This is an excerpt of “The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past,” out today and available to purchase wherever you buy books.
Weighing in on the debate over Confederate statues in 2017, President Donald Trump said to reporters, “George Washington was a slave owner. . . are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?. . .Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner.”
Trump’s insinuation that activists would turn their attention to the Founders after they were done with Confederates was mocked by many in the media and even some historians on the premise that the difference between the Founders and the Confederates would be obvious to Americans.
“It’s the difference between a monument to the founder of our nation, and a monument to a key figure in an effort to break apart the nation,” said Douglas Blackmon, an author and senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center in an interview with the Washington Post. “The most kind explanation of that can only be ignorance, and I don’t say that to insult the president.”
Unfortunately, the president was right. First, they came for the Confederates, and then they very quickly came for everyone else, the Founders included. This was always the real goal: to uproot and demolish traditional America, to attack the men, institutions, and ideas that set this nation’s course over the centuries. For them, America was never great. And to sell the rest of us on that proposition, they need to tear down everything that represents American greatness.
The Founders, the American Revolution they made, and the Declaration of Independence are at the top of their list. The Declaration and its author, Thomas Jefferson, are special targets of their calumny. If they can persuade America to despise and reject our Founding, they will be well on their way to their ultimate goal of “fundamentally transforming” the United States.
The Founders Were Motivated by Noble Ideas
What made our Revolution one of the very few successful revolutions—arguably the only one—in the history of mankind? Progressive thinkers in the early twentieth century attributed the American Revolution to economic factors, using quasi-Marxist historical interpretations to claim that the Founders were just wealthy men trying to protect their interests.
These leftists promoted their vision of the Founders as anti-Democratic to justify upending the institutions the Founders created, and they had some success in doing so. But historians in the later twentieth century, like Gordon Wood and Forrest McDonald, reexamined the progressives’ history and found it wanting.
Reducing the Founders’ motivations to mere economics was wildly off base. Ideas, not base interests, motivated the men who founded the United States. A simplistic economic narrative was inadequate to the complicated history of the American rupture with England.
While the causes of America’s Revolution remain hotly contested, historian Walter McDougal has succinctly summed up the multiple factors in play: “The whole experience of the colonists dating back to 1607 . . . made self-government, religious freedom, economic opportunity, and territorial growth inseparable. Almost everyone from Massachusetts to Georgia could agree that civil and religious liberty went hand in hand, liberty could not long survive without virtue, an exploding population could not survive without virtue, and an exploding population could aspire to no liberty at all if its territorial and commercial expansion were artificially choked.”
The foundation for an independent and unique experiment in self-government in the United States had already been established over generations, from the time Columbus arrived in the New World, through the English migrations and settlement in the thirteen colonies, and up to the moment when the British Parliament and King George III foolishly tried to put the genie back in the bottle and chain this burgeoning nation to their will.
The Founders: From Untouchable to Deplorable
And perhaps no man represented the soul of that new nation yearning for liberty better than Thomas Jefferson. For much of American history, the Founders were untouchable. Even as many powerful men, including Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, worked to undermine their legacy, few would have dared attack them openly.
Members of the Progressive Movement in the early twentieth century may have opposed the principles of constitutional government that the founding generation created, but they carefully avoided publicly denouncing them. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights,” harkening back to the original Bill of Rights, was a clever sleight of hand, a successful attempt to convince the American people that ideas in fundamental opposition to those of the Founders were somehow what the Founders would have wanted.
It was Roosevelt who had the Thomas Jefferson Memorial constructed in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. This is somewhat ironic given the fact that Jefferson’s strict constructionist constitutional principles would have prevented him from carrying out such a federal project. Roosevelt’s New Deal economics would also likely have horrified Jefferson.
Today, attacks on the Founders typically start with Jefferson. With the emphasis now on what the Founders didn’t do (abolish slavery) rather than what they did (build the foundations for the freest country in human history), the contrast between Jefferson’s eloquent denunciations of slavery and his failure to put his principles into action make him an easy target for those want to paint the Founders as rank hypocrites.
Casting Shade on George Washington
The self-contradictions of the author of the Declaration of Independence on what is increasingly the only issue modern audiences care about has made Jefferson ripe for destruction. That’s not to say that other Founders haven’t found themselves on the wrong side of the war on history. Even George Washington, the “indispensable man” of the Revolution, has had a few salvos thrown his way.
The famed Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, which Washington attended for years, decided to take down a plaque in Washington’s honor in the name of inclusivity. The church, which has displayed a banner outside saying “All are welcome—no exceptions,” made an exception for the Father of Our Country.
Perhaps even more pathetically, the San Francisco school board voted unanimously to destroy a mural with George Washington at a public school because it also depicted slaves and a dead American Indian. The school board deemed the mural too offensive for modern sensitivities.
The mural was painted in 1936 by artist Victor Arnautoff, who was, ironically enough, a man of the Left in his time and was trying to present a less flattering portrayal of Washington. No matter—staying sufficiently “woke” typically prevails over reason or thoughtfulness.
