A “Disavowal of White Supremacy”: University of Virginia Newspaper Calls to Drop References to Thomas Jefferson

The Washington Post previously published a column of a George Washington student calling for George Washington University to be renamed. Now, in an August 11 editorial in The Cavalier Daily, the editors of the University of Virginia’s student paper are calling for all references to school founder Thomas Jefferson to stripped from the school. I have previously written about Jefferson’s history with slavery, including the call to remove the Jefferson memorial. Rather than remove memorials or references to Jefferson, this should remain part of a full and complete discussion of his history. Jefferson is indelibly part of the history of the university. Rather than cleanse the university of all references, his great contributions to the country can be placed in an accurate and frank context with his history of slavery.The university was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote to artist Charles Willson Peale that he wanted to design a school that would be so grand and inspirational that it could attract talented students from “other states to come, and drink of the cup of knowledge”.  He sought to structure the school along a Humboldtian model for a broad liberal arts education, including a rejection of the religious foundation for most other schools (like his alma mater William & Mary).  He played an active role in the design of buildings and the development of curriculum at the university.  He continued to invite faculty and students to his home for dinners and remained deeply involved in the development of the school to ensure that it would be a world-class educational institution.

The Cavalier Daily editors referenced UVA President Jim Ryan’s recent pronouncement about “the importance of preparing students to be citizen leaders” to demand that he “create a physical environment that reflects [a] commitment to equality and [a] disavowal of white supremacy.” Noting that the Charlottesville’s local Ku Klux Klan Chapter hosted its inauguration ceremony at Jefferson’s Monticello tomb, the editors objected that “there is a reason why they felt comfortable marching through Grounds. Our physical environment — from statues to building names to Jefferson’s overwhelming presence — exalts people who held the same beliefs as the repugnant white supremacists in attendance at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.”

Accordingly, they declared “these buildings must be renamed and memorials removed.”

Some of us have been engaged in this debate for years. I called for the removal of some statues over two decades ago.  However, I have also opposed the removal of statues to leaders like Washington and Jefferson.  We learn from history not by wiping it away but placing it into context.  Washington and Jefferson are honored not because of their ownership of slaves but despite that terrible wrong.  Indeed, the history of both leaders on slavery is complex, particularly for Jefferson who sought to include the following statement that was deleted by pro-slavery delegates as a condition for voting for independence:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Jefferson was a hypocrite on this issue and kept hundreds in bondage.  As we discussed recently, this part of his legacy is not ignored in tours at Monticello.

We can recognize this legacy without removing references to one of the most important figures in not just American but world history.


127 thoughts on “A “Disavowal of White Supremacy”: University of Virginia Newspaper Calls to Drop References to Thomas Jefferson”

  1. And by the way: to whom does the University of Virginia belong? Is it the student body? The faculty? The Board of Visitors? The University Administration? The Alumni? The people of Virginia? A thorny question that I suspect the historically under-educated editors of the Cavalier Daily have not asked. The obvious answer is that the University is a trust bequeathed to and held by all of the above. So perhaps the question should be turned around: to wit, if a few members of the current student body are offended, ‘triggered,’ or believe themselves to somehow be sullied by any mention of or association with Thomas Jefferson, why do they remain at the University? Shouldn’t they leave? Doing so would not only speak to the depth of their principles, but it would also spare them from the obvious dishonor that will attach to them for the remainder of their lives, should they choose to stay and join the ranks of the University’s graduates.

  2. “I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76. to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.” -Thomas Jefferson

  3. The lobotomy of history. No generation can pass muster when compared to the mores of later generations. The men who bravely fought the Nazis and ended Hitler’s ambitions of annihilating the Jews and world domination, had various prejudices, attitudes, and opinions that would not be acceptable today. If you can stop Hitler, but still be viewed with repugnance, then if this trend continues, every generation will be erased, one generation at a time. We will become a society always living in the present, cut off from the achievements, wisdom, and innovations that came before, because the people are offended by the sensibilities of those who came before.

    Our species learns from others, instead of relying on instinct. Pulling down statues, culling great works like Shakespeare, consigning the Dutch masters to the pile of “too white” artists, and throwing out history, will result in an ignorant populace. An ignorant populace does not know how to reason or question what they’re told.

