In Praise of Thomas Jefferson

The anti-American Left constantly lies. This is not surprising. What is troubling, however, is their bid to twist all American history into the narrative of the 1619 Project -- something that many historians have critiqued as containing misleading and factual inaccuracies. A case in point is the man whom Democrats once revered: Thomas Jefferson.

To say that Jefferson was a complex and complicated man is an understatement… and virtually everyone knows that Jefferson was a complex and complicated man. New York City’s recent removal of his statue from their city hall indicted his legacy of slavery as the main reason.

While it is true that Jefferson owned slaves, that is not his legacy regarding slavery. In fact, Jefferson was the most ardent abolitionist and anti-slavery politician in the early republic. His early draft of the Declaration condemned slavery and blamed the English Crown for its imposition in North America and the filth that it brought.

In 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution, Jefferson lobbied and successfully convinced the Virginia Legislature to ban the import of slaves into the state. It was the first state after the Declaration of Independence to outlaw the slave trade. As governor, while the war ravaged the southern states, Jefferson supported African Americans serving in the Virginia militia to be compensated with land and money for their service to advance the cause of liberty.

After the Constitutional Convention and the formation of the American republic, the expansion of slavery was a contentious issue as involved the westward expansion. Jefferson took his stand against the expansion of slavery when he authored the Northwest Ordinances, thus preventing the Midwest from having the peculiar institution expanding into its lands. Jefferson indirectly ensured that the great agrarian and industrial heartland of the United States, so instrumental in the Union’s victory in the Civil War, would become the center of the Republican Party and anti-slavery movement, which would later prove to be the arsenal of democracy in the 20th century.

As President, Jefferson advocated Congress to ban the international slave trade in the United States. Congress complied and Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law. While the domestic slave trade wasn’t affected, Jefferson didn’t rest on the legislation but sent American naval ships into the Atlantic and West African coasts to prevent slave smuggling into the United States.

Of all the major politicians of the early republic, Jefferson was the most ardent anti-slavery leader in the new republic. He successfully lobbied for two laws that banned the slave trade, one for a state and the second for the country as a whole. He also authored laws that would prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories as the young country expanded westward. And as all know who have read his writings, he believed in gradual emancipation.

Jefferson’s real record and legacy on slavery, ensuring the future American Midwest would be a free land, his outlawing the international slave trade which undeniably limited the cruelty and expansion of slavery, and his ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence which motivated the Civil Rights Movement is not compatible with the view that America is evil and that all her institutions are tainted by slavery.

As Jefferson’s life shows, he fought against the expansion of slavery and prevented the corruption of American institutions from slavery. States like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were all affected by Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance and entered the Union as free states. All were major supporters of the Union in the Civil War and became America’s backbone in the fights against totalitarianism in the 20th century. In arguing for the end of the slave trade, Jefferson showed real courage and set a precedent for Congress passing laws preventing the expansion of slavery, which would eventually lead to the end of slavery 60 years later.

Our free republic owes so much to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s legacy shows the real story of American progress: an imperfect but good people fighting for liberty and continuing to fight for liberty and the expansion of liberty for all persons.

But since the 1619 Project’s narrative cannot abide by this reality, Jefferson must go. Jefferson must go because he, more than any other early figure in America, represents the goodness and idealism of the United States, our republic, our self-governing democratic convictions, and the complex goodness of America. By eliminating Jefferson and only concentrating on Jefferson’s personal ownership of slaves clouds his real legacy and allows the narrative of American darkness and evil to take root and expand.

Jefferson is, and remains, the essential figure whom critics of the 1619 Project and its misleading characterizations and its lies flock to in order to rebut it. If Jefferson is gone then the 1619 Project is seemingly free from strong criticism. Why? Because no other Founding Father has such a record and legacy that repudiates the notion of American evil than Jefferson. Since his death, Americans who have advocated the advancement of liberty and equality have always stood on the shoulders of Jefferson.

Andrew Jackson’s war against central banking and expansion of voting rights was in the spirit of Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln saw himself in Jefferson’s mold by wanting to preserve the Union and then abolish slavery. Franklin Roosevelt also saw himself in the Jeffersonian tradition and, during the fight against totalitarianism in Europe and Asia, commissioned the Jefferson Monument as an eternal reminder of Jefferson’s spirit of liberty which the United States was now fighting to protect.

Jefferson, until the past ten years, was a truly bipartisan figure. Limited government conservatives and libertarians cherished his views on the federal government. Liberals and civil rights activists looked to Jefferson’s commitment to personal liberty and his political idealism (however imperfect his own life was) as inspirational and aspirational. Democrats used to call their major dinner fundraising gatherings “Jefferson-Jackson” Day.

The war against Thomas Jefferson is simple to understand once you know the real Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson exposes the lies of the 1619 Project and its activists. If Jefferson stands, an America of liberty, equality, and goodness despite the complexities of human existence can be seen. If Jefferson falls, an America based on the lies of the 1619 Project can be imposed over the country. A free America cannot exist without Jefferson. And behind the talk of freedom and equality by those who critique him, their real motivation is to destroy the America of liberty, so they target its chief architect.

Paul Krause is the editor of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great BooksThe Politics of Plato, and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory.

Image: Rembrandt Peale

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