Happy Birthday, You Confounding Founder
We’re climbing the steps of the Jefferson Memorial towards that towering statue of TJ to celebrate a birthday: Jefferson’s 276th birthday. Below us are paddle-boaters in the Tidal Basin and the faded glory of the cherry blossoms. As we ascend, we pass the memorial’s cornerstone, laid by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When he dedicated the building on April 13, 1943, FDR said that “Jefferson, across 150 years of time, is closer by much to living men than many of our leaders of the years between.” Because he spoke to so many timeless principles, he still seems relevant today—as the wreaths left in front of his statue today attest to.
The walls of the memorial showcase a series of quotes, Jefferson’s greatest hits. The first panel kicks off with that old classic, “among these truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” And the second with the inspiring the “almighty God hath made the mind free…”
The third panel seems more problematic. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Jefferson wrote. “Commerce between master and slave is despotism.” To observers in 1943, his calls for abolition of slavery seemed worthy of recognition. But today, his deeds seem more important to many than his words. Jefferson owned over 300 humans in the course of his life and freed only a handful. The widespread conclusion, following the presentation of a DNA test and other evidence, in 1998 that Jefferson likely fathered children by the enslaved Sally Hemings, further complicated the view of him as someone to admire.
While not generating the same momentum as the recent drive to take down Confederate statues has, some have questioned whether he should be honored at all. As just one example of this, a group of students at Hofstra are campaigning to remove the statue of him on campus, arguing that he “aided in the construction of institutional racism and justified the subjugation of black people in the U.S.”
The final panel addresses this issue: “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
This is a vote for constant reexamination in the face of change. Criticizing Jefferson’s actions based on a fuller understanding of them itself is Jeffersonian. Even if you recognize that present-day values are different from those in the 18th century, he himself challenged future generations to keep thinking, probing, changing their minds, and keeping institutions up to date. Today, this includes the “institution” of Jefferson himself.
He'll never get the same unquestioning birthday celebrations he once received. Nonetheless, there are few people who shaped this country more than Thomas Jefferson. And that should not be forgotten.