Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Moving Jefferson

This week, New York City Council officials unanimously voted to remove the 7-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, from the City Council Chamber. The statue - commissioned in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom in the armed forces - is a plaster model of the bronze statue of Jefferson by the celebrated French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers which stands in the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington. It has been at City Hall since 1834. (At first, Levy charged admission to view his statue and used the proceeds to feed the poor.) It has graced the NYC Council chamber since the 1910s.

The desecration and removal of statues (preferable to the execution of actual people practiced, for example, by the French Revolution which Jefferson so enthusiastically welcomed) is a peculiar contemporary example of symbolic expressive politics, which can generate lots of attention and anger on all sides, while conveniently accomplishing nothing positive for anyone in any actual need. This is to be distinguished, obviously, from the justified efforts to purify our country of monuments to Civil War traitors. (Jefferson was, of course, also a traitor - but to the Kingdom of Great Britain, as it was then known. so one should not expect a statue of Jefferson in Westminster Hall or at Windsor Castle. On the other hand, there is a statue of Jefferson in Paris, the capital of Britain's traditional enemy and the Americans' main ally in their war for independence)

Apart from the special case of the Confederate traitors, I am no great fan of eradicating the public honor accorded to historical figures whose accomplishments are deserving of our memory. I include Jefferson in this, although he was far from my favorite among the Founding Fathers. In the great rivalry between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, I remain completely on Hamilton's side. His was a far better image of what America could become and a more realistic expectation of what it would become. The Broadway play Hamilton is no substitute for reading and studying The Federalist Papers, but - in this age of massive historical ignorance and unprincipled political posturing - it is an excellent introduction to Hamilton's heroic life and stellar achievements.

If statues  and other expressions of public art are going to be continually controversial, perhaps we should eliminate all public art and render our public spaces naked of all artistic expression (not unlike some modern churches). That would be aesthetically disastrous and soul-destroying, but maybe more honest than the selective reimagining of a history which must inevitably be different from however we imagine the present.  As L.P. Hartley famously said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It is the task of history to examine and illuminate the past in all its difference and complexity. It is the task of politics, educated and informed by history, to resolve conflicts and allocate and mobilize power in the present (and in the process become the history for the future to learn from in turn).

"These judicious reflections contain a lesson of moderation to all sincere lovers of the union, and ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, a perpetual alienation of the states from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from TIME and EXPERIENCE." (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 85).

(PhotoThe statue of Thomas Jefferson in New York’s City Hall,  a model of the bronze statue that sits in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. Dave Sanders for The New York Times.)

Credit.Dave Sanders for The New York Times 

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