Politically Incorrect: Robert Turner Defends T.J.

Robert Turner, UVa professor defends Thomas Jefferson

Three cheers for Robert Turner, a University of Virginia law professor, who went public last week with a full-throated defense of Thomas Jefferson. Once upon a time, the idea that Jefferson needed defending at the university he founded would have seemed ludicrous. But that’s before the forces of political correctness started taking over U.S. campuses, and before 469 university faculty and students blasted UVa President Teresa Sullivan for quoting Jefferson in a speech. Mr. Jefferson was a slave holder and a racist, and that’s all that needs to be said to brand him with infamy.

Last week, I defended Jefferson in the larger context of his contribution to advancing the ideals, however imperfectly he lived up to them, of liberty and equality of rights that we now take for granted. But Turner went a step further, describing Jefferson’s many actions to circumscribe slavery.

Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder, Turner write in the Cavalier Daily. He inherited the bondsmen from his father and father-in-law, and it was illegal under Virginia law to free them without the permission of the governor on the grounds of extraordinary service. But in 1769, Jefferson drafted a statute permitting the manumission of slaves. That rule eventually would be enacted in 1782.

Jefferson also drafted an amendment, enacted in 1778, to prevent the import of new slaves into Virginia. He also supported the proposition that children born to slaves in Virginia in 1800 would be born free, although the notion was deemed so radical that he never submitted a bill to put it into effect.

As a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1787, writes Turner, Jefferson drafted rules for the governance of the Northwest Territories, which read, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes….”

While Jefferson advocated the law permitting the manumission of slaves, it is widely noted that he never manumitted his own slaves. But Turner provides the rest of the story: “Jefferson did not free his slaves in his will, because he was deeply in debt and Section 54 of the Revised Code of Virginia of 1819 prohibited the manumission of slaves until creditors had been fully compensated. Freeing his slaves upon his death in 1826 was simply not a legal option.”

Although stifling, politically correct thinking is rampant at UVa, as it is at most universities, a measure of intellectual diversity remains. There don’t seem to be many outright conservatives (if there are, they are quiet) but professors are still comfortable standing up for old-fashioned liberal ideals of free speech and open-minded inquiry.

Turner expressed his willingness to debate the issue at an appropriate venue, UVa’s Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, with the “champions of censorship.” That’s a debate I would love to see.

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5 responses to “Politically Incorrect: Robert Turner Defends T.J.”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This story should not be about “Robert Turner, a University of Virginia law professor, (who) went public last week with a full-throated defense of Thomas Jefferson.”

    Instead the story should be about the “469 university faculty and students (who) blasted UVa President Teresa Sullivan for quoting Jefferson in a speech,” … given he was a slave holder and “racist.”

    That only one faculty member at UVA stood up publicly in defense of this sort of attack on Jefferson is a disgrace. And it is also a deep and long lasting stain on the faculty at UVA, and their competence to teach students, much less set an example for them.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      What comes around goes around. See: http://slavery.virginia.edu/

      No wonder some students at UVa. with justification conclude that words mouthed by their “teachers” are not taken seriously by those who wield them. It is all sentiment expressed for show without rigor or learning.

  2. My guess is Liberty and BYU would be two of the very few exempt from such nonsense as transpired at UVA.

    To my chagrin, one of my alma maters went so far as to actually “disinvite” an invited speaker because of his conservative leanings. So much for higher ed’s provision of a thinking person’s education for our youth.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Perhaps, alumni ought to write the chairs of the Virginia House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees, urging them to limit funding to the affected institution because of its blatant partisanship. And copy the college’s president and director of alumni affairs. I suspect money talks bigger than ideology.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think there is a misunderstanding of what free speech is and isn’t.

    Our guarantee of free speech does not translate into any mandate for any institution govt, private or even taxpayer-funded – to provide any facility or venue so you can exercise it on any subject at any time.

    The folks that manage the institution DO have the right to control who will say what , where and when even if that institution is supposed to include “free exercise of thinking”.

    I’m NOT advocating for censorship – but I AM pointing out that just because an institution is one of higher Ed or funded by taxes – does not require them to provide any specific accommodation to specifically address anyone at that institution.

    For instance, free speech does not require VDOT to let you use their website or even speak at one of their hearings on an issue that is not the reason for that hearing.

    You cannot show up at a BOS meeting and get up at any time and walk to the podium to speak about any subject for as long as you wish.

    Instead, you’re according the “opportunity” to speak about certain things at certain times with rules and controls.

    this goes to Universities also – whether they be UVA or Liberty or ANY institution of higher learning that does benefit from Govt financial help.. to include govt student loans – administered by the University.

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