Is Thomas Jefferson a trusted name to brand on a school building?

Thomas Jefferson High School’s name is in debate for a change due to the Founding Father’s history as a slave owner, but News Editor Ian Von Orden disagrees with that notion.

Jefferson High School, in Portland, Oregon, from the north. Photo by Steve Morgan, 2017.

 

By Ian Van Orden

For those who have grown up in the United States of America, there are few names as recognizable as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson. Some of the founding fathers of our great country, these men fought for our independence against the British. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is chief among them.

Throughout the country, there are numerous landmarks, schools, streets, cities, counties and more named after Jefferson, many of which have existed for decades. Thomas Jefferson High School, located in Portland, is one of them.

According to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting, Thomas Jefferson High School serves the largest population of African-American students in Oregon. Recently, some questioned whether Jefferson is the best name for a school. The argument: Jefferson was a slave owner.

This is undisputedly true. As the owner of a plantation, one that was, at certain points in Jefferson’s life, one of the largest plantations in Virginia, it wasn’t unusual for him to own slaves. He also held racist beliefs regarding the African-American community, as many did, musing in some of his writings that they may not be inherently as intelligent as white men.

Taken at face value, this is a compelling argument against using his name. But that’s not where his story ends.

Throughout his life, Jefferson also worked to abolish slavery. No, he did not free many of his own slaves, some believe because of the debts he accrued against his plantation, but he was a consistent and constant advocate against the idea. He repeatedly pushed for legislation to ban or limit slavery, first in Virginia, then in several of the northern states.

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, he also called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” He believed slavery was unnatural, and truly did believe the famous words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson went even further in his initial draft of the Declaration, condemning slavery as a true injustice, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Though his condemnation would not be included in the final draft, the idea was there.

Though Jefferson was unable to ban slavery in his own lifetime, it is important to remember the times that he lived in as well. Slavery had existed a little over 200 years before his time, though the concept of slavery was around a lot longer, closer to several thousand years.

Though it seems obvious now how awful and evil the practice is, that was not how the vast majority of people looked at it in the late 1700s. Instead, it was seen as a simple part of life. The fact that Jefferson, and many of the other founding fathers even had the idea to attempt to ban slavery was a huge step in and of itself.

Around the world, different countries were just beginning to warm up to the idea of abolition. Many American territories would become some of the first to legislate anti-slavery laws, and in no small part because of people like Jefferson. Without the early voices who spoke out against slavery such as Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Franklin, it’s quite possible that the fight against slavery would have taken much longer.

As it were, the tension created by opposing views on slavery was a major factor contributing to the American Civil War over fifty years after the last of the founding fathers died. This should illustrate how deep-set this issue was from the very beginning of our country.

There is, however, another part to this discussion. Should the mistakes of the past overshadow the great deeds of people in history?

It’s easy to look back today, now that we, as a society, largely understand how despicable the practice of slavery was. Our understanding of morality, of what is right and wrong, has come a long way in the 250 years since our country was founded. Though there are still ignorant, sometimes evil people who still, to this day, hold racist or sexist views, we have largely cast off the ignorance of our past.

What we shouldn’t forget, though, is that it was a long path to get here. This year is only the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and though that event was a huge step forward for civil rights, it certainly was not the end of the journey towards true liberty for all people in our great country.

Even today we still struggle with certain aspects of liberty. Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that established same-sex marriage as a fundamental right, was only decided three years ago on June 26, 2015. Many of our current leaders did not support the idea of same-sex marriage at some point during their career, including some self-proclaimed progressive leaders such as Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama. Though each supported civil unions early, neither came out in support of gay marriage until the mid-2000s.

In comparison, the adulterous actions of perhaps the greatest man of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., are well documented. Though his actions were arguably immoral, do those actions overshadow the incredible deeds he accomplished for the civil rights movement? Of course not.

In today’s world, we obviously understand that adultery and slavery are not equivalent topics. We understand that slavery is despicable and evil. But that isn’t how most of the world viewed slavery in the past. Though we should absolutely remember the mistakes of those who came before us, we should also celebrate the ideas that were set forth by those same people rather than casting them aside because they did not have the same worldview that we have today.

It took our country over 200 years to acknowledge the basic truth that all people, regardless of their skin color or sex, should be afforded the same rights. Our founding fathers were enlightened people, but not by today’s standards. And despite society screaming in opposition, they championed an ideal that had never been explored before, one that would be strengthened and expanded by so many people who followed them.