that any quotations from Jefferson was inappropriate but that “the move that says, he owned slaves, but he was a great man, is deeply problematic, and I think it will continue to prevent us from being the kind of inclusive, respectful community that President Sullivan and the rest of us envision.”  I would submit that he was a great man but a deeply flawed man.  Education is recognizing and understanding such contradictions.

What do you think?

118 thoughts on “Virginia Faculty Denounce The University President’s Quotation of Thomas Jefferson In Post-Election Email”

  1. Jefferson was the man who made sure that on the first day that the Constitution allowed the slave trade to be abolished, it was. Why not give him credit for that? Jefferson denounced slavery. So why did he have slaves? He inherited them with the plantations he inherited. It was part of the economics of the plantation that slavery made it all work. Release them all, and your plantation would wind down like an unwound clock. Everybody would starve, including the slaves released. Jefferson wrote about how most slaves were not able to just be released and have a good life. Jefferson wrote much about this, about the dependency aspect of the negro race at that time. The truth is that Jefferson freed some of his slaves, first educating them, then giving them money and a start in life. He could only do this with some slaves. Some of his slaves he offered freedom to but they declined to leave. Given the time that he lived, Jefferson was a champion for ending slavery. These people who judge Jefferson on the lone fact that he owned slaves are just bigots. They stereotype all slave owners as evil, and that simple is a false assumption.

  2. On the Trump watch, it seems that the Donald is purging away and is having trouble getting decent help. He’s reduced himself even further considering Florida Governor Rick Scott for a position. Rick Scott may just be a bigger crook than the Donald. Rick Scott started a health insurance company that handled Medicaid and Medicare benefits, you know the ones funded by us the tax payers, excluding the Donald because he don’t pay taxes. The company that Rick Scott created and ran defrauded us of over $250,000,000. They were discovered to be crooks just after Scott sold out for $350,000,000. He was investigated along with his fellow thieves but took the fifth over two dozen times. The company was fined several times what it stole but Scott was let off scott free to fund his campaign for the Governorship of Florida. After shelling out over a hundred million, he won and then did it again. These are the people that delivered Florida to Trump, the same idiots that voted in the greatest thief to come along in decades. Now all you lawyers will of course point out that he wasn’t indicted but seriously.

    Then there’s Palin. Trump is considering her for Interior Secretary. She would have to come with a translator. She is way more illiterate than either Bush or Trump.

    Trump is wading through the filth. Let’s see who he picks. I need to take a trump.

  3. I received the following email from my campus leadership:

    “We know that the results of yesterday’s election have sparked fear and concern among many in our community; in particular our immigrant and undocumented communities, Muslim, African American, Chicanx/Latinx, LGBTQ+, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, survivors of sexual assault, people with disabilities, women, and many others. We are reaching out to you with a message of support. [Redacted] leadership remains steadfast in our values and committed to the safety and well-being of all of our students, faculty, and staff. We condemn bigotry and hatred in all forms, and hold steadfast in our commitment to equity, access, and a campus that is safe, inclusive, and welcoming to all.”

    My university is saying that because I believe that my nation should have borders and that immigration law should be enforced, and because I take a pragmatic view about Islam and the terror and violence it inspires in a segment of its adherents, etc. I am a bigot and a hater. Did I whine and run to a safe space? Did I complain because I have to stay in the closet with my political beliefs if I want to keep my job? No. I sucked it up, sat at my desk, did my work, and collected my paycheck. Thank you very much. Millennials and their abettors need to grow up and act like adults. Life is not safe, fair and welcoming. Get over yourselves.

  4. Which of us is perfect? If we dismissed EVERY contribution to civil society ever made throughout history because it was provided by someone that had a flaw in their character, we would need to go back to living in caves. We are creating an intellectually bankrupt culture whose worldview is limited to what stares back at them in the mirror. There seems to be such a dearth of humility that no amount of reason and logic cannot penetrate it. The most obvious example of this self-destructive mentality is the argument opposing natural, unalienable rights. The very people that want to scrap the Declaration of Independence because of the character of its author are the same people that would empower government to take away those rights as they see fit. It strikes me as completely irrational to dismiss the principles of the DOI because the author was a slaveholder, thus paving the way for a public/private relationship no different than that of a master/slave.

