Jefferson Belongs to Us All—Leave His Memorial Alone | Opinion

Earlier this week, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Lucian K. Truscott IV, a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson, advocating the removal of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. He says that his ancestor was nothing more than a scoundrel and a hypocrite.

"The memorial is a shrine to a man who, during his lifetime, owned more than 600 slaves and had at least six children with one of them, Sally Hemings. It's a shrine to a man who famously wrote that 'all men are created equal' in the Declaration of Independence that founded this nation—and yet never did much to make those words come true."

It is worth noting that Mr. Truscott does not call for Monticello—Mr. Jefferson's home and the place where his sins were actually committed—to be torn down. He seems to have lovely childhood memories of the place. Rest assured, the Truscott family sacred ground is to be preserved. Instead, Mr. Truscott focuses his ire on the public monument to his ancestor.

Sadly for Mr. Truscott, I am also a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Not by blood, of course. My ancestors were scattered across Eastern Europe in 1776.

But the Declaration of Independence is part of my moral genealogy. Yours, too, I'd imagine. If you believe, as I do, that all men are created equal and endowed by God with rights that cannot be taken away, then you, too, are a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. If you believe that people institute governments to protect their rights and that government only has power over us insofar as we consent to it, then you, too are a descendant of Thomas Jefferson.

Insofar as he gifted to us the greatest defense of human liberty in history, we are all direct descendants of Jefferson. But don't take my word for it.

In July of 1858, just days after Independence Day, U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln made his way to Chicago to attend and answer a speech by his opponent. It would be more than a month before Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas would meet in Ottawa, Illinois for the first installment of their now-famous debates series. In his speech, Lincoln addressed at length the issue of slavery in America and its tendrils—popular sovereignty, the Lecompton Constitution, the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and more.

In that speech, Lincoln noted that perhaps half of the Americans who had recently celebrated Independence Day were not born of people who had lived in America at the time of the Founding. "If," he says, "they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none."

"But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are."

"And so they are." And so we are.

Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

That Mr. Truscott chooses to treat with contempt and dishonor the proud coincidence of his blood relation to Thomas Jefferson is his problem. Perhaps he should petition the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the relevant authorities to demolish Monticello. I would oppose him in that, too, but it would at least be consistent with his feelings about his ancestor.

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., however, is a monument to neither Jefferson's personal behavior nor his moral failings. It is not a Jefferson family site. It is a monument to his ideas—ideas which founded the United States with the kind of moral infrastructure that would allow Frederick Douglass to hold them up as a mirror, some 75 years later, and implore us to live up to our stated principles. Ideas used by Lincoln to call for the end of slavery, using Jefferson's words nearly a century after they were published. Ideas cited by Martin Luther King Jr., another century hence, to call for payment of Jefferson's "promissory note." Ideas and words used by movements for freedom and self-government the world over for centuries. If that doesn't deserve commemoration in bronze and marble, what does?

Thomas Jefferson doesn't belong to his now-very distant relatives. He belongs to every American—indeed every human being—who holds to the self-evident moral principle of universal human equality. It's a shame some of his descendants can't be proud of that. But I am.

Jonathan Greenberg is the director of freedom initiatives at the Jack Miller Family Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.