The other night, while watching the first episode of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, The Roosevelts, I noticed, in the background of a 1930s newsreel of Franklin Roosevelt at the dedication of Mount Rushmore, that the face of Thomas Jefferson was coming into view on the great rock in South Dakota. It reminded me of how the most important President of the 20th century elevated a predecessor that he regarded as a crucial forerunner of his own advocacy of the common man.
With each passing decade, that apotheosis of American’s third President has become more and more hotly debated, particularly in light of his views on the great American predicament: race. So, although I wrote briefly about the Jefferson Memorial in a prior post, that does not begin to exist what must be said about him.
It may have been a trick of the early afternoon light that caused Rudulph Evans' bronze statue of Jefferson to appear dark when I photographed it on a visit to Washington in November 2013. But it is not an accident that Jefferson’s legacy itself looks darker than anyone could have predicted when Roosevelt helped mold the midcentury consensus surrounding the author of perhaps the most famous line in American history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
That quote is among several ones carved into the walls of the chamber surrounding the statue. Among those others are this one: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” That latter sentence is part of the reason why millions the world over, in the nearly two centuries since Jefferson’s death (on the 50th anniversary of American independence, no less), have looked to American democracy as a beacon in a dark world of legal and mental shacklement.
But the two sentences that immediately follow it, in Jefferson’s Autobiography, say just as much about why this country came to the agony of Charleston last month: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them."
If your ideal is of an American government that values education as the key to an informed citizenry, that looks suspiciously on a standing army as a fiscal sinkhole and a threat to freedom of expression, that distrusts concentrated wealth, that constantly hails science over religion, then Jefferson is your man.
But Jefferson is also the man who lived off the fruit of others' labor, the first theorist of secession, and the forefather of segregation. Thomas Jefferson’s America, for better and worse, remains ours.
For all those who, rather glibly, urge a cliched "national conversation" about race, the inevitable place to start is with Jefferson. Expect that conversation to be nothing less than ambivalent and painful.