  5. I think ‘professors’ in general are correctly viewed by many as a consistent detriment to both education and social progress… RIP, common sense.

  6. Clearly these indoctrinated morons have no knowledge of Jefferson. His drafting of the declaration of independance wherein he condemns slavery caused such a rift among the members of the continental congress, it was going to be vetoed by the Carolinas and doom the cause of Liberty from King George unless he removed those passages. It also illustrated his own personal inner turmoil regarding the practice. He was a polymath, a self taught architect, theological skeptic, astronomer and philosopher. He should be STUDIED in order to gain insight into how such a brilliant man was trapped between the culture of the antebellum south and his own pursuit of enlightenment.

    Today’s educators are simply not equipped to handle the subtlety required in order to convey the nuances and dichotomies of history. Everything is viewed through the narrow prism of modern day morality without a thought regarding the social conventions of that time period. How sad for today’s thin skinned, easily offended, overly protected and indoctrinated youth. If you cannot discuss these issues, you certainly cannot learn or challenge your baseless preconceptions.

  7. As irrational as Issac is, his concern about Trump may simply be that he will turn this country back to a time when Issac did not have U.S. citizenship.

  8. I do not believe that a state should be named after a virgin. Those people in that state ought to begin with the Original meaning of the Framers of that state’s name. If it is a virgin state it is also a slave state. It ain’t fried chicken daddy its Shake N Bake. Much ado about nuthin.

  9. Jefferson was ahead of his time. Merely the fact that he questioned the institution of slavery at all was a momentous leap for someone who grew up immersed in such a world. Of course he felt conflicted. He was born to that world. If he struggled with it, and made efforts to help in some areas, then he felt the prick of his conscience. Judged according to his own times, he was ahead of his time.

    It’s hard to wrap my mind around what slaves endured under slavery throughout antiquity. It would have required such total lack of empathy on the part of slave owners. It appears, however, that Jefferson did have enough empathy to question the situation.

    I am not familiar with more than the bare bones of Jefferson’s position on slavery, except for some contradictions. Did he ever give a reason for not freeing the slaves? Did he not want to give up Monticello?

  10. Jefferson’s legacy, tarnished in part by his owning of slaves, will far out last the contemporaneous mutterings of academic midgets like Noelle Hurd.

  11. I fail to understand how the words of the college’s founder that its own students are extraordinary “undermines the message of unity, equality and civility.” These sorts of encouraging remarks, had they come solely from Ms. Sullivan, would hardly have been controversial; indeed, some might argue they would fairly be described as banal. Yet, because Thomas Jefferson said them, it somehow undermines “unity, equality and civility.” Not because of their intrinsic value, or lack thereof, but because of what he did.

    If we want to see imperfect persons, we need look no further than the mirror. If we are to await the arrival of perfect individuals to serve as sources of wisdom and guidance, the wait may be interminable. Are there imperfections so great, so unforgivable, that the words of those who possessed them must by all rights be disregarded or ignored–indeed, even banished from memory? If so, what are they? If not, what metric governs the banishment?

      1. The fact they are displaying the Mexican flag would indicate they are an invading force of Mexicans. What are they expecting to accomplish, unless it is the overthrow of a legally elected president and the government he is to lead?

  12. Owning slaves is a nasty thing to have in your resume. Writing the DOI is a singular, quite remarkable thing to have in your resume. If I worked at UVA, I’d be inclined to quote TJ whenever I had occasion to do so.

  13. “Men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along”

    –Thomas Jefferson

    Are we and our leaders lacking sound minds or honest views that are preventing civil discourse so we may “unite in some measures which might enable us to get along”?

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