The legacy of Thomas Jefferson statues on Grounds
Words by Charlotte Lawson. Photos by Andrew Walsh.
In light of Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong involvement in and advocacy for the institution of slavery, it can be hard to square his words about freedom and inalienable rights with his actions. Given the role of both Jefferson and enslaved laborers in the birth of the University, the question of his legacy has been a fixture of the discourse at U.Va. Meanwhile, with the growing controversy surrounding statues of Confederate generals, both in Charlottesville and around the country, the idea of statues in a general sense has come under scrutiny, as communities consider exactly what it means to erect a statue of a person. On Grounds, these two dynamics intersect directly. A number of statues depicting Jefferson dot the landscape, in many ways physical manifestations of his legacy, just like the University itself. These statues have been the focus of protest, dialogue and confrontation. Just as there are many different opinions on how to treat Jefferson’s legacy, there are a number of visions for what the statues represent, and what their future should look like. This is a small collection of some of these visions.
The statue’s enduring symbolism
The statue of Jefferson in front of the Rotunda embodies the values we should aspire to, despite the sins of its subject
Following their separation from the British Empire in 1776, the newly-founded state governments desperately needed a way of governance to replace colonial rule. The disparate and fledgling nation required legislation that actively defied the various forms of oppression that it had accused Great Britain of inflicting upon the colonies. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson headed this quest with his fervently liberal-minded promotion of the values of limited government and national rights. Shortly following independence, the statesman began to draft a document that would become one of his most enduring legacies — the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Although it was presented to the Virginia General Assembly for review in 1779, the bill did not pass into law until 1786. During the legislative process, Jefferson, looking on from afar as the Ambassador to France, eagerly awaited the debate’s outcome as his longtime friend and ally James Madison lobbied for the statute’s passage back in Virginia. The mission of the bill was twofold — to secure one’s right to exercise their chosen religion freely and to protect separation of church and state, thereby abolishing Virginia’s association with the Church of England. Above all, the statute ensured an individual’s freedom from any government attempt to dictate one’s choice of what to believe or practice.
It was with these treasured ideals in mind that sculptor Moses Ezekiel crafted the Thomas Jefferson statue that adorns the north plaza of the Rotunda. Ezekiel’s intended themes for the statue were discovered in 2014 by W. Scott Harrop, and first published in the newsletter of the University’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures Department. Now a Jefferson Fellow at Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies, Harrop’s curiosity about why various names for God — including Allah — were inscribed on the side of the Jefferson Statue led him to an extended study of Ezekiel life and work. Harrop found that the Virginia-raised Jewish artist — who confronted the sinister force of religious prejudice throughout his life — deeply cherished the freedom of religion that Jefferson fought so hard to ensure. Surrounding the liberty bell that Jefferson stands upon are four winged spirits representing other values that the sculptor and founder alike held dear — equality, justice, liberty and religious freedom. Through his art, Ezekiel monumentalized the founder’s lasting contributions that he deemed most valuable to the state of Virginia, our country and the world.
As the University, we have an obligation to remember and examine all aspects of our founder’s legacy — the good and the bad. The dichotomy of Jefferson as a figure cannot be overlooked. His relentless fight to codify personal freedoms occurred concurrently with his ownership of enslaved laborers. Our efforts to scrutinize Jefferson’s personal failures, however, cannot come at the expense of the deeply beneficial and continually resonant aspects of his quest to protect freedom and equality. Jefferson identified his own role in securing religious freedom for the state of Virginia as among his greatest achievements above all other personal endeavors. A man who valued freedom for his posterity more profoundly than any of his other legacies is worthy of enshrinement for that alone. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — along with Jefferson’s several other founding achievements — deserve memorialization for their far-reaching impact on American politics throughout history and to this day. Values we take for granted in the United States were once widely denounced as radical and unrealistic during the founding period, and continue to be unattainable in many parts of the world.
