By Paul Bremmer
Democrats who are eager to expunge the name of Thomas Jefferson from their party need to think carefully, warns a scholar who has studied and written about America’s Founding Fathers.
While Jefferson, the third president, was a slave owner, that is not the only facet of his life, said Joshua Charles, author of “Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders.”
“The fact remains that the life of Thomas Jefferson brought an immense amount of good into the world and set up future generations for greater prosperity and flourishing than most human beings could ever lay claim to,” he said.
“Was he flawed? You bet. Badly. But the world he left was much better for him having been in it.”
Annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners have been part of the Democratic Party’s fiber for nearly 100 years.
Political candidates and party activists gather for an evening of speeches, fundraising and celebrating two party icons: Jefferson, who famously declared “all men are created equal,” and Andrew Jackson, the populist president who came from humble origins.
But now the party that has made tolerance and diversity a central part of its identity has grown intolerant of Jefferson and Jackson.
Jefferson and Jackson both owned slaves, and Jackson as president forced thousands of Native Americans out of their homes and onto reservations, the critics point out.
Democrats in Iowa, Georgia, Connecticut and Missouri have already removed the names of Jefferson and Jackson from their party dinners, saying the men no longer represent what it means to be a Democrat.
Since the shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, Democrats in at least five other states have considered the same change.
However, “slave owner” does not necessarily equal “bad person,” according to Charles.
“Jefferson’s relationship with the institution of slavery was complex,” he said. “Any scholar who has studied him knows this. It is not, pardon the phrase, a black and white issue. Slavery itself was absolutely wrong, but many people, Jefferson among them, were born into a world where it was acceptable among enough people to be allowed. (It should never be forgotten that many opposed it.)”
Charles, who leads the “Rediscovery Project” at the Public Policy Institute of William Jessup University, pointed to the advice Jefferson gave a young man who was sickened by slavery and was thinking about freeing all his slaves.
Jefferson discouraged him from doing so. He told the young man he should continue to feed and clothe his slaves and “protect them from ill usage.” He warned that if the slaves were freed, they might fall into the hands of another master who would not treat them as well.
“In other words, Jefferson was not only committed to the humane treatment of ‘his’ slaves, but points to an ambiguity: If his young friend freed them, they would be set loose, uneducated and unskilled, in a society that had no place for them,” Charles explained. “What would prevent them from being scooped up by those who would not treat them as well? This is in no way an excuse for slavery. But at the same time, we need to recognize that morally black and white categories rarely work in the real world.”
Charles, a WND columnist, noted many modern-day progressives regard humans as essentially good beings who only get corrupted by their environments. But that was clearly not the case with Jefferson, who was born into a slaveholding family. He inherited slaves as a teenager in a society in which slavery was widely accepted. And yet, according to Charles, Jefferson spoke out against slavery, treated his own slaves humanely and tried to advance legislation to emancipate the slaves.
The author believes the left should praise Jefferson for overcoming his environment.
“Here was a man born into a world where slavery was entirely acceptable to most in his immediate sphere, and yet he did many things in opposition to it,” Charles said. “So he overcame the environment that screwed him up (in this worldview). What is there not to praise if that is what one believes about human nature?”
Jefferson, while technically part of the Democratic-Republican Party while president, has often been held up as a guiding light for Democrats. But Charles said the modern Democratic Party no longer embodies the principles of Jefferson, and the third president would not be welcome in the party today.
“Jefferson was in favor of an extremely limited government,” Charles said. “His views on constitutional interpretation would certainly make him a pariah in the modern Democratic Party, as it was repugnant to any notion of a ‘living Constitution.'”
Moreover, Jefferson recognized human nature was inherently flawed, according to Charles. But modern Democrats have rejected that idea, believing every person should be able to fulfill their personal desires. Charles also believes the Democratic Party is marked by a subjective view of reality.
“The modern Democratic Party seems to subscribe to the belief that truth is up for grabs, and reality determined by the individual,” he said. “If there are desires inside, then there should be no problem expressing them on the outside. If you think something internally, it must be true externally, and all must acknowledge it.”
He pointed to progressives’ positive reaction to Bruce Jenner’s “gender transformation” as evidence of the last point. But he said Jefferson would be completely unfamiliar with such a fluid view of human nature.
“He may have believed the truth was murky sometimes, but he still believed it was there,” Charles stated. “The modern Democratic Party seems to have given up on the idea of truth altogether – except that which they want to bring into reality through the raw use of political power.”
Charles sees irony in how the Democrats are now treating Jefferson and his legacy.
“It is ironic that the party that ostensibly stands for tolerance, no moral absolutes, and moral relativism should take such an intolerantly absolute moral stand against Thomas Jefferson,” he charged. “I suspect it has far more to do with wanting to provide a means to reject our founding principles as a whole (many of which espoused by Jefferson are completely at odds with the modern Democratic platform) than with any of these side shows about slavery.”
But Democrats should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, according to Charles. After all, the third president had much to offer in the areas of philosophy, diplomacy, architecture and science.
“Jefferson is complicated on slavery,” he said. “Which is why we can still respect the precious things he brought into the world, and the multitude of ways he improved it for his progeny, while also recognizing his failures.”