America is plagued by an epidemic of extremism. On the right, there are dangerous conspiracy theories that led to the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. On the left, there is an excessively “woke” attitude about imperfect historical figures and present-day institutions — emphasizing the negative and “canceling” anyone or anything that doesn’t meet their impossibly high standards.
The “defund the police” movement emerged from this mentality, as a reaction to widely publicized incidents of racial profiling and excessive use of force by police officers. On a more symbolic level, there is an attempt to tear down American heroes and make people feel ashamed of our nation’s heritage, rather than appreciating the United States as one of the most forward-thinking countries in history. The flaws of past leaders are simply too offensive, in liberals’ opinion, for even the greatest figures among them to be celebrated rather than scorned.
Yesterday, the New York City government decided to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson which had stood in the council chamber for more than a hundred years. The push for removal began in the summer of 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests. Jefferson will be removed from among the historical statues in the chamber because he was a slave owner.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, declined to criticize the decision, saying he understood why Jefferson’s ownership of slaves “profoundly bothers people and why they find it’s something that can’t be ignored.”
Slavery should, indeed, profoundly bother people, and we should not ignore the fact that many of our nation’s most illustrious founders owned slaves. But that doesn’t mean we should stop celebrating them as the courageous and progressive leaders they were, by the standards of their own time. As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation points out on the Monticello website,
Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was publicly a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation. Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. These views were radical in a world where unfree labor was the norm.
Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” — a radical notion in a world of rigid social hierarchies — and an ideal that has inspired many efforts in America and around the world to expand human rights and freedoms. Although Jefferson was hypocritical for not freeing his own enslaved workers, he did take bold and specific actions against the institution of slavery. For example,
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition. In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories.
These actions placed Jefferson at the leading edge of progressive politics on the issue of slavery in his own time. In fact, so progressive was Jefferson that future generations of Southerners, at the time of the Civil War, criticized him for having been “mistakenly” opposed to slavery. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, for example, said in an infamous speech, that
The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation [of the United States], were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. …
Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.
A few years ago, liberals were advocating for the removal of Confederate monuments, such as the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was finally removed from a city park this year. Despite opposition from some ultra-conservative protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 — many of whom were neo-Nazis or Confederate sympathizers — the movement to remove these statues from public places gained widespread support among the American people. After all, Confederate leaders actually fought a civil war against their own country, to defend the institution of slavery.
But Thomas Jefferson played a key role in forming the United States, not trying to break it apart. And although Jefferson reluctantly owned slaves, as did many wealthy people of his era, he spoke out against the institution of slavery and tried to limit or abolish it, rather than fighting to perpetuate and spread it. That’s why it makes sense to take down a statue of a Confederate general, but not to take down a statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. On balance, America today can still be inspired by Jefferson. The same cannot be said for Lee, or other heroes of the secessionist Southern Confederacy.
Unfortunately, the woke left fails to make the distinction. In a misguided quest for perfection, liberals increasingly denigrate imperfect people whose great accomplishments we should be proud of. Unwilling to see nuance or complexity, they embrace the communist practice of “purging” — or in today’s terminology, “cancel culture” — and demand absolute ideological purity to be worthy of a place at the table, or in the case of historical figures, a statue.
America itself faces the same unjustly excessive criticism from the left — as if this country’s flaws should outweigh its tremendous goodness, in the minds of its people and the public narrative of our politics. That’s why so many people who know their history and feel proud to be an American are finding it increasingly uncomfortable to support the liberalism of the 2020s. As we saw recently with the shocking victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the solidly Democratic state of Virginia, independent voters and even some Democrats are being turned off by the woke mentality.
It remains to be seen whether progressive Democrats will awaken from their fever dream and return to the reality the majority of the American people inhabit. One thing is for certain: Removing statues of Thomas Jefferson won’t be winning them many elections — nor will it do any good to help America make further progress on race relations. Instead, we must wrestle with the complexity and imperfection of our nation’s history and heroes, as we continue to celebrate the memory of those, such as Jefferson, in whom the good outweighs the bad.