Why I Oppose Removing a Statue of Thomas Jefferson

As a historian, I believe it remains a symbol of the democratic values that New Yorkers hold dear.

On October 18, the New York City Public Design Commission was poised to approve the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the city council chamber at City Hall and put it on indefinite loan to a private institution, the New-York Historical Society. Supporters of the action denounced Jefferson as—in the words of a former council member who first proposed the removal twenty years ago—a “slave-owning pedophile” whose symbolic presence was a glaring injustice and a nauseating offense, especially to the city’s black, Hispanic, and other non-white citizens.

After a white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio had authorized a review of numerous supposed “hate” symbols in public view around the city. The drive to remove Jefferson gained new life in the wake of controversies elsewhere over removing Confederate statues, and was made all the more fraught by the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Members of the city council advanced to the stage where they needed only a say-so from the Public Design Commission, a majority of whose members are appointed by the mayor. The deal, evidently, was already done. Even before an official decision had been made, a packing crate was at the ready to cart Jefferson’s likeness uptown to the Historical Society.

Despite being a native New Yorker with an abiding interest in the city and its history, I only learned of what was going on a couple of days before the Public Design Commission’s scheduled hearing. An enterprising student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Todd Fine, was helping to gather signatures for a letter petitioning for a compromise: The statue would stay in City Hall but would be moved to the governor’s room, where it was originally placed in 1834 and stood for decades thereafter. After getting the whole story, I happily signed the letter and prepared a statement to be read at the official commission hearing.

Efforts to repudiate Jefferson are, by now, familiar enough. The reassessment of historical figures traditionally celebrated for their contributions to American equality is nothing new, as in Lerone Bennett Jr.’s much-criticized but widely-read vilification of Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist. Jefferson has become a particularly fraught case, due in large part to his slaveholding and his ugly remarks about Africans in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Additionally, historians have affirmed longstanding speculations that he had sexual relations and conceived several children with one of his young slaves, Sally Hemings, who also happened to be, almost certainly, his late wife’s half-sister.

The most authoritative interpreter of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Annette Gordon-Reed, has described it as a fundamentally absurd and unequal but ultimately respectful long-term bond. Contrary to Gordon-Reed’s historical evidence, however, Jefferson gained a reputation as a rapist, a systematic abuser of black women, and a sadistic slave owner. Blend enough sensational falsehood into his biography and it’s easy enough to invent a Thomas Jefferson who was a perfect monster, unfit for celebration of any kind, let alone in New York’s City Hall.

One need not accept portrayals of Jefferson as a moral monster to see that he had flaws from which any fair-minded twenty first century observer recoils. But study him awhile and he appears to have been a man of contradictions. Notes on the State of Virginia indeed contains hair-raising comments about black people, closer than not to the common view among his fellow white Virginians. It also contains an indictment of racial slavery as an offense to heaven—an uncommon view in Virginia, especially among slaveholders. (“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Jefferson wrote, a remark that impressed his antislavery Massachusetts friend John Adams as “worth diamonds.”) 

There is the early Jefferson who took firm antislavery stances, to the point of heading a committee of the Confederation Congress in 1784 that sought to ban the introduction of slavery into any American territory. About two decades later, as president, he completed the abolition of U.S. participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Then there is also the later Jefferson, who backed off from any public expressions of antislavery opinion, to the point, in 1820, of supporting the introduction of slavery into Missouri Territory over the intense objection of antislavery northerners.

Above all, there is Jefferson’s greatest contribution to America, indeed, to humankind, in the Declaration of Independence’s simple assertion that all men are created equal. The declaration’s universalist claim was a deeply radical statement then, and remains radical today. It expressed an idea that swept beyond Jefferson’s own time to inspire future abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and every variety of champion for human rights. Although there were radical egalitarians before Jefferson, there had never been anything quite like the declaration, which became the basis of a democratic political order that rejected monarchs, hereditary aristocrats, and theocrats. Furthermore, had Jefferson prevailed over the objections of delegates from the Lower South, the declaration would have included a denunciation of slavery and the slave trade as violations of human nature’s “most sacred rights of life and liberty.”

Even when Jefferson lived, there were some who claimed that he didn’t really mean what he wrote in the declaration, that he really meant to say that only white men were created equal. Yet never, either in public or in private, did Jefferson seek to amend or modify the wording of his greatest contribution. His failure to do so made him and his declaration deeply suspicious to later generations of pro-slavery advocates and their allies, who denounced the declaration as a pack of “self-evident lies,” a farrago of “glittering generalities”—that is, as a standing rebuke to their barbaric cause. 

Indeed, it was Jefferson, more than any other American, who set the standard by which we find him so lacking, the universal standard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked when he quoted Jefferson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, meanwhile, warned that those who would forsake Jefferson were “the vanguard—the miners and sappers—of returning despotism.”

The statue in City Hall, created by the great French sculptor David d’Angers, specifically honors Jefferson for the declaration, as well as his work to secure religious liberty. Thinking back on Lincoln’s observation, it thus struck me as especially bizarre to repudiate Jefferson and his declaration at the very moment when authoritarianism and despotism are on the rise. Now, more than ever, the most vulnerable among us depend on Jefferson’s egalitarian standard against the true miners and sappers.

In drafting my statement for the hearing, I also recalled my late father Elias Wilentz. Back in the mid-1970s, he served on the New York Art Commission, the predecessor of the current Public Design Commission. Eli took very seriously the charge as a steward of the city’s public art. What would it mean to, in effect, decommission a piece of public art for indefinite relocation to a private institution that charged a fee for admission? I didn’t have to wonder too hard what Eli would have thought: He’d have been appalled, and he would have been right. And while the New-York Historical Society would certainly do an excellent job presenting the statue to its guests, the point of originally placing the statue in City Hall was to give it a symbolic stature, one that it could never possess if placed almost anywhere else.

The commission, as expected, voted unanimously to remove the statue from the council chamber. The packing crate, however, would not be filled just yet. The Public Design Commission president, Signe Nielsen, weighed in with an observation that the commission needed to be careful before handing off a piece of city-owned public art to a private institution. The group decided to lay aside sending the statue to the Historical Society and think through other solutions.

The ultimate outcome remains in doubt. It was suggested at the meeting that the 7-foot-tall statue might be placed at the New York Public Library, near a display of the library’s “fair copy” of the declaration. I’d prefer it stay somewhere in City Hall, where it’s stood for nearly two hundred years, as a symbol of the democratic values that New Yorkers hold dear. Although it is impossible to honor Jefferson without serious qualification, perhaps the current grappling will at least remind everyone of why there is no dishonor in doing so.

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.