A Letter to the University of Virginia's President on Jefferson's Legacy

James Ryan
President
University of Virginia

Dear Jim,

I'm a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where I spent two of my three years studying the Constitution, property rights, contract law and federalism with you in Charlottesville. We studied important things that our Founding Fathers thought about and debated in the 18th century and that we're still debating today.

I've been reading with great worry about efforts by students and faculty alike to remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands in front of the Rotunda and remove all positive references in official university communications about the man who founded our beloved university. To your credit, you defended Jefferson's presence. "I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort," you wrote in UVa Today not long ago. "As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson." It was a clear statement, but you didn't go far enough.

Jefferson, to put it plainly, was one of the greatest political visionaries in human history. No less a visionary than Reverend Martin Luther King—himself a flawed man worthy of honor—thought that was true. "Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality," King declared on the Fourth of July in 1965 while speaking about the Declaration of Independence. "The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth."

We are all heirs of the work Jefferson and our founders did in the 18th century. But like any inheritance, it's easy to squander.

The late historian David McCullough worried about that very thing. "If you've inherited some great work of art that's worth a fortune—and you don't know that it's worth a fortune, you don't even know that it's a great work of art, and you're not interested in it—you're going to lose it," he once said. "The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant. It's to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

It's also a shabby failing to judge people out of their historical context. No less a political thinker than Bill Maher made that point recently in the form of a joke. "Here's the thing, kids: There actually was a world before you got here," he said, echoing McCullough's claim. "We date human events A.D. and B.C., but we need a third marker for millennials and Gen Z: BY. Before You."

There's an old Yiddish joke that goes something like this: Irving is walking out of a synagogue and falls down the steps. His wife runs to his aid and, standing over him, asks, "Are you OK?" To which Irving replies, "Compared to who?"

"Compared to who?" is a question we should always keep in mind regarding the study of America's past and present. Maher too was on to something: There was indeed life before us. Indeed, for most of recorded time, life was rough. Most of humanity's time was spent hunting and storing food while defending our families from weather, disease, competing tribes, marauders and invaders. There was no medical care as we know it, no communications, no mass transportation, no insurance, and no human, political or property rights. For millennia, life was a grind. But here's the thing: Folks didn't think it was a grind because it was all they knew. They had nothing to compare their lives to.

Thomas Jefferson
Rudulph Evans' statue of Thomas Jefferson, with excerpts of the Declaration of Independence seen behind, at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Until Jefferson and our founders gathered to change human history for the better, humanity had never experienced the kind of self-governance our founders dreamed up. The liberty and freedom our founders dreamed up weren't merely a historic first. This was an act of treason against the world's greatest power. A powerful king was not pleased with his ungrateful subjects.

"Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress," Benjamin Rush said after the declaration was signed, "to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?"

It was the line after Jefferson's most quoted line that would prove to be the most dangerous, one kings and dictators around the world still don't like: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

It was not a foregone conclusion our independence would be won: General George Washington himself had profound doubts. "The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all are wrapped up in sleep," he lamented on January 14, 1776. "Few people know the predicament we are in."

Those men didn't know the outcome when they decided to fight the mighty army and navy of England, or that they were about to launch what would become the longest-running experiment in self-governance. And the greatest startup nation of all time.

That story—the American story—must be told in context. The fact is, millions of men around the world in our founders' time owned slaves; only one authored the Declaration of Independence. This doesn't make Jefferson's slave ownership less odious or hypocritical; it makes Jefferson a man of his time. The declaration, however, made him a man for all time. A man ahead of his time.

One man who's written about Jefferson extensively is Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. He noted in a speech that today's students know only that Jefferson wrote the declaration and owned slaves. But it's what students don't learn that matters more.

"They don't learn that when our nation first expanded, it was into the Northwest Territory and that slavery was forbidden in that territory," Arnn said. "They don't learn that the land in that territory was ceded to the federal government from Virginia, or that it was on the motion of Thomas Jefferson that the condition of the gift was that slavery in that land be eternally forbidden. If schoolchildren learned that, they would come to see Jefferson as a human being who inherited things and did things himself that were terrible but who regretted those things and fought against them."

Arnn continued. "The astounding thing is not that some of our founders were slaveholders. There was a lot of slavery back then, as there had been for all of recorded time. The astounding thing—the miracle even, one might say—is that these slaveholders founded a republic based on principles designed to abnegate slavery."

Students also don't learn that Jefferson was a complicated man, a man who once wrote these words about slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."