The Jefferson statue stands over Grounds as an emblem of the liberal values that our founder tirelessly aspired to secure for generations to come. Each stage of United States history served a crucial role in moving the nation closer to the promises of liberty and equality consecrated in the Declaration of Independence. None of these stages have fulfilled its perfect embodiment. Progress demands that we embrace the groundwork laid by a long and complicated history of progress, rather than shirking that progress for its failures. When the statue was unveiled at the University’s Final Exercises in 1910, then-President Edwin Alderman pronounced that it would stand proudly as a “sermon in stone” of Jeffersonian ideals that have so powerfully influenced the course of history. Hopefully the University community can embrace the transformative power of Jefferson’s life’s works that Ezekiel sought to emblematize.
More statues, not fewer
Thomas Jefferson is an inextricable part of the University’s past, as are a number of other inspirational figures who should be honored as well
Words by Thomas Ferguson
Historic institutions often inherit mixed legacies from their predecessors. The University community has recently examined ways to celebrate the many accomplishments of its founder Thomas Jefferson — while also acknowledging his own shortcomings and those of his time. In response to this challenge, some have condemned Jefferson and his legacy. Examples of such sentiments include outrage concerning President Teresa Sullivan’s quotation of Jefferson in an email and the Black Student Alliance’s condemnation of his statue as an emblem of enduring white supremacy. In order to tell a more complete history of the University and its founder, the University community must find a balance between recognizing Jefferson’s accomplishments and failures. Given his contributions to religious freedom, political philosophy, the United States and the University — his legacy is overwhelmingly positive. The University should continue to examine Jefferson’s faults in order to shed greater light on parts of its historical record that have traditionally been repressed. However, members of the University community must stop the outright dismissal of Jefferson. Such sentiments set dangerous precedents of historical erasure and prevent the recognition of a complete historical narrative.
In order to add more context to the University’s history and celebrate the legacies of Jefferson and others, the University should continue efforts to add to its historical landscape. Such initiatives include the construction of amemorial to the University’s enslaved laborers, the dedication of Pinn Hall to medical school alumna Dr. Vivian Pinn — the first woman and black student to graduate from the University’s medical school — and thededication of Yen Hall to W.W. Yen, the University’s first international student to earn a bachelor’s degree. Individuals such as Pinn and Yen have contributed much to our nation and world, from advancing women’s health to fostering diplomacy as the Premier of China. Likewise, the recognition of enslaved laborers at the University corrects the traditional underrepresentation of such individuals in the historic record and acknowledges the role that slavery played in University life before the Civil War.
While some reject Jefferson and his legacy, in doing so they reject the role he played in advancing freedom and democracy in the United States. His immortal words asserting that “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” in the Declaration of Independence provided our fledgling nation with an ideal to strive towards, and are embodied by his University. Jefferson himself contributed towards that end by penning the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777. His work contributed towards religious freedom in Virginia — a right too many around the world still do not enjoy — and his precedent helped make religious liberty standard in America. The University should take pride in inheriting that legacy, and its work in advancing public education in Virginia reflects the goals of its founder.
Jefferson’s wisdom and foresight, etched into documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, continue to prove their relevance. His work on advancing freedom and democratic principles — though imperfect — remains a part of the evolving process of the expansion such freedoms in the United States.
The contextualization of history on Grounds should remain an active discussion that members of the University continue to engage with in the future. It will not be completely addressed with one single decision or initiative, but instead will require an evolving process of dialogue and action. Students must be involved as much as possible with these decisions, and the University’s Advisory Committee on the Future of the Historic Landscape’s public input session provides an effective framework for soliciting students’ perspectives. The University should rely on student input — as well as other stakeholders such as alumni — to guide its decision-making in the future.
The study of history allows for us to reflect on the past and build off the work of our predecessors. Jefferson helped our Commonwealth and country start its journey towards equality for all by contributing to the intellectual and political revolution that resulted in the foundations of our modern day democratic republic. Jefferson’s statue in front of the Rotunda — sculpted by Jewish artist Moses Ezekiel in recognition of Jefferson’s contributions towards advancing religious freedom — serves as a testament to the enduring relevance of Jefferson and his work. Since his time we have made much progress towards recognizing the fact that all men and women are created equal. That does not mean we still do not have more to do to achieve that end. Without Jefferson, however, we would be even further from that goal.
