The statue of Thomas Jefferson looked at them, those several hundred torch-waving men and women marching at the University of Virginia late Friday night in opposition to the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The protesters and counterprotesters who violently clashed in Charlottesville on Saturday passed by Jefferson’s monuments.
What would he think about the city and university he built becoming the decisive battleground over the monumental Confederacy in our time? What side of the battle would he join?
His ideas lend ammunition to both sides. He was a champion of human hierarchy and human equality. He was a defender of the freedom to oppress and the freedom from oppression.
Jefferson also had a complicated relationship to the Confederate States of America and their white nationalist defenders. Jefferson stood in history as both the inspirational relative and ideological enemy of the Confederacy.
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.
In this speech, Stephens laid out the Confederacy’s constitutional principles. We will have “perfect equality,” Stephens declared. He did not lay out plans for redistributing wealth, landed or embodied, or empowering or enriching in any way the 4 million poor Southern whites. He just announced “honest labor and enterprise are left free” and other “changes for the better,” before broadcasting “one other though last, not least” change.
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery,” Stephens proclaimed. “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Stephens was as unequivocal on that day about the cause of the Civil War as anti-racist historians are today. He admitted that the defense of slavery propelled the war, which defenders of Confederate monuments still unequivocally deny today.
Stephens harkened back to Jefferson’s observation that slavery was the “‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right,” Stephens continued.
In his speech, Stephens complained that the founding fathers of the “old constitution” believed slavery violated “the laws of nature,” a belief that assumed racial equality. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Every participant in the debate over Confederate monuments should know Stephens’s speech intimately. It carefully formulates what the four-year Confederacy stood for. It clearly shares the racist ideas that Confederate monuments are still standing for in towns across the United States.
But does it give us any better indication as to what side of the battleground Thomas Jefferson would be standing on in Charlottesville? Would he defend his soul, the Declaration of Independence, as it has been reinterpreted throughout American history, as meaning racial equality? Or would he defend the Confederate soul of all white men are created equal?
Where would Jefferson side in our nation’s debate over race? Would he stand on the racist side of white supremacy, or the anti-racist side of equality’s supremacy? Or would Jefferson try to be a “non-racist” and remain “race neutral” only to realize a neutral center does not exist? We are all either anti-racists fighting for equality, or racists maintaining inequality by our actions or inaction.
Would Jefferson have defended Charlottesville’s decision to remove his cousin’s statue? Or would he have grabbed a torch, chanted “Unite the Right” and lectured reporters about white genocide — the rallying cry of white nationalists these days?
Matters of slavery and race deeply conflicted Jefferson. He despised slavery almost as much as he despised losing his luxurious lifestyle outside of Charlottesville. He seemed to like and dislike both freedom and slavery, and he never divorced himself from either.
His words could thrust him to either side of our current debate. He regularly responded to anti-slavery letters by saying “no body wishes more than I” to see the end of prejudice and slavery. But Jefferson also wrote in Notes on the State of the Virginia in 1785 that “incorporating [freed] blacks into the state” was out of the question, was suicidal. Because, he surmised, it “will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
These are the words that South Carolina legislators used when citing their reasons for secession on December 24, 1860. They expressed fears of abolitionists “inciting” contented captives into “servile insurrections” that harmed white people. And today, these ideas permeate the rhetoric of white nationalists who espouse fears that non-white immigrants, Muslims, antiracist policies and Black Lives Matter activists are exterminating the white race (and blue lives). White nationalists marched around University of Virginia late Friday night chanting: “You will not replace us.”
Thomas Jefferson is everywhere and nowhere in Charlottesville. Truly, after all these years, Jefferson’s beloved city and his beloved nation are suffering at the hands of his two warring children: the older child of bigotry and the younger child of equality.
He does not have a choice of sides. But we do. And history will one day judge us as history judges Thomas Jefferson today.