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Where Have You Gone, Thomas Jefferson?

Like Simon and Garfunkel’s line about Joe DiMaggio, such a question may be metaphorical. But in regard to the famous statue of Thomas Jefferson, which had been in the New York City Council chamber for over a hundred years, the answer is that it has been removed, and will go to the New York Historical Society, to be placed in its lobby gallery for six months, before being taken from there, to be put in the museum’s reading room.

Maybe then they will smash it up into pieces, as some relentless people think befits the brilliant and erudite man who essentially wrote the Declaration of Independence, and was a champion of free speech and religious freedom; and who was America’s third President, serving in the very tenuous times of the fledgling republic; and who has been ranked as one of our greatest presidents by every poll of historians I have ever read.

Why this happened is obvious. In the last ten years or so there has been an outcry to remove all traces of Jefferson from our sight, if not our history, because he owned many slaves, and fathered children by at least one of them. This is the most recent outcome of that, and I am sure that there will be more. This makes some people very happy, but it greatly angers me.

I have a pretty good grounding in American history, but it has been a while since I studied it, and I am not going to do research now on Jefferson to buttress my contention that he did a very good job as President. Not perfect; there were things which one could, with the advantage of hindsight and perspective, differ with. But that it is true of every single President. History has always ranked Jefferson high, based primarily on his actual work in office, not even taking into account his eloquent writings on matters of liberty, free thought, and open expression.

But he did own slaves. So did virtually every person who owned land in Virginia. George Washington apparently owned 300 slaves. I guess we will be taking down his statues, too.

The bitterly ironic part is that the former Confederacy seems to be winning, at least in the areas of the country where they led a Civil War. We supposedly fought that war to retain the republic, and also to end slavery. We could have led them secede, which might have been the best thing–except that slavery would have remained in those states, so we fought the war.

Now, while there are efforts to remove Jefferson from our political and cultural history, the Southern states mostly venerate their own history, and are in great danger of taking over the entire country That would not be good for any of us, certainly not for the people who are spending much of their time trying to expunge Jefferson. But maybe they don’t care, it is the thrill of power which matters to them, just as it has for so many people with regard to various matters. All the talk of democracy is often so much cant, used to obscure their quest for power.

In no way or fashion do I countenance slavery, no humane person would. It was a historical blight which existed throughout the world. It came to this country. It was obscene. But many of the people of that particular era we are looking at–America from 1640-1865– did not see it that way, it was custom to them, and they simply inherited it. That was wrong. But so was trying to keep the first Jewish member of the British Parliament from serving, because he would not take an oath on the New Testament. So was the internment of Japanese-Americans at the beginning of World War II. Should we expunge perhaps our greatest President, Franklin Roosevelt, from the records,and the statuary?

In 1858, the man who is now generally considered our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, said in a debate with Stephen Douglas, “I will say then that I am not, and never have been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the White and Black races.” Obviously, his views evolved, as they can, for people who are humane and intelligent. That is supposedly one of the goals of humanity, however far away it may seem at times.

Jefferson was a person of his Age, as were Washington, Madison, Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, all of whom owned slaves. Some of them eventually freed their slaves. I do not think that they should be removed from honor in American history because of this, though some apparently do.

Mount Rushmore would then just have Theodore Roosevelt, who loved to shoot innocent animals and mount their heads on his walls. Maybe they could put Obama up there. He certainly spoke out forcefully for Civil Rights, though he ended up perhaps losing the country to the Far Right, because he was apparently not inclined to fight them. So were John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson great champions of Civil Rights, in both words and actions, but they had innumerable extramarital affairs, as did Martin Luther King. Some would say that this is not important, others would say that it is. It depends on one’s viewpoint and values, doesn’t it?

My position, as much or as little as it may matter, is that these efforts to remove the imprint of Jefferson and others, in this way, are appalling, even just from a moral position. But perhaps more important, they will do exactly what one would think that those who demand them would not want to occur, which is to help the takeover of this country by evil forces who want to turn our Constitution into a meaningless document, and take away all of our precious civil rights. One would think that they would care about this, but either they don’t understand it, so exultant are they in their ability to censor and expurgate and remove; or they simply don’t care, they want what they want.

And that is how democracies are destroyed. First they came for Robert E. Lee, who may well have deserved it. Then they came for Jefferson, who does not. Then perhaps Washington, but perhaps they do not dare go that far yet. They, or their cousins in perspective, seem to revel in trying to get people thrown off television shows or movies, because they wrote something or sent emails. Some of these people wrote and said unacceptable things and so deserve it, but some did not.

And who is to make the distinctions? These people, our modern-day Tribunals, putting thumbs up or down? “Feed him to the lions!” “Send him to the guillotine!” “Blacklist him from every movie or television show!” “Burn his books!” “Take his statue out of the City Council!” “Beware, anyone who dares to condemn us for it! We are coming for you next!”

It is one of humanity’s worst characteristics, this desire and even need to destroy anybody or anything which offends them. After many thousands of years, humankind evolved in at least some parts of the world, to democracy, which had as one of its primary goals, to protect free speech and thought and religious belief. That is what our Constitution was primarily centered on. Thomas Jefferson was one of the principal writers of that wonderful, albeit inevitably imperfect document. In my opinion, attempting to remove statues of him, and to have him essentially expunged, is inimical to every concept that we like to claim is an essential part of America.

And, yes, it will very possibly cost us the democracy, because it will give the other, evil side,; and even some well-meaning people in the middle, the impetus to vote for the anti-democracy, fascist forces to take control, and to smash it all. But any student of history knows that common sense or moderation rarely were sufficient to stop the destructive flames of righteous anger, thirst for revenge, and people’s lust for the power to get their way, to try to have things come out just as they would prefer them; and to hell with considering such matters with fairness, perspective, and farsightedness as to the eventual effects of their self-righteous destructions.