Written by Bert Ellis, President of The Jefferson Council
Dear Mr. Unsworth:
I am writing to you in your capacity as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, with a request that you postpone the vote scheduled for June 27 on changing the library’s name until everyone involved in the decision has an opportunity to carefully consider all of the ramifications of this landmark decision.
We are aware of no urgency in resolving this issue and no harm of any kind that might result from a reasonable delay. On the other hand, a rush to judgment without regard to fundamental facts could produce long-term harm to both the institution you represent and the reputations of all involved.
Given the many very positive contributions of Presidents Jefferson and Madison it would seem only fair that they be given at least a modicum of due process before being discarded from our community in such a cavalier manner.
I write in my capacity both as President of the Jefferson Council (a non-profit organization formed to preserve the legacy of Mr. Jefferson), and as a 1975 graduate of the College and a 1979 graduate of the Darden School of Business. Our Board of Directors at The Jefferson Council has unanimously instructed me to contact you in this matter, as we consider your planned vote to be of profound importance.
Your role with the Library Board of Trustees suggests a love for books, education, and of course the libraries that facilitate public access to books. I am confident that you are familiar with Mr. Jefferson’s famous observation that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”1 Thus, the library branches under your supervision play a critically important role in maintaining our democracy and preserving our freedoms.
I know that I do not need to remind you of Thomas Jefferson’s many contributions in this area, including providing 6,487 volumes from his personal library as the foundation of the Library of Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned to the ground by the British during the War of 1812. Surely, no American president has had a greater fondness for books and libraries or done more to promote them.
Thomas Jefferson was equally a champion of American liberties. Indeed, I am reminded of an 1814 letter former President Jefferson sent to French-language instructor Nicolas Dufief on 19 April 1814:
I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, . . . that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. . . it is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not; and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. if M. de Becourt’s book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. but, for god’s sake, let us freely hear both sides . . . . [Emphasis added.]2
With all due respect, we submit that this sage advice provides the answer to our current dilemma as well. Trust the people and let them hear both sides before they are called upon to take such a momentous decision.
Mr. Jefferson also gave us the Declaration of Independence, the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the University of Virginia (from which I and all of my fellow board members at The Jefferson Council are proud graduates) and many, many other contributions that are almost universally admired for their contributions to this great Nation and our Commonwealth.
But we are told by Ms. Myra Anderson and her colleagues—whose conviction and passion are beyond reproach—that you must strike his name from the entrance to your libraries because he owned slaves. Other critics confidently add that Mr. Jefferson had a sexual relationship with a young slave woman who could have had no concept of consent as the chattel “property” of her owner at the time. These are unforgivable sins, and lest we become complicit in this evil, Ms. Anderson says we must cancel Mr. Jefferson’s memory irrespective of any positive contributions he may have made.
With all due respect, my colleagues and I sincerely believe that Ms. Anderson and her associates in the Reclaimed Roots Descendants Alliance—like most of Mr. Jefferson’s other critics—are badly misinformed about key facts in this debate. We do not question their sincerity or talents, and we certainly can start from some mutually shared premises, including that slavery was (in Jefferson’s words) an “abomination,” a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” And certainly, we share the view that the sexual abuse of children is a horrendous evil as well.
Our differences, we submit, are largely factual in character, and one reason we are requesting that you postpone this vote is so we might have time to communicate with Ms. Anderson and her group and perhaps even get her to reconsider her request. In the process, we would urge her to share any documentary evidence that she has that might allow us to better understand her position and then reassess our own. Everyone benefits by the free exchange of facts and ideas in the search for the truth.
But, irrespective of our success in that endeavor, we believe that a public debate on the issue hosted by the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library would very much be in the interest of our entire community. Because Thomas Jefferson remains one of our most famous citizens, his modern neighbors should be given an opportunity to understand these important issues. Hosting such a debate would allow the Library to perform a valuable public service fully consistent with its mandate and finest traditions.
I hope you will agree that it would be shameful for our respected public library –the one place in our community where people are promised they can come to find factual truths—to make such a momentous decision with such cavalier disregard for the truth when enlightenment is such an easy option.
We are not asking you to embrace our admiration for Mr. Jefferson. That decision is yours alone in a free society, and for it you are answerable only to your own conscience. We are not telling your board how to vote on the pending resolution. What we are asking is for a reasonable delay so that top experts on both sides can come before your board (and other members or our community), present their facts and arguments, back up their allegations with credible documentation, and prepare you and your distinguished colleagues to make an intelligent, responsible decision. This delay would have the additional benefit of giving us time to reach out to the other side and promote a mutual exchange of knowledge and ideas, which might reduce the intensity of some of the emotions currently evident. Surely this is not asking too much.
