Three days after Americans celebrated the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, The Hill released a gobsmacking video interview with Shannon LaNier, a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. LaNier, a man blessed to live in one of the freest and most prosperous nations on Earth, claims that his remote actors “didn’t do anything to help create a free and equal society.” He also suggests that monuments to Thomas Jefferson must be updated to include negative information about the man, or else be torn down from public view.
“Well, I think a lot of these public statues were put in place for the wrong reasons and to glorify people who were flawed. I think we have to start looking at these people as human beings, not gods, not idols to be looked upon,” LaNier says in the video.
“And then we need to have representation of freedom, which they say the Jefferson Memorial is supposed to represent that, but yet he didn’t do anything to help create a free and equal society for people,” Jefferson’s descendant says.
Yes, the man literally claims that Thomas Jefferson “didn’t do anything to help create a free and equal society.”
During his magnificent Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore, President Donald Trump delivered a snapshot of Thomas Jefferson’s marvelous accomplishments for American freedom.
“The great Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence,” Trump said. He also mentioned Jefferson’s work helping to author the Virginia Constitution and Jefferson’s authorship of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
As president, Jefferson also “ordered American warriors to crush Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Louis and Clark.”
The author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and the man who signed the Louisiana Purchase also happened to found the University of Virginia. Trump fittingly dubbed Jefferson, “the author of American freedom.”
The idea that Thomas Jefferson “didn’t do anything to help create a free and equal society” is patently absurd. Such a statement is comparable to saying that Moses didn’t do anything to help establish Judaism or that the Apostle Paul didn’t do anything to help establish Christianity.
Jefferson didn’t work alone, of course, and Jefferson was far from perfect (as the “relationship” with Sally Hemings demonstrates). But his work was absolutely foundational to American freedom and equality, imperfect as they were at the time.
Both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. looked to the Declaration of Independence as promising the kind of freedom and equality that they desired to extend to black people, even though America tragically denied them to the slaves and to black people in the early 1900s. Jefferson’s work established the principles that led to both the Thirteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Yet it seems LaNier, whose life is incomparably better due to the achievements of his distant ancestor, seems more than just ungrateful. He told The Hill that “if they are going to keep the Jefferson memorial,” the National Park Service needs “to show the complete and entire story of who this man was,” like modern historians have done at Monticello.
“Yes, people have been giving him a pass for years because he helped found this country, but he also helped do it on the backs of slaves,” LaNier insisted. “There are so many people that represent freedom more,” he argued, listing Harriet Tubman and Sally Hemings. “We can’t just put up these statues and expect people to praise them, not knowing the history, not knowing all of the bad that they’ve done.”
The descendant of Jefferson then suggested that statues are “demoralizing people.”
“If these statues are demoralizing people, putting people down, then we should remove them so people can feel comfortable in the taxpaying environments that they’re living in,” he insisted.
Are statues of Thomas Jefferson “demoralizing people?” Sure, his ownership of slaves is a black mark on his record. In my mind, his tearing up of the New Testament is similarly odious. But are Americans really incapable of celebrating the author of the Declaration of Independence without constant reminders that he wasn’t a saint?
Americans must reject this insistence that we look down on the founders of our nation. When rioters toppled a George Washington statue in Portland, they spray-painted “1619” on it, echoing The New York Times‘ “1619 Project,” which aims to redefine American history by making the arrival of the first slaves in 1619 the focal point, rather than the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The 1619 Project justifies scrapping the entire American project — which has bolstered freedom and prosperity across the globe — in the name of racial justice.
Is America imperfect? Absolutely. Thomas Jefferson embodies both the nobility and the imperfection of the United States. His pen put America’s ideals on paper, even while he failed to live up to those ideals. But every condemnation of this American giant must acknowledge the tremendous debt of gratitude our country owes him. We have the freedom to criticize him in large part because he helped establish our ideals of free speech, religious freedom, and more.
Anything less is intellectually dishonest.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.