In 1833, Uriah P. Levy commissioned two statues of Thomas Jefferson.
As the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, Levy overcame anti-Semitism within the ranks. Levy credited his ability to serve as a religious minority to “one of the greatest men in history … [who] serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans [and] did much to mould our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.”
Eight years after Jefferson’s death, Levy purchased and restored the former president’s home at Monticello and commissioned the celebrated French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, to create these two statues in his likeness. With a pen in his hand and the Declaration of Independence at his side, a bronze version stands today as the only privately commissioned statue in the Capitol Rotunda. Its twin in painted plaster was donated to New York City where it stood in the city hall for almost two centuries until this November when it was boxed up and carted away.
“It should be destroyed,” says former Assemblyman Charles Barron of Jefferson’s likeness in New York City. “A statue should be for those who we honor for their exemplary service and duty to all of this country, not just the white race.”
He has a point, but misses the target.
Our public statues should remember those who made contributions of universal value. That is why Levy commissioned statues to the Father of the Declaration of Independence. Not only did Jefferson author our country’s mission statement—“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”—he devoted his life to advancing that mission through every institution of American life, including religious freedom, universal education, and the abolition of slavery.
Born into a wealthy slave-owning family, Jefferson was a slave owner. This much his critics have right. Focusing on this fact in isolation, however, is “ahistorical” and “ripped out of context,” says Kevin Gutzman, Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University and author of Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary, in a recent conversation I had with him.
Gutzman notes that “slavery once was a universal institution,” crediting leading founders for deciding, “at a given point in the history of the world, this needs to go—we need to get rid of it.” They did not have the power to overturn the system all at once, but “having been born into a world in which [slavery] was a very important part of life, they left a world in which it was doomed and going to end.”
Among this generation, Jefferson stands out in his lifelong pursuit of abolition.
Elected at twenty-six to the Virginia House of Burgesses, one of Jefferson’s first acts was an effort to gradually abolish slavery in Virginia. With little standing to advance the radical cause, he recruited a senior lawmaker to cosponsor a proposal to emancipate every enslaved person born after a date certain upon adulthood. The legislature turned against them, calling his elder cosponsor an enemy of the country. In his autobiography, Jefferson reflected that Virginia was not ready to abolish slavery. Still, he persisted.
Through his law practice, Jefferson represented enslaved persons suing for their freedom. Before the court, he argued, “under the law of nature, all men are born free, and every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” In the years that followed, these antislavery arguments echo throughout his revolutionary writings, including the Declaration of Independence.
Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project may claim the Declaration of Independence “a lie” drafted by “white men” who implied a black exemption in the words “all men are created equal,” but four of the five members of the drafting committee went on to lead abolition efforts in their own states. John Adams and Roger Sherman wrote the laws outlawing slavery in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Ben Franklin was the president of an abolition society that petitioned Congress to abolish slavery during its very first session.
In addition to his own efforts in Virginia, Jefferson’s first drafts of the declaration decried slavery as a “cruel war against human nature, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.” Congress—reacting to opposition from South Carolina, Georgia, and northern states profiting from the triangular slave trade—struck these words from the final document. Still, Jefferson poetically amended John Locke’s liberal credo, “life, liberty, and property,” to remove any claim “property” might imply the right to own people.
As he rose in national politics, Jefferson authored the first draft of the Northwest Ordinance, which outlawed slavery throughout the Midwest. Additionally, his Ordinance of 1784 sought to outlaw slavery in new western states admitted to the Union. The provision failed by a single vote. “The voice of a single individual … would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country,” he wrote years later. “Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment!”
Once in the White House, Jefferson called on Congress to ban slave importation at the earliest constitutional date, signing the policy into law in 1806 Even Paul Finkelman, a legal historian and one of Jefferson’s most ardent living critics, concedes in his book, Slavery and the Founders, this law saved hundreds of thousands of Africans from enslavement.
“Jefferson took more substantial steps against slavery than anyone else in his generation,” says Barbara Oberg of Princeton University. Like many liberal ideals of the American Revolution, however, he could not complete the project in a single lifetime.
In his later years, however, writing to a young supporter in the Virginia abolitionist movement, he told of his long-held hope that young people—raised in a republican society—would be more sensitive to the wrongs of slavery than the prerevolutionary generation who had once scolded him as a young man in the House of Burgesses. “The hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. It will come.” Jefferson would not live to see the day, but future generations would adopt his cause and make it so.
Commodore Levy commissioned these statues for a man who set high ideals for a nation. Whatever personal failings Jefferson may have held in life, those statues have stood two centuries for the advancement of individual human liberty. If those ideals remain our guideposts as a country, then those statues of Jefferson must continue to stand.
This article was written by Eric Brakey and originally published by Mises Institute. You can access the original link by clicking here.