I have been wanting to write a post all week about the appropriation of Thomas Jefferson by the various disputants in the ongoing controversy over the resignation of Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. My recent illness has prevented me from doing that, so here—if you’ll forgive me—is something a bit more off the cuff.
As I wrote earlier, references to Jefferson began with the Board of Visitors’ announcement that they had accepted (or forced) Sullivan’s resignation: “We want this to be a place that lives up to Mr. Jefferson’s founding vision of excellence,” the board members wrote. Jefferson then made his way into the comment threads on various sites, with the university’s founder either approving or disapproving of the Board’s actions, depending on the commenter’s point of view.
On June 16, the Charlottesville weekly The Hook published online a story that speculated on the involvement of billionaire donor Paul Tudor Jones. It ends like this:
Such benefactors appear to have found a voice in the form of Rector [Helen] Dragas, whose only post-college role at UVA prior to her governing board appointment was the two years she spent getting her MBA. In her explanatory letter to UVA faculty, Rector Dragas expresses a wish to “advance Mr. Jefferson’s University in a way that fulfills his original vision for it to be the most eminent in the United States.”
However, historian Coy Barefoot, who has taught UVA history classes, notes that while Thomas Jefferson had bold ideas about UVA’s desire for excellence– particularly with his famous quotation about not fearing to pursue the truth– the founder also expressed concern about the creeping influence of money.
“I hope we shall,” wrote Jefferson, “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.”
This last Jefferson quotation does appear to be genuine and can be found here, although it is often garbled, as explained here. The problem with its use—at least historically speaking—is twofold. One, Jefferson wrote enough in his lifetime that a quotation from him can be found in support of most any position. That may actually be the reason why his influence has been so lasting—because his views have been so elastic. We can all claim Jefferson, and we can claim him on most every occasion.
The second problem is that while Jefferson declared himself against “moneyed corporations,” that was not the same thing as declaring himself either against the influence of money or for the everyman. Jefferson saw himself as being above such incorporated groups of men in both social and political station. Never mind that the Virginia colony he cared so deeply about was originally founded by a corporation.
A noted historian recently pointed out to me that “yes, he fought against the old aristocratic establishment in Virginia by abolishing primogeniture”—a practice that allowed the eldest son to inherit all a man’s wealth. This kept large estates intact and kept power consolidated in a few. “But,” the historian continued, Jefferson “preserved the source of aristocratic wealth by preserving slavery.”
His relationship to power and money was not clear cut, in other words. And to preserve and profit from slavery—as opposed to merely speaking out against it, as he sometimes did—put him squarely on the side of the moneyed elites. In fact, much of Jefferson’s life was spent in an effort to preserve a social order in which rich, slaveholding planters like himself held the balance of power in the United States. That is not to say that his declarations on the inalienable rights of man were cynical; they were not. But for us to now draft Jefferson in defense of the 99 percent is, well, problematic.
And yet folks still want to do that. In response to this article at Slate.com, commenters take up the discussion. One suggests that Jefferson “wasn’t rich enough to afford to free his slaves—some of whom were his relatives.” Another argues that “Jefferson WAS rich,” but only for a time. For a closer examination of these sorts of claims, I invite you to watch this videotaped lecture by VFH fellow and Encyclopedia Virginia contributor Henry Wiencek. It is wrong to say that Jefferson was too poor to free his slaves; rather, his slaves, under any circumstance, were much too valuable to free. They were not simply worth money; they made him money!
In the same comment thread, George Washington even comes under scrutiny. One person points out that “Washington’s personal fortune, relative to GDP, absolutely dwarfed that of [presidential candidate Mitt] Romney,” and yet “somehow, the republic survived.” Another counters: “It’s not clear to me that Washington’s fortune had quite the influence over public policy as do the fortunes of contemporary robber barons.”
But of course it did! Washington’s fortune, like those of many southern planters, was founded in part on slavery, and as such was a critical factor in the framing of the Constitution. One quick example: the Electoral College was created in order to help even the playing field between slave and non-slave states; the same is true about the three-fifths clause.
Back to that original article from The Hook. Was Jefferson’s original vision of the University of Virginia that it be “the most eminent in the United States,” as the rector claimed? Such aspirations, at the very least, came well behind his more clearly stated goals, one of which was that it exist
to harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce, and by well informed views of political economy to give a free scope to public industry.
Recall the implication made by the Hook journalist and Coy Barefoot—that the Board of Vistors’ rector, Helen Dragas, “whose only post-college role at UVA prior to her governing board appointment was the two years she spent getting her MBA,” is somehow suspect by virtue of her being tainted by “manufactures and commerce.” The same has been murmured about the interim president, Carl Zeithaml, dean of the School of Commerce. But such concerns, even when seemingly bolstered by a handy Jefferson quotation, don’t stand up to historical scrutiny. And why should they?
How could Jefferson have anticipated our world and its concerns?
“We Americans make a great mistake in idolizing … and making symbols of authentic figures,” the historian Gordon Wood has written, “who cannot and should not be ripped out of their time and place.”
That is easier said than done at the University of Virginia, where, as the photograph above suggests, Jefferson is quite literally held up as a symbol of courage—of everything that is right with the world.