Jefferson’s legacy is more than a statue
In debating Jefferson’s legacy, the community must look past mere optics and consider the day to day conditions of marginalized students on Grounds
Words by Zari Taylor
President Teresa Sullivan came under fire last year for her quotation of Thomas Jefferson in an email following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In response, Asst. Psychology Prof. Noelle Hurd drafted a letter to Sullivan that was ultimately signed by 469 students and professors. Signees felt that invoking Jefferson as a symbol of unity actually did nothing to that effect. In her response, Sullivan endorsed their right to speak on issues, but also emphasized that quoting someone does not imply and endorsement of all their beliefs. What followed was a conversation across the University community about quoting Jefferson andhis legacy on grounds. To address Jefferson’s legacy, the University should look beyond the statues that physically represent him and turn to the basics — adjusting what comes to mind of those in the University community when his name is invoked.
There are many ways to commemorate significant historical figures. Their life and accomplishments can be recorded in textbooks, remembered with holidays or awards in their name or honored by a statue erected in their image. Statues are the most physical representations of this honor and have been the continuous site for both protests and counter-protests over the past few months on Grounds and in Charlottesville. After the white nationalist protest in August, City Council ordered that the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson be covered by tarps, and in a student protest last semester, students covered the statue of Thomas Jefferson outside of the Rotunda. Evidently, the statues of these men serve as the focus of intense frustration — so much so that they are covered or hidden from sight. They have also, however, spurred conversations between the University community and Charlottesville at large, around the naming of things like City parks and University buildings.
This kind of discourse around statues and naming emerges from the idea that figures should be commemorated on the basis of their beliefs. Some people disagree on the commemoration of Confederate heroes because they do not agree with the ideals they held, specifically regarding race. Those values, they argue, do not align with the values of Charlottesville as a whole. The same thinking is present in the conversation around Jefferson, who had a vision for the University that strictly excluded women and people of color. While he was envisioning a University for southern youth, he had slaves working his plantation and building the very Grounds we walk everyday. It has been proven that Jefferson fathered the children of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and historical context provides room for speculation on the non-consensual manner of their relationship. This negative picture of Jefferson is all that some remember when they see his name.
Sullivan argued that evoking the name of someone does not mean a full endorsement of their character and beliefs. While this is true, the University still struggles with Jefferson’s legacy because we are living in the full fruition of his initial vision. Yes, the University currently admits African Americans and women, but it remains a majority white institution. Those who criticize the statue refer mainly to the fact that he never envisioned the University’s current level of diversity. If the community is against the use of his name and words, then of course they would be against a statue in his image. Removing the statue from its current location does nothing to address the issue with Jefferson’s legacy. Instead, it hides the problem and allows it to exist somewhere else. The issue of his beliefs and legacy will still be up for debate.
The conversation around Jefferson is different than the conversation around Confederate generals because of his relationship to the University. The school would not exist without Jefferson, and as the founder, his image rightfully belongs on Grounds. Though Jefferson would never have given them credit, the University also would not exist without the slaves that built it. If the University is to continue to invoke and dwell on Jefferson’s legacy, the administration needs to work out a way to demonstrate that his ideals are the foundation from which this institution developed — and that his problematic beliefs of exclusion can not be applied to the present.
The focus on tangible entities like statues seems important, but this is more of a debate on the intangible and the beliefs of those in power at this institution. Is the University stuck in the Jeffersonian past of exclusion, or is it open to a future that includes and appreciates the very people to whom Jefferson denied educational access? For the University to properly address his legacy, it needs to address the goals of the University’s founder, while also make solid efforts to ensure that the University denounces the exclusive elements of Jefferson’s vision. Statues are a natural place to start, but the backlash against President Sullivan demonstrates that conversation should start at the basics — Jefferson as symbol for his beliefs and, by extension, the beliefs of the University.