On occasion, I feel sympathy for UVa President Teresa Sullivan. As if she didn’t have her hands full dealing with state budget cuts and General Assembly criticism, now she’s under attack from the left for the grievous sin of…. quoting Thomas Jefferson at the university he founded.
Last week Sullivan tried to rally the community in response to the news, horrific to many at the University of Virginia, that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. But she showed insufficient sensitivity to the latest mutation of political correctness when she wrote, in reminding UVa students that they could change the future:
Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.’
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 469 faculty members and students took offense at the Jefferson quotation on the grounds that he was a slave owner and a racist.
We are incredibly disappointed in the use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. …
We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.
Bacon’s bottom line. Yes, by today’s standards, Jefferson was flawed. We would not elect a slave-owner, or even a former slave-owner, president today. But we don’t revere Jefferson because he was a slave owner. We revere him despite the fact that he was a slave owner.
We revere Jefferson because he, more than anyone, espoused the rationale for breaking from the monarchical ideals of the Middle Ages and articulating in their place the principles of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the equality of all men under God and natural law. These principles, however imperfectly fulfilled in the founding of a country rooted in hierarchical privilege, animated subsequent movements to guarantee freedom of religion, abolish slavery, give women the right to vote, extend civil rights to blacks, and eventually to accept gay rights. Jefferson and his countrymen did not fully embody 21st-century democratic ideals, but they ushered in the single greatest leap forward for freedom in the history of mankind, creating the conditions for subsequent democratic achievements.
Moreover, unlike the small-minded people who belittle him, Jefferson articulated ideals that were antithetical to his own material self interest, creating a contradiction with which he struggled for most of his life. Jefferson also advocated reason and the acquisition of knowledge, fostering skepticism and questioning of his own era’s pieties — in stark contrast to the philosophical narrow-mindedness that seems so prevalent in some quarters of the University of Virginia today.
So, thank you, Teresa Sullivan, for standing up for Jefferson not as a plaster saint but a flawed but inspiring leader. The silent majority of UVa students, parents and alumni stand with you.There are currently no comments highlighted.