    It is foolish to regret the acts of ancient ancestors, or to anachronistically judge them. It’s like blaming birds for not evolving sustained flight earlier in evolutionary history. Every action, for good or ill, in the past brought us to where we are today. While Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, he contributed to the formation of the United States, which ended the grip of monarchies, and helped end slavery in Western Civilization. While people grieve how the US was formed from land where Natives lived, without the US, Europe likely would have lost WWI and WWII. Without the Conquistadores, there was no one to stop the Aztecs from conquering, enslaving, and wiping out neighboring tribes, and sacrificing men, women, and children. Without Europeans becoming the strongest “tribe” in what would become the US, there would be no wheel, horse, electricity, car, plane, train, modern medicine, or stable food supply.

    We stand where we are today because of global past history.

    1. RE:”We stand where we are today because of global past history…” …..and we are endeavoring to teach the applications of differential equations to a generation we have somehow failed to teach how to add and subtract.

    2. It’s true, looking back on history, even (as you point out) more recent history, with the lenses of modern sensibilities will only find fault with our forebears. Are the rights of the individual the same now as they were 1000 years ago? 100? 50? No, absoloutely not. And that is for everuone, regardless of race, religion or sex. We have arrived at our modern sensibilities by reviewing the actions, attitudes, works and beliefs of those who came before us. Even then, we cherry pick the facts to demonise one group or another when we feel the need. The Nazi’s were bad, therefore all bad people are Nazi’s? No, of course not, but try and explain that to someone who steadfastly believes that if you think differently to them then you are so wrong you are a Nazi. Apply the same logic to those who think it is because you look or talk differently. It just doesn’t make sense now, nor does it make sense to apply our sensibilities to those from the past.
      We can ALL agree that slavery was, AND IS, a terrible thing. But the simple fact is, the “Slave Trade” is applied to the Atlantic Slave Trade of the 17th – 19th centuries. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface! There is not a race, or province, on this planet that doesn’t have a history of slavery, and sadly it is not something gone from the human experience today. We should look to the past to see what they did well, and what they did poorly, and strive to be better. Erase the past and you will only enable it’s repetitition. As many Africans were involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade as Europeans. You can’t demonise white slavers and ignore the black ones. Worse, in this case, demonise Jefferson for enslaving his own, all the while excusing the fact that African nations did the same, and are even now celebrated for it! You can’t just re-write history and say “There”. Because if you do, you condemn yourselves and your proginy to the ignorance that leads to manipulation and control.
      One should probably ask “Who is benefitting from this push to disavow the past?”. Because someone is, and, unfortunately, it won’t be who you might think!
      All the best intentions cannot forgive ignorance of action. Pushing ahead and destroying the past, and it is happening around the world because people feel ashamed of what happened previously, either to indigenous or non-indienous groups (look at how men and women with homosexual proclivities were treated), makes you a fool. Accepting the past, and that we have moved on from it doesn’t make you a white supremacist, doesn’t further victimise those victimised in history (or their descendants), what it makes you is a reasoning human being.
      The white supremacy groups that laud the worst bits of history to justify their actions, are as historically stupid as those who ignore the best bits of history to justify theirs. Look to your own family history, and ther will be someone, somewhere in the line, that owned a slave or was one. Regardless of your skin colour. Slavery is as old as Mankind itself. It’s time we stamped it out for good. Not by making decendants of slaves the victim all over again, but by stamping out slavery as it exists today, any where it exists. History is a beautifully complex creature, but one that deserves to be studied in it’s entirety, for the benefit of all, not selectively for the benefit of a few.

  4. As a Taxpayer in VA, the current budget as approved commencing July 1, 2022 has $87,313,490 in funding for the next two years. Strip Jefferson from the School, and they can strip that amount from the taxpayer funding of UVA. Plenty of other good places to put that money to work.

  5. Slavery, as evil as it was, existed for thousands of years. Societies of all racial stripes – including black ones – owned slaves of every ethnicity- including white ones. To sweep this under the rug or pretend it never happened is a childish as closing your eyes in the belief that if you don’t see something, it does not exist. Julius Caesar was the richest man in Rome because he owned a lot of slaves – most of them white people from Gaul (France). He left his fortune to his great nephew, Octavius, who later became Augustus Caesar. July and August are named after them. Should we be changing out calendars now because their wealth and power came from slavery? All this is childish.

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