WITH ANY social movement, there comes a time when somebody has to say “Enough.” University of Virginia President Jim Ryan seems to have reached that moment.
As monuments to Confederate rebels started coming down in Virginia and elsewhere, those seeking justice next turned to slaveholders. This would include most white Virginians who made history in the 18th century and much of the 19th, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
There is a statue of Jefferson on the U.Va. campus. This seems reasonable, since he founded and designed the university. But he also owned many slaves and almost surely fathered children with one of them. For that, there are some who would like his statue to go the way of Stonewall Jackson’s and J.E.B. Stuart’s.
Jefferson knew slavery was wrong. Reflecting on it, he famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
He said he would free his slaves when he died, but his debts kept that from happening. His actions sometimes betrayed his words.
Still, he founded one of the best universities in the United States, and Ryan rightly sees that taking down his likeness from that campus would be, to use American pop-culture vernacular, jumping the shark.
“I do not believe this statue should be removed,” Ryan wrote, “nor would I ever approve such an effort.”
Doubtless, this is not the last word on the subject. In a country where statues to Ulysses S. Grant (he was on the winning side, the one that ended slavery) and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem, have come down, anyone is fair game.
Ryan uses the “c” word: context. Yes, there is room to note that Jefferson was not a perfect man. The university already is working on context. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, recognizing the work of men and women who literally built U.Va., is a wonderful addition. And anyone touring Jefferson’s Monticello plantation these days also gets a complete picture of how things were in the slave quarters as well as in the big house.
Context is good, although talking about context and then not doing anything about it can have unfortunate results. For years, Richmond leaders talked about adding context on Monument Avenue, but nothing came of it. So things reached the boiling point and the Confederate statues there came down very unceremoniously.
However, unlike politicians and military leaders of the rebel states, Thomas Jefferson was a giant who deserves commemoration on many levels. He was a great man who owned slaves. Both of those things need to be acknowledged.
Good for President Ryan for recognizing that. We urge him to stand firm at the line he has drawn.