A group of students and professors at the University of Virginia want to give the founder of their school the shaft. In a letter to the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, they asked her to remove Thomas Jefferson quotes from messages to students, according to the Washington Examiner.
“For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these emails undermines the message of unity, equality, and civility that you are attempting to convey,” the group wrote. Sullivan said in a response that she would not backpedal from quoting Jefferson, according to another report from the Examiner.
The Sage of Monticello—as the author of the Declaration of Independence has often been called in tribute to his home in Charlottesville, Virginia—had such high hopes for the school that he wrote of the students toward the end of his life, “they will exhibit their country in a degree of sound respectability it has never known, either in our days, or in the days of our forefathers. I cannot live to see it. My joy must only be that of anticipation.”
Jefferson was so proud of his creation that he put it on his tombstone, and left off the fact that he was president of the United States. Many generations of students and faculty have shown their appreciation for their school’s founder. According to stories told on campus, students rushed into the school’s rotunda to save a statue of Jefferson in an 1895 fire.
Unfortunately, a few of UVA’s current students think Jefferson’s legacy is problematic.
This is not the first time Jefferson has come under attack. Local chapters of the Democratic Party, which used to celebrate Jefferson as one of its antecedents, have increasingly removed Jefferson’s name from their annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. Jefferson’s detractors have generally cited his slave ownership as the reason he can no longer be championed.
Though Jefferson was a slave owner, no single document in human history besides maybe the Bible has done more to undermine slavery than the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln was sometimes privately critical of Jefferson, but he gave enormous credit to the Virginian’s philosophy for sealing the institution’s fate.
Lincoln wrote for a Jefferson birthday celebration in 1859:
All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it should be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.
It is particularly sad, but not unexpected, that Jefferson has come under fire at the university he held out such high hopes for. There has been a concerted effort to remove any mention of symbols or great leaders of America’s past who have fallen out of favor with the current political climate.
In the past year alone, activists have attempted to remove monuments across the country: from more controversial Confederate monuments, to Andrew Jackson’s statue in New Orleans, to even paintings of progressive hero Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University.
The justification in most of these cases was that the figures were racist and supported values that are no longer accepted, so they need to be removed from the public sphere entirely.
When does this war on American history stop? If every figure must be held up to the constantly evolving values of the times, we will eventually find that we’ve purged all of the good along with the bad elements of what made this country what it is. We may even find that tomorrow, we are the ones being erased from history.