AMAC Exclusive – By Claire Brighn
On Monday, a statue of Thomas Jefferson that had stood watch over the New York City Council chambers for 187 years was carted away to be relocated just a few miles North at the New York Historical Society. The removal follows a vote by a mayoral commission in October to remove the statue after months of increased pressure from leftists on the City Council, and is the culmination of a decades-long campaign by progressive city leaders, who claim that the statue is offensive to minority groups because Jefferson was a slaveowner.
As the statue finally departs City Hall, it marks a disgraceful final chapter for a monument with a storied history. But relegating Thomas Jefferson’s statue to some dusty corner in a museum will not likely end the left’s war against the founders generally, and it certainly won’t stop their crusade against Thomas Jefferson specifically.
The author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president has, in recent years, become the radical left’s highest value target for destruction. But despite what the left is publicly saying these days, their energy and urgency in cancelling Thomas Jefferson from American history does not appear to be because Jefferson was a slaveholder. After all, George Washington was a slaveholder too and has, at least thus far, not been subject to the same removal-at-all-costs fervor.
Rather, Jefferson appears to be despised by the far left today for the same reason that he was nearly universally acclaimed for most of American history: he is the author of the principle of human equality contained in the Declaration of Independence that founded our country in 1776. And the Declaration’s principle of human equality is very much out of fashion with today’s radical left—which is trying to turn the very year “1776” into a symbol of hate.
For Jefferson, the promise of America was a place where a new notion of equality could take root. Every single person’s worth and individual rights were, he asserted, not defined by a king or a government, but rather “endowed by their Creator” and are “unalienable.” At the same time, Jefferson recognized that the practice of slavery was at odds with this understanding of the moral universe and drafted a passage in the Declaration – which was later struck by the Congress – that called slavery “the cruel war against human nature.”
This new American proposition that all were created equal was, of course, one that would not be fulfilled in Jefferson’s time, and was a vision that Jefferson himself never fully adhered to in his personal life. However, it nonetheless laid the foundation for the establishment of the United States. Our founding principle of equality led to the abolition movement, and eventually to a bloody Civil War that eradicated slavery from this country.
Jefferson’s vision of equality also underpinned the Civil Rights Movement a century later. In his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously called for all Americans to “live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” The words of the slaveowner Jefferson became the rallying cry for the end of racial segregation in America.
Yes, Jefferson was a slaveowner, but even a cursory understanding of American history quickly reveals that his primary significance is as an intellectual force for freedom and equality in the world.
Today’s far left politicians now like to repeat the line that America “never lived up to” the principles of the Declaration. President Biden has said as much repeatedly throughout his campaign and the early months of his presidency. But if the new left really cared about living up to our founding principles, as so many generations of Americans have before, would they not want to keep alive the memory of the man who penned them?
Instead, the push has been not only to “contextualize” or “reframe” Jefferson, but to erase him from history entirely. Charles Barron, a New York Assembly Member who was on the City Council 20 years ago when the push to remove the Jefferson statue first began, made as much clear when he said that removal of the statue alone is not enough. “We started this battle twenty years ago and the only reason why they are coming up with it now is because people are looking at deeper, systemic problems in this system and calling for radical system changes so now they’ll give us a statue removal.” Instead, he says, the statue must be “destroyed.”
Barron’s comments unintentionally betray the true reason the left is seeking to erase Jefferson from American history. It’s not Jefferson they are after; it’s “radical system changes”—in other words, a political revolution against the history of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American republic itself.
Today’s far left envisions a society of precisely the opposite nature to the ideal Jefferson advanced. They want a world in which a person’s worth is essentially defined by their racial and gender identity, and where differences in these traits mean that people are very much not “created equal” and therefore don’t enjoy equal protection under the law. As much is evidenced by Critical Race Theory’s claims that every person either falls into an “oppressor” or “oppressed” class based on their racial identity, or by the left’s claims that police departments are just modern day “slave patrols.”
To combat this supposed systemic problem, “equality” is not enough for the left – what is instead required is a wholesale overhaul of the American system, starting with Jefferson on down. In the left’s vision, the law should be applied unequally among groups, dependent on the race, gender, or class of whatever group an individual falls into.
This did not used to be the official position of the Democratic Party. In 1987, for example, shortly after announcing his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, Joe Biden evoked the name of Jefferson in describing his own upbringing: “That was always a constant dinner table conversation, whether it was World War II or Thomas Jefferson, so I think I had a real love for history, and I think that kind of matured into my interest, though very, very limited involvement, in the Civil Rights Movement.” (Whether Biden played any role whatsoever in the Civil Rights Movement remains a contested matter.)
Now, however, Biden’s energy is not in calling for Americans to live up to our founding ideals. Instead, Biden condemns Americans (and America) for, in his words, “never living up to” the principles of the Declaration. This new Biden rhetoric is explained by Biden’s recent conversion to the belief that the United States is a “systemically racist” country founded not on freedom and equality, but rather on hate and human bondage. When President Biden was asked by Anderson Cooper at a CNN Presidential Town Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, about what he thought of the New York City Council’s recent decision to remove the Jefferson statue from its legislative chamber, he replied, “It’s up to the locality to decide,” offering no defense of the American founding father he once said he revered.
Biden also piled on the effort to erase Jefferson’s legacy by disbanding President Trump’s 1776 Commission on day one of his administration. Biden and the radical leftists who helped get him elected can’t risk letting the American people know the truth about their heritage. If they did, the game that the left is playing would be up and their grip on power would dramatically weaken.
It is thus not Jefferson the slaveholder that Biden and the left seek to banish, but the principles of the Declaration of Independence. For Biden and the radical leftists that have now taken over today’s Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of liberty and equality articulated in the Declaration is really what makes Jefferson so unpalatable, because it undercuts Biden and the Democrat’s narrative of the United States as an inherently evil and racist nation whose institutions are corrupt to the core.
Claire Brighn is the pen name of a conservative researcher and writer with previous domestic and foreign policy experience in the Executive Branch.