As Anti-Jefferson Rhetoric Swells, Ryan Stands Silent

by James A. Bacon

Here is what passes for logic at The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, a university once reputed for the excellence of its education:

We reject how the University’s physical environment — one that glorifies racists, slaveholders and eugenicists with statues and buildings named in their honor — upholds an enduring culture of white supremacy. There is a reason why Charlottesville’s local Klu Klux Klan Chapter hosted its inauguration ceremony at Jefferson’s Monticello tomb. There is a reason why white supremacists gathered with torches around Jefferson’s statue on the north side of the Rotunda. There is a reason why they felt comfortable marching through Grounds. Our physical environment — from statues to building names to Jefferson’s overwhelming presence — exalts people who held the same beliefs as the repugnant white supremacists in attendance at the “Unite the Right” rally. These buildings must be renamed and memorials removed.

Follow the syllogism: White supremacists rallied at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello tomb. White supremacists are evil. (Unstated but necessary to complete the syllogism): Ergo, Jefferson is evil. Therefore, buildings and memorials to him and other White supremacists must be removed.

The CD editorial writers use the rhetorical device of guilt by association to tar Jefferson. Notably, this particular circumlocution holds Jefferson guilty by virtue of association with the Ku Klux Klan, which did not exist in Jefferson’s time, for activities undertaken some 200 years after he lived! The mystic chords of White supremacy, it seems, transcend space, time and causality.

Ordinarily, such incoherent thinking in a college publication would not warrant commentary in a blog about Virginia public policy. But the irrational animus against Jefferson exhibited by the CD editorialists is by no means limited to the student newspaper. Hatred of Jefferson is widespread in the university he founded, and the Ryan administration has permitted the virus to spread uncontested.

This intense loathing first came to the attention of UVa alumni a couple of years ago when a resident of the Lawn posted her infamous “F— UVA” sign on her door and subsequently referred to Jefferson as a “slave-holding rapist.” As shocking as alumni found that sentiment, we were dismayed to find that it was not an outlier. A significant body of thought at UVa, we discovered, postulated that the sin of being a slaveholder was so egregious as to obliterate all other considerations.

This view became institutionalized by the Commission on the History of Slavery and the University, which began as a commendable effort to broaden and enrich the university’s history by exploring the role of African Americans, but quickly hardened into a leftist orthodoxy that drew a straight line from the institution of slavery, Thomas Jefferson, Jim Crow-era segregation, eugenics, and massive resistance to modern-day White supremacy, omitting much along the way. The UVa-as-a-White-supremacist-institution then propagated through various courses, seminars and other channels such as the university student guides who give tours of the Lawn and Rotunda as adjuncts of the Admissions Department.

The Commission was launched during the tenure of former President Teresa Sullivan; thus it would not be fair to lay the entire blame for the current state of affairs upon the administration of President Jim Ryan. However, it can be said that Ryan and his entourage have been remarkably detached in the face of the upwelling of anti-Jeffersonian rhetoric and uncooperative with those who would defend the university’s founding.

One is tempted to conclude one of two things. Either President Ryan is largely in accord with the anti-Jefferson radicals and seeks for pragmatic reasons to hide his sympathies — perhaps to avoid offending alumni and donors — or he is simply unwilling to bring down the wrath of powerful internal constituencies by uttering a full-throated defense of the university’s founder.

As a member of The Jefferson Council, an alumni association organized to uphold the Jefferson legacy, I find myself increasingly leaning toward the former view: that Ryan and his coterie harbor negative views of Jefferson but do not state their beliefs openly for fear of alienating alumni and compromising the flow of donations.

Two recent incidents reinforce my conviction that this is so. First, The Jefferson Council sought to place an ad in Virginia, the UVa alumni magazine, reminding readers of Jefferson’s great accomplishments as well as his record of opposition to the slave trade, the geographic expansion of slavery, and, despite his status as a slaver-holder, to the institution itself. The ad also alluded briefly to the fact that Jefferson’s paternity of his slave Sally Hemings’ children was contested by reputable scholars. The alumni association turned down the ad. When we tried to appeal to the Board of Managers, we were obstructed at every turn and denied a hearing.

Now, the alumni association is independent from the university on paper (even though it works hand-in-glove with the Ryan administration on numerous matters). But Virginia Sports Properties is not independent. When The Jefferson Council tried to run a full-page ad in the fall football guide, our request was turned down flat… without explanation, and without even an answer to the question of who, up the chain of command from the ad salesman, made the decision.

Whatever the thinking of President Ryan, the practical effect of his administration is to give free reign to scholars and students eager to trash Jefferson’s historical reputation and erase his memory while blocking any effort by The Jefferson Council to defend him. Thus, the original offense of failing to respond to the calumnies against Jefferson has been compounded by another: the silencing of those who would contest the emerging orthodoxy.

UVa today would be unrecognizable to Thomas Jefferson, the champion of free speech and open inquiry. Apparently, that’s just fine to the people in power.

Full disclosure: The author is vice president-communications of The Jefferson Council.