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Friday, March 7, 2014

March 7, 2014: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Thomas Jefferson?!

[Much of the time when I’ve highlighted something specific in this space, it’s been because I want to emphasize something positive about it, something I enjoy or appreciate. Well, the heck with that! For this week’s series, I’ll focus instead on stuff about which I’m not as keen, and try to AmericanStudy some of the reasons why. Nobody can be positive all the time, right? Add your own non-favorites in comments to help with a crowd-sourced airing of grievances this weekend!]

On a pretty meaningful kind of revisionism—and an even more valuable one.
I’m entering dangerous territory here, with this last post in my non-favorites series. As I’ve written about before—and as I’ll return to in another series two weeks hence—I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town that is very thoroughly defined by the presence of Thomas Jefferson. Granted, I grew up in a house on Jefferson Park Avenue, with a Dad who taught at Mr. Jefferson’s University, so maybe I’m biased. But I don’t think so; I think Charlottesville is and always will be centrally connected to the man who drafted our Declaration of Independence, was our third president, and (as Mount Rushmore again demonstrates) became and remains one of our most beloved national leaders and figures. Yet as a son of Charlottesville, a University of Virginia brat, a Virginia-born AmericanStudier, I (virtually) stand here before you and tell you that I’m not such a big fan of TJ.
I hope it goes without saying that I’m not dismissing Jefferson’s incredible and frequently inspiring contributions to our founding, framing, and Early Republic periods. But I do think that there are multiple, significant arguments for revising the Jefferson mythos. That revision has of course been underway for some time now, thanks to the Sally Hemings debate. And while I agree with those who push back a bit, noting that the evidence is far from conclusive that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings, DNA evidence seems to clearly indicate that a member of the Jefferson family (perhaps Thomas, perhaps someone else) did indeed father at least some of those children. Moreover, the broader takeaway from that debate is not, to my mind, whether Jefferson specifically fathered children with a slave or not—it’s the way in which the very question forces us to revise the mythos, to remember that Jefferson ran a slave plantation for much of his adult life. So did many other Americans, of course—but most of them aren’t celebrated in the ways that Jefferson has been.
So that’s an important kind of revision, and one that, Sally Hemings notwithstanding, I don’t know if we’ve collectively engaged with yet. But there’s also another level beyond it, and it involves how I would respond to the argument that Jefferson’s flaws are simply inevitable aspects of his time period (such as the legality and prevalence of slavery in that period). There’s validity to that argument, to be sure. But it’s also the case that in Jefferson’s era—as in every era—there were individuals who pushed back against those kinds of realities, who argued for alternatives to even the most dominant trends of their period. In the early period of Jefferson’s life, on issues such as slavery and race, John Woolman represented one such individual; in his final years, on the same (and many other) issues, Lydia Maria Child comprised another. Am I saying that we should revise the concept of the “Founding Fathers” (or rather Parents) to include Woolman and Child in addition to—and even in some ways in place of—Jefferson and Washington (another slaveowner)? Yeah, I guess I am.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance—gripes and critiques you’d share for the weekend post?

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