Art

Thomas Jefferson’s statue chiseled out of New York city hall

art

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the School of Journalism at Columbia University. FILE PHOTO

douglaskiereini-img

Summary

  • The push to get rid of the Jefferson statue gained traction last year among the city council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
  • Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people during his adult life and fathered six children with one whom he raped.

After a decades-old debate, a 19th-century statue of Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, has been removed from the New York City Chambers weeks following an official unanimous vote to banish it because of the former president’s history as an enslaver.

Although Jefferson is celebrated as one of the most important figures in the establishment of the United States, who also drafted the Declaration of Independence, the rosy picture of his legacy has been complicated in recent years as people have brought into focus other parts of his life that were anything but rosy.

The push to get rid of the Jefferson statue gained traction last year among the city council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide racial reckoning that ensued.

The seven-foot-tall, 884-pound statue built in 1883 was taken down from its pedestal and packed away in a wooden box, and will be on long-term loan to the New-York Historical Society. Its removal came after many city council members demanded the statue be removed, amidst pushback from some conservatives that such a move was an over-reaction to Jefferson’s complex past.

Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people during his adult life and fathered six children with one whom he raped, Sally Hemings, a biracial enslaved woman

With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence- “all men are created equal” Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula, which had guided human affairs up to 1776:” From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce….this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberties.”

As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”

That was the way it was interpreted by some of those who read it at the time as well. Massachusetts freed its slaves on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, weaving Jefferson’s language into the state constitution of 1780. The meaning of “all men” sounded equally clear, and so horrifying to the authors of the constitutions of six Southern states that they amended Jefferson’s wording.

“All free men,” they wrote in their founding documents, “are equal.” The authors of those constitutions knew exactly what Jefferson meant, and could not accept it. The Continental Congress ultimately struck down the passage because South Carolina and Georgia, crying out for more slaves, would not abide shutting down the market.

But somewhere in a short span of time during the 1780s and early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson’s liberal dreams.

The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox. By looking at Jefferson’s plantation Monticello (Little Mountain), we can see the process by which he rationalised an abomination up to a point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.

Thomas Jefferson’s mansion stands atop his mountain like the Platonic ideal of a house: a perfect creation existing in an ethereal realm, literally above the clouds.

The mansion sits above a tunnel through which slaves, unseen, would hurry back and forth carrying platters of food, fresh tableware, ice, beer, wine, and linens, while above them 20, 30 or 40 guests sat listening to Jefferson’s dinner-table conversations.

Jefferson appeared every day at first light on Monticello’s long terrace, walking alone with his thoughts. From his terrace, Jefferson looked out upon an industrious, well-organised coterie of blacksmiths, nail makers, a brewer, cooks, a glazier, millers and weavers. Black managers, slaves themselves, oversaw other slaves. At any one time, about 100 slaves lived on the mountain; the highest recorded slave population was 140, in 1817.

The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may have come in 1792. As he was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President George Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured.

What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a four percent profit every year on the birth of black children. His plantation was producing an inexhaustible supply of human assets. He advised a friend who had suffered a financial loss that he “should have invested in negroes.”

The irony is that when Jefferson sent his four percent formula to George Washington, he promptly freed his slaves, precisely because slavery had made human beings into money, like “cattle in the market”, and this disgusted him.

It had long since been accepted that slaves were assets that could be seized for debt, but Jefferson turned this around when he used slaves as collateral for a very large loan in 1796 from a Dutch finance house to rebuild Monticello.

A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s which revealed that enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset after land.

It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founder’s era, and not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: Washington’s emancipation of his slaves stands not as a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.

Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the caucus, said during an October meeting, “It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence and were not worthy of freedom or rights.”