Not teaching our history contextually is more than a mistake, Arnn added. "Teaching students that the past was simply wicked and that now they are able to see so perfectly the right, we do them a disservice and fit them to be slavish, incapable of developing sympathy for others or undergoing trials on their own. Depriving the young of the spirit of freedom will deprive us all of our country. It could deprive us, finally, of our humanity itself," he said.

Arnn finished his talk with these words: "To present young people with a full and honest account of our nation's history is to invest them with the spirit of freedom. It is to teach them something more than why our country deserves their love, although that is a good in itself. It is to teach them that the people in the past, even the great ones, were human and had to struggle. And by teaching them that, we prepare them to struggle with the problems and evils in and around them."

Contextualizing slavery—and answering that "compared to who?" question—is itself an important thing to do when teaching about our past. When Europeans landed in the Americas in 1492, slavery was an accepted practice in nearly every corner of the globe: Arabs, Moors, Spaniards, Chinese, Aztecs, American Indian tribes—none thought twice about the legitimacy of slavery.

"Very few Americans know that slavery was common throughout the world as well as in Africa," said Sandra Greene, professor of African history at Cornell and author of Slave Owners of West Africa. Her research focuses on the history of slavery in Ghana, where warring political communities in the 18th and 19th centuries enslaved their enemies, and the impact can still be felt today.

"Slavery in the United States ended in 1865," Greene said, "but in West Africa it was not legally ended until 1875, and then it stretched on unofficially until almost World War I. Slavery continued because many people weren't aware that it had ended, similar to what happened in Texas after the United States Civil War."

While 11 million to 12 million people are estimated to have been exported as slaves from West Africa during the years of the slave trade, millions more were kept in Africa, according to Greene. "It's not something that many West African countries talk about. It's not exactly a proud moment because everyone now realizes that slavery is not acceptable," she said.

Contextualization should include the study of the abolition movement too. "While slavery is as old as humanity, abolitionism is a relatively recent phenomenon," historian Katie Kelaidis wrote. "It's not difficult to trace the explosion of the worldwide abolition movement to the decade the Declaration of Independence was signed."

One look at the graph below illustrates the point. Credit must be given not merely to Jefferson, our founders and Enlightenment thinkers but to Christians too, who propelled the abolition movement here and abroad.

Abolition of slavery graphic
Graph from "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker.

Some nations would abolish slavery later than others: Cuba (1886), Brazil (1888), Korea (1894), Egypt (1895), Italy (1889), China (1906), Russia (1917), Afghanistan and Hong Kong (1923), Iraq and Turkey (1924), Persia (1929), Ethiopia (1935), Kuwait (1949), Niger (1960) and Saudi Arabia and North Yemen (1962). Legalized slavery, it turns out, endured the longest in Middle Eastern, African and Asian nations. Slavery persists today, with more than 40 million people enslaved—more than at any time in human history.

The study of history should not whitewash the ills of slavery in America and must include the impact of segregation, grotesque theories of racial superiority, and the impact of racism in American life that still reverberates today. It is essential work, studying the fallout from two centuries of slavery in a country dedicated to the principle of human freedom. But to diminish the achievements of Jefferson and our founders is not the way to do so.

"The theory of independence is as old as man himself, and it was not invented in this hall," President John F. Kennedy said in a speech at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on July 4, 1962. "But it was in this hall that the theory became a practice, that the word went out to all, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, 'that the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.'"

This university that Jefferson created —and of which we're all heirs—sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a setting scholars and students have enjoyed for two centuries. Not far from our campus sits Jefferson's home (Monticello), James Madison's (Montpelier) and George Washington's (Mount Vernon). Without these three men, who lived at the same time and pretty much in the same place, our nation might not have been conceived, let alone become the oldest constitutional republic in the world. The country people from every nation in the world come to, seeking refuge from tyranny of all kinds. And opportunity of all kinds.

"We have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we're to know who we are and where we're headed," McCullough said a speech on teaching history. "We have to value what our forebears did for us or we're not going to take it very seriously and it can slip away."

That's why we must continue to honor Jefferson's legacy—and the political, historical and cultural context of his achievements—at the University of Virginia. As flawed as he was, he gave life to our university. To our nation. And to the notion of self-governance and God-given rights everywhere. That's something worth honoring and remembering, always.

With fondness and respect, from one UVa Law graduate to another.

Wahoo wah,
Lee Habeeb
UVa Law Class of 1991