If Jefferson falls to this crusade, there will be no stopping the eventual takedown of Washington. That Washington freed his slaves upon his death will be seen as insufficient—just as Jefferson’s writing the greatest anti-slavery document of the modern age fails to save him from scathing attacks. Jefferson’s perceived hypocrisy in regard to the institution of slavery has made him the chief target of modern attacks on the Founders.
In fact, this isn’t the first time Jefferson’s legacy has come under siege. In the nineteenth century, one radical abolitionist wrote of Jefferson’s failure on the slavery issue, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” That statement may have been true at the time, but Americans today are starting to forget what he did do. They have lost touch with the immense accomplishments of this venerated American whose greatest fault is that he dared criticize an institution as old as mankind while failing to extinguish it within a single generation.
Remember the Precious Gift from the Founders
This is no reason to abandon Jefferson, who may be one of the most influential men of the last millennium. Jefferson and the Founders delivered to posterity a timeless model for man’s liberty and flourishing that has never been matched. Americans of the past generally revered the Founding Fathers and what they accomplished for good reason.
Though the Founders were fallible, like anyone else, unlike anyone else, they built a uniquely successful system for ordering society upon great truths about human nature. But if they are regarded at all in modern times, the Founding Fathers are increasingly dismissed for their failings, large or small, while the transformative nature of what they accomplished is downplayed or simply neglected.
Americans would be foolish to abandon this inheritance. At the critical moment of our nation’s conception, the American colonies contained a deep roster of talent. And the Revolution was a fortuitous moment for these talented men. Few of the great statesmen and philosophers through history ever had anything like the opportunity they had: to create enduring institutions for a new civilization at the moment of its birth.
Without Them, We’d Be Lost
Thomas Jefferson, among the greatest of that illustrious group, was a key figure in the early debates over what America could and would be. Though his archnemesis Alexander Hamilton—who has had a bit of a revival of late—certainly had his victories and did much to set the course of our burgeoning country, Jefferson’s ideas have had a unique impact on America for two and a half centuries—from Independence to the Civil War and Emancipation to the Civil Rights Movement.
Mid-twentieth-century historian James Thurlow Adams surmised that, without Hamilton, our country “would assuredly have been killed in body,” yet, “without Jefferson the new nation might have lost its soul.” That the United States in the twentieth century is an unrivaled superpower of vast economic and military strength is a tribute to Hamilton, who foresaw our fate as a commercial and military power. But in times of turmoil and uncertainty over who we are, generations of Americans have turned to Jefferson as a source of inspiration.
America is at its best when it is strong in body and soul. When our civic traditions are under threat, it is to Jefferson, the original articulator of our liberties, that we look for renewal. Americans through the generations have fought over the meaning of the Founding—but always reclaimed its legacy. The Founders have been criticized in every era, but that criticism used to be made within the framework of understanding that their accomplishments were enormous and worth studying.
Remembering Only the Vices, Never the Virtues
Now a pernicious dogmatism about the Founders’ failures is obscuring the most important aspects of their legacy. We no longer embrace what made them great while occasionally being disappointed by their all-too-human shortcomings. Instead, their flaws are magnified out of proportion and out of the context of the time they lived in. And, perhaps because of the loftiness of rhetoric, no Founder has suffered more from this way of thinking than Thomas Jefferson. His reputation has undergone a dramatic reversal—nowhere more than at the university he created and was so proud of.
Thomas Jefferson’s face appears alongside those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore for good reason. He has been one of America’s most celebrated men and presidents. But the famous Virginian never cared much for touting his presidential legacy.
Jefferson’s tomb, located near his Charlottesville home, is adorned by an impressive granite obelisk with an inscription representing what he believed were his greatest accomplishments. Jefferson specially designed the gravestone with meticulous care. The obelisk reads: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.” “By these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered,” Jefferson wrote.
Thomas Jefferson Gives to Even Those Who Hate Him
If Americans entirely forget everything about Jefferson or turn on him as a monstrous hypocrite, they will still enjoy the fruits of these three indelible marks of his legacy: a nation founded on the timeless principles of liberty and the natural equality of men laid out in the Declaration, religious liberty enshrined in our laws, and a commitment to education that has produced a population capable of sustaining freedom.
All of these things are under attack in America, but at least they exist in our national DNA, waiting to be rediscovered. Noticeably missing from Jefferson’s list of accomplishments was his service as president of the United States or in any other public office that he held in his long political career.
Jefferson, the man of ideas, wished for future generations to know him by the “self-evident truths” that he would pass down to them, not by the practical compromises of his political career. He hoped these ideas would be transmitted through his beloved school, the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1819.
The university went through some tumultuous early years, and many thought it was doomed to fail. Charlottesville was seen as a backwater; the early students were often substandard. What’s more, the school was created as a radical experiment. It wasn’t attached to a religious denomination—though religion itself wasn’t discouraged—and students were expected to abide by an honor code rather than the strict rules that governed other universities, a tradition that continues today.
