By any reasonable account, Thomas Jefferson has earned a permanent spot in American history. Without his contributions as a founding father, it’s impossible to know exactly what shape this country might have taken. And despite how quickly the media jumped all over Ben Carson for suggesting that Jefferson crafted the Constitution, there’s no doubt at all that he was instrumental in developing the Bill of Rights.
The same Bill of Rights that tells the federal government to allow protesters to protest, even if what they’re saying is asinine.
But guess what? Like every other human being who has ever walked the planet, Thomas Jefferson was not perfect. He was a product of his day, even if he was an extraordinary genius. Yes, he owned slaves. Yes, he fathered a child with one of them. No, he did not always adhere to modern standards when it came to racial thought. That made him…well, like just about everyone else who lived in those times.
But that’s not good enough anymore. At the College of William & Mary, the second oldest university in the United States, students are growing unhappy with the statue of Jefferson on the campus grounds. To express their dissatisfaction, they covered the statue in Post-It notes with pithy phrases like “slave holder” and “stop worshiping racists” and (of course) “black lives matter.”
So far, there has been no organized movement to get the statue removed. The sticky notes simply appeared one day. But their arrival has students squawking back and forth on social media about whether or not we should continue to celebrate a man whose racial legacy was imperfect. It echoes similar debates on other college campuses, some of which are targeted at Jefferson. At Princeton, President Woodrow Wilson is falling under similar criticism.
For their part, the College of William & Mary is just happy that sticky notes are the worst of their problems. “A university setting is the very place where civil conversations about difficult and important issues should occur. Nondestructive sticky notes are a form of expression compatible with our tradition of free expression,” said a school official.
Well, it’s true that this is a better way to get your message across than to force school officials out of their jobs, but that doesn’t change the foolishness of the message itself.
Our history is our history. If we’re going to erect statues to anyone, we’re going to have to understand that we are memorializing human beings. With flaws. When did anyone get the idea that Thomas Jefferson was a saint? Go look through the writings of Abraham Lincoln. You’ll find plenty of ammunition to call him a racist as well, especially if you take his words out of their proper place and time. Does that make his stance against slavery less meaningful?
When we put up a statue of Jefferson, Wilson, Lincoln…when we fly the Confederate flag…when we praise the founding fathers…when we enshrine the Constitution…we’re not celebrating the flaws. We’re celebrating the strengths. Does anyone believe the statue of Thomas Jefferson is there on campus to celebrate his legacy as a slave-owner?
If only individuals with a perfect record of flawless heroism are to be celebrated and remembered, then fine. We’ll save a lot of money. Until then, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Or, in this case, post the first sticky note.