Well, well, I said to myself when I heard that New York City Hall was taking down its massive statue of Thomas Jefferson — that’s loyalism for you. New York always did have monarchist sympathies. Perhaps, having removed the effigy of the republican rebel, it will restore the statue of George III at Bowling Green and call Columbia “King’s College” again.
I was, of course, being whimsical. But the actual reason for removing the Jefferson statue is, if you think about it, just as odd. Until now, Jefferson has been remembered for the fecundity of his mind, the brilliance of his pen, and the nobility of the principles that he wrote into the DNA of the nation he helped create. But our present age judges everyone solely by the measure of race, and more or less damns any white man born before World War I.
Jefferson was not perfect. He could be a terrific hypocrite. He gave the revolution its best lines, but did no actual fighting. He denounced factionalism while paying journalists to blackguard his rivals. He talked of loyalty even as he maneuvered against George Washington. He inveighed against slavery but manumitted only 10 of the 600 human beings he owned.
Naturally, this last failing is the one that obsesses our generation. Dozens of books have been written about Jefferson’s record as a plantation owner, his relationship with Sally Hemings, the DNA of the descendants of Monticello slaves (some of whom turned out to have Jefferson ancestry, though it is not clear that it came from the third president rather than another relative).
All this is perfectly valid and, in its way, interesting. But it is hardly the main story, is it? The reason Jefferson is famous, the reason we still visit Monticello and see the slave quarters at all, is that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Everything else is, or ought to be, incidental. To evaluate Jefferson solely as a slave owner is monomaniacal.
Yet this skewed approach to the past is now so widespread that we barely notice it. Last week, I went to an exhibition at Tate Britain of William Hogarth’s works. Hogarth was an ingenious engraver and painter, with an eye for the dandies, prostitutes, and characters of his time. The word “Hogarthian” has come to mean something like “Rabelaisian” — earthy, bawdy, lewd, humorous. Yet the authors of the wall text could see only one thing. Those rakes stumbling about drunkenly — have you considered that the rum in their punch bowl came from slave-worked plantations? And the opulent furniture in the background — how was it paid for, hmm?
Hogarth had no direct connection to slavery, but critics never let things like that put them off. Jane Austen was a committed abolitionist, but the custodians of her Hampshire house nonetheless feel the need to draw attention to the fact that she bought tea and sugar, and that her clergyman father (another abolitionist) would have inherited a plantation from a friend had the friend died early — which he didn’t.
You might think that monomania is a weakness. A normal person, musing on Jane Austen, thinks of romantic liaisons rather than manacles. But don’t underestimate the appeal of a belief system that presses everything into its peculiar doctrines. Marxists managed to look at everything, from music to marriage, through the prism of their sacred texts. Islamic fundamentalists do the same. They win adherents, not despite this one-dimensional approach, but because of it. Many people crave simplicity and certainty.
Such people may be a minority, but their fervor is intimidating — quite literally, in that they set out to frighten and bully the unconverted. How many active Bolshevists were there in Russia in 1917? How many violent Salafists in Syria in 2011? How many Puritan zealots in the early American colonies? In each case, the general population went along with a tiny but fanatical fringe. In particular, the extremists drew support from those who shared their enemies: Russian social-democrats who opposed Tsarism, nonviolent Muslims who disliked secular dictatorship, mainstream Protestants who feared popery.
Today, in much the same way, commentators and academics on the liberal Left go along with critical race theory in its most intolerant form, not because they support it, but because they don’t like to line up with the conservatives who are leading the charge against it.
Jefferson was an outstanding son of the Enlightenment. He believed in the primacy of reason and championed free inquiry as the surest way to correct errors. He dreamed of a new republic founded on scientific and rationalist principles, and, against all the odds, he fulfilled his dream. America has now abandoned his precepts. No wonder his statue is being junked.