The early struggles of the school took a huge toll on Jefferson. A near-rebellion by professors and students in 1825, just a year before Jefferson’s death, brought the distraught and ailing Founder to tears. But thanks to his care and enormous personal sacrifice, the school ultimately found its footing, becoming one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
Students at UVA have more or less venerated Mr. Jefferson, as they reverently call him, ever since. It would be unthinkable to denounce him. Until now. The traditional Grounds of UVA have played host to many tributes to Jefferson, but one act in the late nineteenth century was perhaps the school’s greatest demonstration of devotion to its founder.
They Once Loved Him Enough to Save His Statue
The Rotunda, which Jefferson designed, caught fire in 1895. Through the fearsome inferno, in a daring deed of bravery, students dragged Jefferson’s statue out of the Rotunda, allegedly on a mattress. The life-sized marble statue, created by sculptor Alexander Galt in 1860, took a few bumps in the dramatic rescue, but it survives to this day.
Students managed to save many of the books in the Rotunda too, something that would undoubtedly have made the legendary bibliophile happy. UVA wouldn’t exist without Mr. Jefferson, but that hasn’t stopped some of today’s students and professors from trying to erase the institution’s connection to its founder.
A group of UVA students and outside community activists gathered in front of the restored Rotunda in 2017 to protest Jefferson and “white supremacy” after a group of white supremacists had gathered in the city to protest the removal of Confederate statues. Any distinction between Confederates and the Founders seemed to make little difference to those assembled on the Grounds.
The university had already gone out of its way to acknowledge Jefferson’s legacy as a slaveholder—and even planned to erect a memorial to the enslaved laborers who helped build the school—but this clearly wasn’t enough for the aggrieved. Protesters besieged the Jefferson statue that stands in front of the Rotunda and placed signs on it calling the Founding Father a “rapist” and a “racist.” Then, in a defiant and illegal act, they covered the statue with a giant shroud.
One would think this act would have provoked a harsh and defiant rebuke from school authorities in defense of the man to whom they owe so much. Instead, UVA President Teresa Sullivan offered only mild condemnation of the attack on the school’s founder and seemed to accept the behavior as a reasonable protest.
“I strongly disagree with the protestors’ decision to cover the Jefferson statue,” Sullivan said. “I also recognize the rights of those present at the protest to express their emotions and opinions regarding the recent horrific events that occurred on our Grounds and in Charlottesville,” Sullivan wrote. “Our community continues to heal, and we must remain respectful of one another.” Apparently “one another” did not include the school’s founder.
Too Politically Incorrect at the School He Founded
This wasn’t the first time that Jefferson had come under attack at the school. Sullivan had been embroiled in another controversy the year before when students and faculty publicly lambasted her for quoting Jefferson in messages to the student body.
“For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these emails undermines the message of unity, equality, and civility that you are attempting to convey,” read a statement to Sullivan from the angry students and teachers. “I think that Jefferson is often celebrated for his accomplishments with little or no acknowledgement of the atrocities he committed against hundreds of human beings,” wrote a UVA psychology professor.
Thomas Jefferson is now politically incorrect at the school he founded. While he still has defenders and admirers at the university, the attacks on his legacy and the lack of an effective rebuttal would have been almost unthinkable a century ago.
The collapse of Jefferson’s reputation has spread far beyond the college campus. All around the country, state Democratic Party chapters are changing the name of Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, which were named after Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, two figures they used to celebrate as their party’s founders. But no more.
Even the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., the cherished project of Franklin Roosevelt, has come under fire. In the wake of the Charlottesville controversy, the Reverend Al Sharpton absurdly suggested that public financial support of the monument cease and that the statue of Jefferson be moved to a private museum.
“When you look at the fact that public monuments are supported by public funds you’re asking me to subsidize the insult of my family,” Sharpton said. “I would repeat that the public should not be paying to uphold somebody who has had that kind of background. You have private museums, you have other things that you may want to do there.”
This is a shabby way to treat the legacy of a man who contributed in so many ways, great and small, to who we are today. The attacks on Jefferson are emblematic of the overall assault on the Founding, an attempt to eject from our institutions, culture, and people the philosophy that underpins the American Republic and has left a permanent stamp on the American character.
What the Left Really Hates Is America Itself
From the perspective of the modern Left, that philosophy, that Republic, and that American character are all problematic—in dire need of being “fundamentally transform[ed].” The Founding of the United States was a pivotal moment not just in American history but in all of human history. What the Founders achieved was the creation not just of a new nation but of a “novus ordo seclorum”—a new order of the ages.
The thirteen colonies, with a population of only about three million people—roughly equivalent to the population of Arkansas today—produced one of the most extraordinary generations ever to grace the earth. Gaining Independence from Great Britain, the preeminent world power at the time, was itself impressive. But even more important, the Founders, drawing on the wisdom of millennia of philosophy and history, defined what it meant to be a free country.
They transformed their collection of colonies, at the time little more than a New World backwater, into the focus of Western civilization. In a few short centuries, this fledgling republic, once a rare outlier in a sea of monarchies and other tyrannical governments, bloomed into the most powerful nation on earth.
But it has always drawn sustenance from its original dedication to freedom. Expanding on that tradition, America became the “Empire of Liberty” Jefferson once dreamed about.