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09/20/2020

Kurt Lash on Thomas Jefferson
Michael Ramsey

At Law & Liberty, Kurt Lash: “Contextualizing” Jefferson.  From the introduction: 

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors has decided to add “context” to the statue of Thomas Jefferson near the University Rotunda. Their decision comes on the heels of a similar decision by a Washington D.C. task force to “remove, relocate or contextualize” the Jefferson Memorial in the nation’s capital. Removal and relocation of the Jefferson Memorial are unlikely. But if D.C. officials follow the approach of UVA’s Board of Visitors and attempt to “contextualize” Thomas Jefferson, they should do so in a manner emphasizing Jefferson’s outsized role in ending the institution of chattel slavery.

American slavery was not ended simply by force of arms. Slavery was abolished by way of debate, the exchange of ideas, and a vote by the people of the United States to adopt a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In that debate, no one’s words and ideas were more important than Thomas Jefferson’s.

Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and the single most important paragraph on freedom in American history. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These words, radical in their time, embrace every member of the human family. They are as true as the morning sun, and yet have never been so stunningly and incontrovertibly declared as by the young Thomas Jefferson at the threshold of the American Revolution.

And from later on:

The language of the Thirteenth Amendment was copied from the 1787 Northwest Ordinance which declared “[t]here shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” When Democrats tried to argue that the United States was founded on slavery and white supremacy, Republicans simply pointed to the language of the Northwest Ordinance as proof that the country embraced abolition even before it embraced the Constitution. Even if the Constitution allowed individual southern states to institute slavery, one of the foundational laws of the American people embraced abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment was not a repudiation of the original Founding, but instead represented the fulfillment of America’s founding creed.

And, it just so happens, the language of the Northwest Ordinance came from the same pen that authored the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson. The words that inspired the abolitionist movement and the words that constitutionalized abolition both came from the extraordinary mind at Monticello.