Confronting History, Warts And All

At the University of Virginia, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson lurks just about everywhere you look.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, really — Jefferson was the founder of U. Va., and designed some of the buildings.  And, in the course of the university’s history, his words have been quoted to students over and over again.

So when the current president of the University of Virginia wrote to students and the school community after the results of the 2016 presidential election, it was not a surprise that a Jefferson quote found its way into the missive.

But some professors at U. Va. had had enough.  They wrote a letter to the school’s president asking that she stop using Jefferson as a “moral compass.”  In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President, Jefferson was a slaveholder who propounded views of racial inferiority.  The letter states that “[t]hough we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we hope to bring to light that many of us are deeply offended by attempts of the administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”  It adds: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it.  For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Although some people might consider the complaining professors to be ingrates — after all, the school that employs them wouldn’t exist but for Jefferson — I think they raise a valid point.  For too long, we’ve airbrushed the “Founding Fathers” and other American historical figures.  We quote their lofty, elevated statements but ignore the baser elements of their stories.  As a result, they become more like marble statues and less like the real people they actually were.

You’re never going to take Jefferson out of the University of Virginia — he was so proud of his role in its founding that he instructed it should be one of three accomplishments noted on his tombstone — but you can recognize that, for all of his brilliance, he was a deeply flawed person who held human beings as slaves.  Grappling with his contradictions and understanding his obvious personal limitations seems like a worthwhile academic endeavor.

And it might be good for the school, too, if administrators resisted the temptation to trot out Jefferson quotes at every opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with an occasional backward glance, but colleges and universities should focus on looking forward.

Advertisements

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

SOTU, So What

Last night was the State of the Union address. We didn’t watch it, because we just can’t bear the pomp and scripted ovations. The trappings of the State of the Union address seem as phony and forced as the broadcasts of the Oscars, the Grammys, or the Golden Globes.

The Constitution, in Article II, section 3, requires the President to “give to the Congress information on the State of the Union.” It’s a worthwhile concept as well as a constitutional requirement, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done in person. In fact, after the first two Presidents gave their reports on the State of the Union in person, Thomas Jefferson decided to send a written report instead — and no President gave a State of the Union speech in person again for more than 100 years, until Woodrow Wilson did so in 1913. That means that colossal American historical figures like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt never gave a live State of the Union speech. The country survived nevertheless.

Now Presidents give the speech in person as a matter of course. It’s a chance for some free air time and an opportunity to display the majesty of the presidency and its role in our system of government. And supposedly it allows the President to set the agenda, although that really isn’t the case any more and hasn’t been so for a long time. If you were to review the legislative initiatives, policy proposals, and promises made in the SOTU speeches given over the last 25 years, you would find that only a tiny fraction ever are realized. President Obama undoubtedly added to that list with his speech last night.

What is the State of the Union? I don’t need a speech to know: divided, and troubled. The economy remains a source of deep concern for most Americans. Our administrative state seems to be too large, too intrusive, and too uncontrolled. The President’s popularity has fallen dramatically, and neither political party is trusted to change things for the better. It tells you something about the splintered State of the Union when the opposition party has three different representatives, representing three different factions, give responses.