When Thomas Jefferson’s original tombstone, a granite obelisk that was given to the University of Missouri in 1885, was slated for restoration a scant three years ago, the university could not have been prouder of owning such an important artifact of a Founding Father.
Indeed, seizing upon the moment, the Mizzou press office issued a release touting ties with the Sage of Monticello: It noted that the University of Missouri was the first public university in the Louisiana Purchase Territory (for which Jefferson was chiefly responsible) and that its curriculum had been modeled on Mr. Jefferson’s ideas about education.
But that was then.
This is now, when a vocal band of Mizzou students is demanding that a statue of Jefferson be pulled down and removed from the campus. Post-it notes defacing the statute inform us that Jefferson was “a racist” and “a rapist.” The “racist” charge, of course, stems from Jefferson’s having owned slaves, while the “rapist” one comes from allegations, not at all certain, that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave.
Thus Thomas Jefferson, one of the 18th century’s beautiful minds, is the latest casualty of political correctness. History, for the politically correct, is a relentless and simplistic saga of racial and gender hatred rather than a complex account of events and actors with a mix of good and ill.
Forget facts and intricacies. What matters is redressing wrongs, real or supposed, and the more viciously this is done, the better.
For us Southerners, the last few months have been difficult, and I don’t expect Bostonians to understand — yet — how galling it has all been. How sickening to learn that some Memphians were trying to dig up a Confederate general’s grave with trowels. The City Council had voted to move him, but the mob couldn’t wait. The Confederate battle flag, under which valiant souls suffered and died, is now seen as the American equivalent of a Nazi swastika.
Of course, slavery was horrific. Do you know anybody who in this day does not regard it as an abomination? Are there slavery apologists that I just haven’t met yet? Yes, slavery was dreadful, but that does not wipe out all the good in Southern history and traditions. It does not mean that the South never had anything to offer, whether notions about chivalry, valor, or even about the courage it takes to lose a war and pick up the pieces and keep going (unfortunately, all Americans know what that feels like now).
The current inclination to wipe away any vestige of the past that includes traditions and attributes inconsistent with today’s mores ought to give pause to anyone who values history and scholarship.
New England is a hub of elite universities and colleges, and so far its institutions are more likely to be the perpetrators of politically correct attitudes rather than the victims. Many of the intellectual leaders in politically correct thought are tenured professors at various New England colleges and universities.
But here’s the thing about political correctness — it spreads like kudzu.
Once the mobs and tenured academics have finished devouring southern traditions, they are going to need new meat. And, hey, weren’t the original denizens of Nantucket notorious whale killers? The foundations of many of our greatest universities are based in religious ideals that are not now held in high esteem and quite a few of the movers and shakers are dead white males who probably had antiquated notions about women — and might have been ministers to boot. The politically correct are likely to see the origins of some of your valued institutions as tinged with racism and sexism. When should we remove that statue of John Harvard from Harvard Yard???After all, the university didn’t have its first African-American graduate until 1870, or its first female graduate until 1963.?Why do we celebrate Harvard in spite of this tarnished legacy?
I hope the elites at Harvard can articulate why.?They need to know how to defend themselves and perhaps might consider how these arguments apply to other imperfect, but still valuable, eras and institutions.?Harvard, like the old Confederacy, was a product of its time and culture. Imperfect, to be sure, and based on attitudes that are now inconsistent with current values, but an important part of the American story, with our noble attempts to move toward a more just society and more perfect union.
Forgetting our past and demonizing our ancestors isn’t progress; it’s a step backward.?Bostonians and those who care about our quaint traditions, like free speech and rigorous academics, ought to pay attention to how political correctness is attempting to wipe out the legacy of the South.?It isn’t just our culture, but our entire American heritage, that hangs in the balance.
Charlotte Hays is director of cultural programs at the Independent Women’s Forum.