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Thomas Jefferson, Still Standing – WSJ


George Floyd

summer of 2020 continues to reverberate through American life.

The mass protests subsided, but many cities are still unsettled. The store lootings have given way to the new organized crime of large-scale shoplifting. Statues of historical U.S. figures are no longer being torn down in the style of the Taliban destroying religious monuments in 2001. And of all places, New York City may be showing some light at the end of this tunnel: Despite an organized effort to remove him,

Thomas Jefferson

is still standing inside the chamber of the New York City Council—temporarily.

It is a sign of our times that one can describe as progress a decision not to toss Jefferson’s statue onto the curb for a sanitation pickup. But the details of New York’s decision on the Jefferson statue suggest—and I wouldn’t push past “suggest”—that still-serious people recognize we need alternatives to the American left’s French Terror solution for every political dispute.

A 7-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson has stood in the City Council chamber for more than 100 years. Single-party control of New York ensured control of the council by career progressives, who naturally would want to banish Jefferson solely because of his slaveholding.

In the months since last summer, leaders of museums, corporations and sports leagues have consented to similar, reductionist demands that involve race. That didn’t quite happen this week when it came time for New York’s Public Design Commission to vote on Jefferson.

The commission, made up of 11 members mostly from the city’s museum and architectural communities, voted unanimously to remove the statue from the council chamber. But they also said Jefferson will stay where he is until the commission finds a suitable place for him.

The left went ballistic. Former councilman and now state Assembly member

Charles Barron

said at the commission’s Monday hearing: “I don’t think it should exist. I think it should be put in storage or destroyed or whatever.”


Signe Nielsen,

president of the Public Design Commission, made a not-unreasonable point at the hearing: “There are 700 pieces of art under our jurisdiction. We cannot make a rash decision that will set a precedent for the other 699 pieces of artwork that may also have challenges from people or other groups of people.” The chances of anyone in such a role making so sensible a point out loud nine months ago were next to nothing.

Some 17 historians sent the commission a letter making the argument, however impermissible now, that Jefferson’s legacy is weightier than the single element of race. In effect, they argued that the removal alternative was self-defeating for everyone.

Raymond Lavertue

of Oxford University called removal “a very simple solution that will erase the debate.”

Annette Gordon-Reed

of Harvard suggested to the

New York Times

that equating a Founder with the Confederacy dilutes a clear understanding of the crimes of the Confederacy. That strikes me as a fundamental insight by a largely sympathetic observer into the unintended consequences of cancel culture. Eventually, they also cancel their own point of view.

Similarly, Princeton’s

Sean Wilentz

wrote the commission, “By removing his statue we would forget how America’s racist proslavery leaders came to repudiate Jefferson’s Declaration as a collection of ‘self-evident lies.’ ”

This is the “dialogue” the left says it wants but more often suppresses by intimidation or coercion. The greater danger of the cultural erasures the left demands today is that the social arrangements they impose in time may be closer to “Lord of the Flies” than to the Founding Fathers.

The police defunding movement has created a security crisis in Seattle. Minneapolis will vote Nov. 2 on a ballot measure that would dismantle its police department and replace it with a “comprehensive public-health approach.” The road back from this post-police world will be long and littered with broken lives.

The same tension animates the struggles between parents and school boards over replacing established curriculums with racialized historical narratives. The disputes are wrecking longstanding bonds between parents and schools. The U.S. left’s sudden displacements of history in public schools may even decide the outcome of the Virginia governor’s race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat

Terry McAuliffe.

A question remains: Where should Thomas Jefferson’s statue stand in New York City? If the fastidiously progressive council doesn’t want him, that’s their business. But the collection is growing of presidents consigned to the dustbin by New York City. In June, the design commission voted to remove

Theodore Roosevelt’s

statue from its entrance of the New York Museum of Natural History for its alleged offense to black and native Americans.

Here’s a thought: Donate the author of the Declaration of Independence to one of New York’s inner-city Catholic schools. Their leaders and teachers will show you how to build a curriculum around Thomas Jefferson that neither dishonors nor ignores his past.

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