University of Virginia President Jim Ryan has stated that, as long as he holds office, the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda will remain in place. UVa’s founder, he says, will not be de-memorialized.
Talk is cheap. When given a golden opportunity to publicize Jefferson’s contribution to religious freedom — the 2019 publication of “Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom” — Ryan took a pass. Neither he nor the administration’s propaganda organ, UVA Today (AKA UVA Pravda), have made mention of this important scholarship by Robert Louis Wilken, a UVa professor of the history of Christianity.
Wilken traced the origins of religious freedom to Tertullian, an early Christian later deemed a heretic. Jefferson’s personal copy of “Notes on the State of Virginia” has a quote from Tertullian written in the margin, in Latin, on the page where Jefferson expressed his beliefs about religious freedom. Wilken discovered that Jefferson held the Tertullian book in his personal library, which he bequeathed to the Library of Congress. When Wilken was permitted to see this ancient (1686!) manuscript, he found a large “X” in the margin by the same passage, which was underlined. Evidently, Jefferson’s intellectual curiosity had led him to explore the origins of religious freedom. Wilken traces that Christian line of thought from Tertullian through the Enlightenment to our Founders and Jefferson.
Jefferson famously said he wished to be remembered for three things: drafting the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and authoring the Virginia statute for religious freedom.
UVA Today has profiled hundreds of UVa scholars and students over the years. Search the website and Wilken appears only once in the results — in a Feb. 6, 2013, article listing more than 60 UVa authors who published books in 2012. You will find zero mentions of “Liberty in the Things of God.”
Search UVA Today for “Jefferson + slavery,” and you will find 162 search results. Query “Sally + Hemings,” and you’ll get 23 results.
Today at UVa, Jefferson is remembered by many as a slave holder and a rapist. He was indeed a slaveholder. Rarely mentioned is that he also opposed slavery, fought to end it, and was severely constrained legally in his options for freeing his own slaves. As for Jefferson fathering three children with his domestic slave Sally Hemings, never noted are the facts that the only Hemings child with Jefferson family DNA was born in 1808 while T.J. was president – and the DNA was not necessarily his.
The Board of Visitors has voted for “contextualization” of the statue and in typical academic fashion has established a committee to “tell the whole story.” I have no problem with “telling the whole story.” My problem is with people who purport to tell the whole story but tell only the bits that fit their narrative.
Ryan might protect Jefferson’s statue, but I see no sign that he or his minions are defending Jefferson’s monumental reputation. How can such a man call himself the president of the university Jefferson founded?