Memory  /  Comment

Charlottesville: Why Jefferson Matters

Annette Gordon-Reed explores the ways in which the many paradoxes of Jefferson make him a potent figure for racists and anti-racists alike.
flickr.com/tabor-roeder

I came to Charlottesville, Virginia for the first time in 1995. After four months of feverish work, I had completed a manuscript about what I thought was the biased and, therefore, unreliable way in which historians had handled the question of whether Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at his plantation, Monticello. My purpose? To go to Monticello and talk with Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, a historian at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation who then, as now, probably had forgotten more about Jefferson than anyone alive will ever know. We met and played what we would later come to call “two hundred questions”—or some variant of the number—where I would ask and posit, and she would respond. A short time later, I was on the grounds of the University of Virginia to discuss my manuscript with Peter S. Onuf, then the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor at the university. I didn’t know it then, but Cinder and Peter were friends, and we all are friends now. I have come back to Charlottesville many, many times since then, and have slept in no place, besides my home, more comfortably than in the homes of my friends there.

I mention these things to say that the national tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville last week struck at every aspect of my being—a black person, a friend, an American, and a scholar who has devoted many years to studying Jefferson, slavery at Monticello, and, by extension, Charlottesville. I knew instantly why the men holding tiki torches felt the need to make their case for white supremacy by walking toward the statue of Jefferson that stands in front of the Rotunda he designed for the university he dreamed about and then founded. I also knew instantly that there was a reason the much less remarked upon “counterprotesters” surrounded Jefferson’s statue to keep the tiki torchers from reaching it, staking a defiant claim, in the face of superior numbers, to ideas about human equality and progress that they correctly perceived were under siege that night. I venture that it was not necessarily the man himself, but the ideas associated with him that mattered, and warranted forming a protective barrier around his statue. I have no doubt that the people trying to keep the tiki torchers away from the statue know about the problematic sides of Jefferson. And surely some of the torch-bearers might be troubled about Sally Hemings, although denial may provide a refuge for them. As historians like Merrill Peterson in the late twentieth century and Francis D. Cogliano in the early twenty-first have observed, Americans have been trying to claim, or use, Jefferson in one way or another from the time of his death in 1826 up until this very moment.

Because he was at or near the heart of so many aspects of the American founding for such a long time—longer than any other member of the founding generation—we have had many occasions to ponder Jefferson’s complex nature and legacy. The Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence, with its ...