What would Jefferson say about the events that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville? The short answer is: “I have no idea.” We can speculate, but we can’t bring Jefferson back from the grave to give his opinion. It is an impossible question to answer and this is why we need to approach these kinds of queries with caution.
Having said that, historians can offer reasonable suggestions about what Jefferson may have thought about a troublesome moment like this. And since white supremacists marched through the campus he founded on Friday night, it is worth trying to think together about how he would have responded.
This is what historian Ibram X Kendi did in yesterday’s Washington Post. Kendi teaches history at American University and is the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
Here is a taste:
In sum, Jefferson’s legacy embodied the clash that snatched and harmed human life in the city of Jefferson over the last few days.
Confederate leaders revered Jefferson long before they seceded from the Union. To some he was a direct relative. He was the second cousin-in-law of Lee.
To others, he was an inspiration. Jefferson Davis was not just named after him. As a slaveholder, U.S. senator and then Confederate president, Davis shared Jefferson’s values: states’ rights, limited federal power over their property, extended federal military power over their captives, racist ideas and constitutional protections for slavery.
Although Confederate leaders traced their ideological and relational roots to Jefferson, they also knew that his most famous words threatened their plantations. The Confederates seceded from Thomas Jefferson when they seceded from his independent Union. If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence remains the soul of the United States, then Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens revealed what historian Henry V. Jaffa termed “the soul of the Confederacy” on March 21, 1861. Both justified their new nations and laid out their ideals.
Read the rest here.