University of Virginia students “are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.”
This seemingly innocuous quote had approximately 500 students and faculty members at the University of Virginia up in arms, because Thomas Jefferson had said it almost 200 years ago. They decided to petition the president of the school, Teresa Sullivan, to ask her to refrain from quoting Jefferson in the future, because he had owned slaves.
Jefferson, of course, founded UVA as Virginia’s first true public university in 1825.
This latest campus controversy began the days after the election, when Sullivan emailed the entire UVA community urging them to come together. Sullivan is no stranger to quoting Jefferson in her communications to students, but her quote in the email after the election proved to be too much for some who were “deeply offended” by it, and the petitioning commenced.
Professor Robert Turner was particularly outspoken against the letter, saying that “I think it represents ignorance and insult to the University. The students and faculty who have signed this [petition] ought to be ashamed of themselves, but again, it’s also an opportunity to educate people about Jefferson.”
Turner also commented on Jefferson’s ownership of slaves: “Jefferson did own slaves, which is the petition’s primary objection, but when he inherited them from his father and his father-in-law upon their deaths, it was illegal to free them. Jefferson was the man that wrote the first statute that ultimately passed in 1782 that allowed slave owners to free their slaves.”
Turner added that Jefferson’s language for an ordinance in the Northwest Territories was the basis for the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall be included in the territory except in punishment of a crime… that’s the language of the 13th Amendment 70 years later. The men who introduced the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery intentionally chose Jefferson’s language because of his life long struggle against slavery.”
Needless to say, Turner did not sign the petition calling on Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson in the future.
The petition also did nothing to change Sullivan’s mind. Sullivan responded to the petition, saying that while she “fully endorse[s] their right to speak out on issues that matter to all of us, including the University’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy,” but that “quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from the University.”
A rival petition has also been launched to “Protect Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy at the University of Virginia,” and as of this writing has almost 2,000 signatures.
If the anti-Jefferson petitioners truly believed that everything positive that Jefferson did in his life was hopelessly outweighed by the fact that he had owned slaves, they might have to look for a school that Jefferson did not found.