This short letter is not the occasion to provide a thorough discussion of Mr. Jefferson’s views on slavery or the Sally Hemings matter. But, if you will allow us to address your board, we will provide retired University of Virginia Professor Robert F. Turner to make a substantive presentation. Professor Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia School of Law, where he taught for more than three decades prior to his 2020 retirement. He also taught for several years in the 1980s and 1990s in what is now the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, and supervised graduate research in both the UVA Departments of History and Asian Studies.
Most importantly, Dr. Turner chaired the 2000-2001 Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, which spent a year examining every aspect of the accusation that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by the enslaved Sally Hemings and concluded— with but a single very mild dissent—that the story is probably false. The Report of the Scholars Commission runs more than 400 pages long and was published by Carolina Academic Press in 2011. It is by far the most comprehensive and thoroughly documented study on the issue to date. Surely, the members of your board should have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with these arguments before they take action that may ultimately prove to be profoundly embarrassing to all involved.
To provide you with a brief summary of some of the facts regarding Jefferson, slavery, and the Sally Hemings issue, I am attaching an article Professor Turner published in the Charlottesville Daily Progress on November 27, 2016.
You may note that I have not addressed the issue of removing James Madison’s name from your Library. Please do not interpret that as in any way support for such a change. Like Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Madison made tremendous contributions to the founding of this Country. He is often and quite properly referred to as the Father of the American Constitution. But my organization’s focus is on Mr. Jefferson, and we believe that the information we have presented in this brief note more than fully justifies a delay so that you and your colleagues can hear both sides of the story before you make this momentous decision.
Professor Turner is willing to debate anyone you wish to invite for the proposed debate. If no one will accept, he is willing to debate as many as three opponents at a time, so long as he gets equal total time including ample time for rebuttal. If you don’t have a candidate in mind, perhaps you might seek advice from Ms. Anderson and/or the University of Virginia Corcoran Department of History or the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
If you cannot find a local scholar to support your resolution, the Jefferson Council will be willing to provide coach-class airfare and one-night accommodations in Charlottesville should you wish to bring in Professor Annette Gordon-Reed from Harvard or another scholar from outside Virginia.
However, if you are unable to find anyone willing to defend this resolution, we respectfully submit that would constitute prime facie evidence of the paucity of their position and the proposed resolution should be tabled with prejudice and replaced by a substitute resolution expressing confidence in and admiration for Presidents Jefferson and Madison.
The Jefferson Council
1 Jefferson to Charles Yancey, Jan. 6, 1816, https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/327.
Censoring Jefferson to safeguard ignorance
Robert F. Turner
The recent demand by nearly 500 faculty members and students that University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan stop quoting UVa founder Thomas Jefferson in her emails reminds us that, when ignorance and arrogance join hands, the results are seldom pretty.
To her credit, President Sullivan did not succumb to the pressure.
And to be fair, the ignorance of the letter’s signers should not be surprising. We are all ignorant about many important things, and prominent historians have achieved fame and fortune — including prestigious book awards — for their efforts to bring down the man professor Joseph Ellis has described as “the Dead White Male who matters most” and “the most valued trophy in the cultural wars.”
The signers of the letter complain that Jefferson “owned slaves” and held “racist views.” Virtually everyone during Jefferson’s era held racist views (as did Abraham Lincoln decades later); and until the Virginia legislature enacted a 1782 statute — initially drafted by Jefferson 13 years earlier — permitting the manumission of slaves, it was unlawful for him to free the roughly 175 slaves he had inherited from his father and father-in-law.
Philip Foner, editor of “The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine,” noted that the characterization of Paine as “the first American abolitionist” was inaccurate, due to Jefferson’s 1769 effort to legalize the manumission of Virginia slaves. President Sullivan’s critics appear oblivious to the reality that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong opponent of slavery. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself” on “a distant people who never offended him” by “carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.”
Writing for a British abolitionist newspaper in 1843, former President John Quincy Adams noted that this language was too strong for the many other signers of the Declaration who also owned slaves, and at their insistence the language was removed. But the draft was preserved, where Adams declared: “It stands, an unanswerable testimonial to posterity, that on the role of American abolitionists, first and foremost after the name of George Washington, is that of Thomas Jefferson.” (In reality, Washington never once spoke out publicly against slavery.)
Upon returning to Virginia after drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson prepared a law prohibiting the importation of new slaves into Virginia, which was enacted two years later.
