It doesn’t matter what you do — for your country, for your fellow man, whomever — if you also do something reprehensible or seen as reprehensible in the future, that’s it. You’re finished. Banned from history.
Such is the fate of founding father and third president, Thomas Jefferson. Current social justice theology dictates that his contributions to this country, the Declaration of Independence — none of that matters because he also owned slaves at a time when it was legal to do so.
Nearly 200 years after his death, Jefferson’s birthday is set to be removed as a city holiday in Charlottesville, VA. Instead, the city’s mayor proposed replacing it with “Liberation and Freedom Day” in March to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in the area. The day is already celebrated, but Mayor Nikuyah Walker appears to want that day recognized as a paid holiday instead of Jefferson’s birthday.
The Daily Progress, a local paper in Charlottesville, reported that while Albermarle County observes Jefferson’s birthday in an official capacity, the University of Virginia — which Jefferson designed and founded himself — does not.
The Progress could not get a response from the mayor or her office about the reason behind her proposal, nor would several other members of the City Council respond.
Councilor Wes Bellamy, however, said he was “proud” of the mayor for her proposal.
“I think it’s a conversation that we definitely as a city need to have,” he said, according to the Progress. Bellamy also acknowledged the reason for the proposal was because Jefferson owned slaves and “raped Sally Hemings” — one of his slaves.
John Blair, the city attorney, said the city could revise an ordinance for the holiday observance.
Gayle Jessup White, the community engagement officer at Monticello and a descendant of Hemings and Jefferson, said the historical site already handles the “tension” created by Jefferson’s complicated life.
“We respect the city’s process for resolving questions around its official holidays. At Monticello we hold Jefferson’s immense achievements and deep flaws in tension. We have those discussions with guests every day,” White told the Progress. “We are committed to sharing an honest, complicated and inclusive view of our history — including the history of race and slavery at Monticello — and the commemoration of Jefferson’s birthday is an important time for these tensions to be engaged.”
Joy Pullman, executive editor of The Federalist (where I also have a byline), wrote that the proposal to remove Jefferson’s birthday as an official holiday comes from “resentment, envy, and ignorance.”
It assumes that someone who has done something terrible can never be recognized for what he has done that is great. It assumes that we should socially elevate those who have accomplished nothing over those who have built a great nation, simply because the former can land a valid criticism against the latter.
Followed to its logical conclusions, this line of thinking bans the idea of greatness itself. It subsumes all good actions to any possibly connected evil actions. It insists that the most defining feature of any person is his sins. And it pretends that simply by virtue of understanding that slavery is wrong, we who live today in the West are perfectly holy, and may freely and smugly condemn every single person who has ever gone before us, and brush away every insight and achievement of human history.