The removal of Thomas Jefferson’s statue from New York’s City Hall after nearly 200 years reveals our contemporary misunderstanding of human nature. Jefferson was removed because he owned slaves, like his father and grandfather, and like millions of people across thousands of years in every culture on every continent.
Jefferson’s slave owning is unexceptional. It has been the sad norm across the lamentable history of fallen humanity that people when enabled will exploit other people. Often this exploitation is justified by the fatalistic assumption common to all traditional cultures that some are born to rule and others are born to serve. The natural mind assumes the weak must submit to the strong.
What is exceptional is that Jefferson, despite every cultural and self-serving inclination to the contrary, became the chief rhetorical architect for abolition and egalitarianism. Few if any in his family or among his neighbors in rural Virginia disputed slavery when Jefferson was very young. The abolition movement did not yet exist. English evangelist John Wesley did not write his tract against slavery until 1778 when he was age 75. John Newton did not publish his pamphlet against slavery until 1788. English Quakers and William Wilberforce did not launch their campaign against the slave trade until the 1780s. Anti-slavery at the time of Jefferson’s youth and early manhood was mainly confined to esoteric Pennsylvania Quakers.
Yet Jefferson at age 33 in 1776 wrote the Declaration of Independence declaring that all men are created equal, which ensured the eventual defeat of slavery. His original draft included an explicit denunciation of slavery, which was rejected. But the assertion of human equality was powerful unto itself. It’s not certain that the other members of the drafting committee, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, would have included it, although they did support it. It was Jefferson’s insight, which he regarded as a synthesis of American principles.
Abraham Lincoln hailed the power of Jefferson’s insight:
"All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression."
Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King also hailed Jefferson’s insight and implored America to fulfill its promise. King called it a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson was not unaware of the power of his insight about human equality. He would be the last U.S. president publicly to criticize slavery until Lincoln. Even privately anti-slavery presidents like the Adamses stayed silent while in office, fearing the consequences. In 1806 Jefferson hailed the impending ban on the transatlantic slave trade, which he signed, that many hoped would help end slavery:
"I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe."
Jefferson freed only about 10 of the hundreds of slaves he owned across his lifetime. By his later years, thanks to his prolificacy and crop failures, he seemingly no longer controlled his own estate or could free his slaves, which was his failure. But his hypocrisy doesn’t cancel his momentous contribution to human uplift with global impact. Hypocrisy is the sad inevitable companion to all high human principles.
A few Christians have mocked Jefferson during this recent statue controversy. One tweet wryly recalled the warning from Revelation about subtracting from God’s Word, per Jefferson’s self-edited Bible. Another noted that integralists must now have seized New York and were purging Jefferson, who was privately Unitarian.
Hahaha, but Christians and all believers in human dignity, equality and liberty are indebted to Jefferson. His statue, commissioned by a Jewish admirer who esteemed Jefferson’s contribution to religious freedom, portrays him holding the Bill of Rights.
Jefferson, like all of us, was a miserable sinner who failed to abide his own standards. He also, despite himself, was magnificently used by God to advance righteousness on earth. He may have edited the Bible, but there was still enough of it in him to move mountains and liberate millions. His last public message, on the Declaration’s 50th anniversary, insisted “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
Fallen humanity’s plight, prone to exploitation and tyranny, saddling some while booting others, would be hopeless but for providential interventions through flawed instruments like Jefferson. New York’s city council is self-righteous to think themselves his superior. Instead we should give thanks that God deploys the unworthy to achieve His will on earth.
Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism.
Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.