The Constitution prohibited Congress from enacting any law restricting the slave trade until 1808. In 1806, President Jefferson sent a letter to Congress congratulating it on the approaching opportunity “to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.” Congress complied. Writing in his only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1783), Jefferson once again eloquently denounced slavery: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. … The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
When called upon in 1784 by his colleagues in the Second Continental Congress to draft rules to govern the Northwest Territories, Jefferson provided in Article Six: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It failed by a single vote. Jefferson later lamented: “God was silent in that awful moment.”
But seven decades later, following the Civil War, the authors of the Thirteenth Amendment selected this language for its text to honor Jefferson’s courageous struggle against slavery. (Would those who wish to censor Jefferson’s words strike down the constitutional ban against slavery?)
In addition to the fact that he “owned slaves,” Jefferson’s critics like to remind us that 1998 DNA tests proved he fathered children by the enslaved child Sally Hemings. Wrong again.
I had the honor of taking part in the most thorough examination of all of the evidence on that issue in 2000-2001, when a team of more than a dozen Jefferson scholars from across the nation spent a year looking at all of the evidence and published a 400-page
book (“The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission”) concluding with but a single mild dissent that the story is likely false. They noted that historical evidence had been altered, and that the widely misunderstood DNA tests did not even involve genetic material from Thomas Jefferson. The tests showed merely that one of the more than two-dozen Jefferson men in Virginia at the time likely fathered Sally’s youngest child, Eston. Based solely on the DNA tests, the odds that Eston’s father was President Jefferson were no greater than 4 percent. Eston’s descendants passed down the story that he was not the president’s child but the son of an “uncle.” The president’s much younger brother Randolph was invited to visit Monticello 15 days before Eston’s likely conception date to see his beloved twin sister, who had just arrived following an extended absence. Because of his relationship to daughter Martha — who ran Monticello while her father was in the White House — he was known as “Uncle Randolph” at Monticello.
In the book “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” former blacksmith Isaac Granger stated that Randolph spent his evenings at Monticello playing his fiddle and “dancing half the night” with the president’s slaves. There is no evidence of President Jefferson socializing with slaves.
Days before concluding his second term as president and returning to his beloved Monticello, Jefferson wrote in a Feb. 25, 1809, letter to Henri Grégoire that no person would be more pleased than himself to see a refutation of the doubts he had expressed about the intellectual abilities of black slaves — a distinction he repeatedly acknowledged might be but a consequence of their circumstances.
He added: “Whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”
When Jefferson traveled to Paris in 1784, he took with him a servant named James Hemings to be trained as a French chef. Among the most talented servants at Monticello, James was manumitted in 1796 — and within five years had turned to alcohol and committed suicide. The news caused great sadness at Monticello, and likely reinforced Jefferson’s view that — until what he termed “this moral and political depravity” could be outlawed — freeing individual slaves did them no service. Historian Joseph Ellis expressed the view in his prize-winning biography “American Sphinx” that Jefferson could have passed a polygraph test confirming his conviction that his own slaves “were more content and better off as members of his extended family than under any other imaginable circumstances.”
In an 1814 letter to fellow Albemarle County abolitionist Edward Coles, Jefferson wrote about the duties owed to slaves: “My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.”
Much has been made of the fact that Jefferson did not free his slaves in his will. The simple explanation is that during Jefferson’s life, African slaves were treated under the law as chattel property (like cattle), and Section 54 of the Revised Virginia Code of 1819 protected the rights of creditors. Jefferson died deeply in debt, and thus freeing his slaves in his will was not a legal option.
As the world confronts religious extremists who brutally behead and burn alive those who refuse to embrace their theology, we should remember that Jefferson also authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — protecting our right to worship the God of our choice (or none at all).
He also championed the cause of what he called “Native Americans” (a term primarily used at the time to refer to people of European ancestry born in the New World) and acknowledged in 1785 they were in body and mind “equal to the white man.” The following year he declared: “The want of attention to their rights is a principal source of dishonor to the American character.”
Indeed, Jefferson’s primary criticism of Native Americans was that they subjected their women to “unjust drudgery,” which he contended was the case “with every barbarous people.”
“Force is law,” he said. “The stronger sex imposes on the weaker.”
Was Jefferson perfect? Certainly not. But he was ahead of his time in so many ways. Rather than promoting ignorance by censoring his thoughts and writings, UVa faculty and students should feel honored to have the opportunity to teach and study at the remarkable university he founded nearly two centuries ago.
I have repeatedly offered to debate as many as three critics of Jefferson at a time on these issues — UVa faculty or from elsewhere. Thus far, there have been no takers. The offer remains open.
Professor Robert F. Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia Law School and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for National Security Law. He is the editor of “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission” (2011) and has taught at UVa for 29 years.
 This article first appeared in the Charlottesville Daily Progress on November 27, 2016.