J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Notes on the Stat(u)e of Jefferson

Yet another focus of recent campus protests against honoring historic figures whose behavior was less than honorable has been statues of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Missouri (shown here) and the University of Virginia.

Jefferson was a lifelong slaveholder, of course. He decried the practice, but he never managed to try or even endorse any of the schemes to end slavery that friends presented to him. Jefferson also wrote bigoted things about black people, especially in Notes on the State of Virginia, which some historians argue formed part of the foundation of “scientific racism” in America.

Ironically, Jefferson probably had children with a woman of some African ancestry, his slave Sally Hemings. Because of her age at the time of their first reported child, and because of the power difference between them, many people characterize that relationship as exploitation or even rape.

Of course, there was a lot more to Thomas Jefferson than that. Unlike Isaac Royall, who wasn’t really important, and John C. Calhoun, whose major ideas were repudiated long ago, Jefferson’s ideas and actions are still crucial to the U.S. of A. (In that respect he’s like Woodrow Wilson, another target of criticism for racist policy.) It would be especially difficult to repudiate Jefferson at the University of Virginia since he founded the school.

Some people have argued for removing the Jefferson statues from those campuses. I’m more impressed by the form of protest that evolved out of that debate: students putting sticky notes onto the figures expressing their opposition to the more reprehensible parts of Jefferson’s behavior. Or, presumably, they could express praise, or other thoughts.

I see potential in that becoming a meaningful ritual. It could open discussions, allowing for ongoing acknowledgment of Jefferson’s problematic side without erasing his historical contribution. It could be a form of recurrent iconoclasm without permanent or complete erasure, which brings the dangers of complacency and amnesia.

Certainly it can be a more valuable way of dealing with campus statues than rubbing them for luck, as Harvard students have reportedly done for decades. (Of course, tour guides reportedly say Yale students rub the statue of Nathan Hale the same way, and I can say with certainty that’s a myth.)


G. Lovely said...

I wonder, should a statue of JLB ever be erected on the Yale campus, would future students plaster him with Post-its because of his blatant anti-Crimson bias?

J. L. Bell said...

The folks at the Royall House altered me to this Atlas Obscura article about Harvard students using the same sticky technique to remind viewers of the people once enslaved on their campus.

Anonymous said...

This drives me nuts. Even great people make mistakes. Life long mistakes. People are not perfect, never have been, never will be. They were a product of their time, which does not excuse them at all. What if Donald Trump (who is well known for his narrow views) saved the world and everyone in it, so we erected a statue in his honor to help memorialize his contribution. It would not represent his beliefs. Hundreds of years later, would people who have become complacent call for the statue to be taken down? He saved the world and everyone knows it! There is evidence everywhere! That is what is happening with Jefferson. The masses have become complacent with his contributions. You have to see the good in the bad. I despise that Jefferson was a slaveholder, but I do not forget how this country became the the way it did.

J. L. Bell said...

The next generation of statues will be holograms that can look like different people for different spectators based on their browsing history.

J. L. Bell said...

As I see it, this sort of sticky note response is a way for people to express, and to see that other people have expressed, that they "despise that Jefferson was a slaveholder." With no notes, it just looks like honoring Jefferson without acknowledging that side of his life.

Anonymous said...

I think it is wrong to apply current standards to people in the past. Our standards will probably be considered terrible by people in the future. There are things that people did in the past that I am by no means comfortable with but I am sure that my great grandchildren will feel the same way about all of us.

I am more uncomfortable about Jefferson wanting to have a newspaper editor hung for calling him a nasty name than for the Hemmings business.

None of us are perfect anyway.

J. L. Bell said...

Anonymous comment? Check. Misspelled Hemings name? Check. The common tropes that don't actually consider all the facts and arguments at issue? Check. I wish we were beyond this sort of response by now, but let's address it.

First, as the posting above notes and many authors have shown, some of Jefferson's contemporaries—indeed, some of his close associates—took steps to end slavery and extricate themselves from the system. That prospect was in the marketplace of ideas in Jefferson's lifetime. He just couldn't handle the price. So this is not just a matter of "current standards." It's also a matter of the spectrum of possible values and behaviors in Jefferson's own time.

Furthermore, why do we put up statues if not to honor people according to current standards? The Jefferson statue at the University of Missouri is not centuries old. It was erected by our contemporaries because the people in authority behind it thought the figure of Jefferson was admirable.

Finally, this anonymous commenter is himself (let's assume) applying personal standards when he compares Jefferson's anger at a newspaper editor to "the Hemmings business." And what are those personal standards? The "Hemmings business" involved keeping children in lifelong slavery for their labor, most likely having sex with his late wife's teen-aged half-sister, acknowledging one's children in only the most tacit way. But the commenter is more comfortable with that behavior than with momentary anger at a rude white male newspaper editor (none was ever hanged).

Anonymous said...

And the smoke still lingers in the air from the burning response by J.L. Bell.
Wow! Great response....and idea about hologram statues.

What if in the future, along with the statue, plaques with descriptions are included to highlight positive and negative things. That way we don't have to deface public property, but both angles are being acknowledged.

Anonymous said...

Never mind on my last comment about statues and plaques. I just read your Deerfield post.

J. L. Bell said...

Since I like that idea, I'm publishing the comment anyway. One thing I like about the Deerfield monument is that it shows the passage of time, and it invites viewers to participate in considering that change. A single set of plaques still has the implication that "This is what we've agreed on," rather than, "We continue to discuss this." On the other hand, done right, it could provoke just the sort of discussion I'd like to hear. (On the other other hand, are monuments made to shut down discussions?)

Anonymous said...

No, I don't believe they were made to shut down discussions. Look how much conversation has passed on this one post alone. And it is only a picture of a statue!

J. L. Bell said...

I'm pondering whether cultures erect monuments in stone or metal, often with governmental or broad-based public support, to say (correctly or not), "We collectively think this person/event/value is important, and there should be no further discussion in this society of whether it is important, just how it is important."

RBK said...

I don't think the material it is made from makes a difference, other than you could say if it was made of something more delicate, such as wood, that required more upkeep to preserve it, the fact that you are indeed preserving it already proves that it is important. As long as we deem it important, we preserve it and so we can then discuss how it is important.