Thomas Jefferson: Useful again, for a few days

Charlottesville, scene of a hate rally and of awful violence this weekend, was the home town of Thomas Jefferson. Virginia’s liberal governor Terry McAuliffe was among those who invoked Jefferson when condemning the alt-right. McAuliffe said:

Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You want to talk about patriots, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who brought our country together. . . .

But wait! Jefferson and Washington were slave owners. Jefferson, in particular, is anathema to many on the left. He knew slavery was wrong, but couldn’t bring himself to free his slaves. We are told that he needed to exploit them to pay for his expensive tastes. Not only that, he made a mistress out of one of his young slaves.

To my knowledge, McAuliffe has never espoused this anti-Jefferson line. But what has he done (until Saturday) to uphold the status of Jefferson? As we have reported, Jefferson and Washington get short shrift in the College Board’s guidelines for the teaching of AP U.S. History. In the original version, George Washington barely made an appearance and another great Virginia, James Madison, was completely omitted. The Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson, was presented chiefly as an illustration of the colonists’ belief in their own superiority.

The guidelines were improved somewhat in response to criticism. However, the underlying flaws remained.

Did Terry McAuliffe ever try to determine whether Virginia high school students become acquainted with the greatness and patriotism of Jefferson and Washington? As governor of Virginia, has he done anything at all to make it more likely that these great Virginians get their due in the classroom, rather than being disparaged as slave-owning hypocrites imbued with a misguided belief in their own superiority?

It won’t do to teach civic history and to preach patriotism and solidarity only after major civic breakdowns occur. These lessons need to be imparted early on and then reinforced. Instead, the only history most American students learn in the first few years of school is what’s taught during Black History month every year. These lessons often entail vilifying America and, in some cases, its heroes like Thomas Jefferson.

We shouldn’t really be surprised if the products of this educational system end up loathing their country, either because it’s racist or because it’s anti-racist.

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