Remembering Jefferson and Adams: Moving Beyond the Confrontation in Charlottesville


2017-08-21 By Kenneth Maxwell

The long and troubled legacy of slavery unfolded again last weekend in Charlottesville, which is the home of the University of Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson designed its Rotunda.

His recently restored statue stands before it.

This is where the white “nationalists” marched with their burning torches, as well as gathering at the statue in Charlottesville of the Confederate military commander, General Robert E Lee.

Charlottesville is close to Jefferson’s hill top mansion of Monticello.

As President Donald Trump pointed out in an angry confrontation with the press at Trump Tower in Manhattan this week, Jefferson was a major slave owner. As was his fellow Virginian and America’s first president, George Washington.

The foundation of the University of Virginia was among Jefferson’s proudest achievements and the third he wished recorded on the epitaph he wrote for himself for the obelisk he designed to stand over his grave at Monticello.

This was the third achievement mentioned after the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

Jefferson’s close adviser on the curriculum for his new university and its projected botanical garden was the Abbe Jose Correa da Serra, the ambassador to the United States from the then Rio de Janeiro based “United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil.”

The erudite Correa da Serra was the founding secretary of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences where he had delivered a eulogy for Benjamin Franklin, who had been Jefferson’s predecessor as U.S. envoy in Paris. Correa da Serra was a frequent visitor to Jefferson at Monticello.

Jefferson wrote in 1821: “Mr. Correa’s approbation of the plan of principals of our university flatters me more than that of all its other eulogists because no other could be put in a line with him in science and comprehensive scope of mind.”

The Neo-Nazis, Klu Klux Klan, and White Supremacy advocates, who marched with burning torches in Charlottesville, were protesting the decision to remove the statue of the secessionist commander of the Confederate States. Their targets were not only African Americans. They also chanted virulent anti-Semitic slogans. At Jefferson’s and at General Lee’s statues they cried out:  “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”

Worried by the overt hostility of the neo-Nazis, the Charlottesville synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, complained that the police did not provide the requested protection.

One of Jefferson’s proudest achievements was the Virginia statute of religious freedom. In fact, his hill top mansion of Monticello owns its preservation to its purchase by Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy in 1834. The mansion was then in a state of near terminal disrepair. Commodore Levy was a Sephardic Jew. A veteran of the war of 1812, captured by the British he was held for sixteen months in England at Dartmoor prison. He served for half a century in the US Navy.

Despite the anti-Semitism of his fellow officers, he reached the highest rank, and commanded the US naval squadron in the Mediterranean. His uncle was hazan (minister) of the congregation Shearih Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue that was founded in New York City in 1654 by Portuguese Jews fleeing Recife after the fall of Dutch Brazil.

Commodore Levy made a lot of money like Trump in New York property.

He commissioned and donated the statue of Jefferson that now stands in Capitol in Washington. He admired Jefferson precisely because he “established our Republic in a manner whereby the religion of a man did not make him ineligible to participate in political life or in government.”

Jefferson was as controversial and hard hitting a politician as has ever held the Presidency.

He generated animosity and confrontation in his political life, but his focus on religious liberty was founded on the importance of accepting tolerance for opposing views. In his religious beliefs, he argued that one should be judged on how they act; not their stated religious creed.

What can be lost in the various confrontations recently in Charlottesville is the need to accept diversity, to accept differences of opinion and to protect the body politic against being undercut by violent confrontation whether from the right or left.

But Heather Heyer, who was peacefully protesting against the white supremacists in Charlottesville lost her life, when a car was driven at high speed by a racist and nazi sympathizer into the crowd where she was standing.

Trump said: “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” including those who “innocently” demonstrated against the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee.  Standing beside Trump at Trump Tower was Gary Cohn, his Jewish director of the White House’s Economic Council and former Goldman Sachs president. As was Steven Mnuchin, another former Goldman Sachs veteran, who is Trump’s Jewish Secretary of the Treasury.

After the violence at Charlottesville, the chiefs of all the branches of the US Armed Forces issued unprecedented statements repudiating racism.

The head of the Marine Corps wrote: There is “no place of racial hatred or extremism…”

Among those who resigned from Trump’s business council (before Trump preempted them by dissolving it) was Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, who has already received over 400,000 signatures of protest at his links to Trump. Gary Cohn is said to be “upset” and “disgusted” by Trump’s comments. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management has said that markets would crash if Cohn resigned. But Cohn has his eye of becoming the next chairman of the Federal Reserve (the US Central Bank), which may constrain him from jumping ship now.

Trump has lost his White House “chief strategist” and advisor, Steve Bannon, the latest exit from Trump’s inner circle, much to the relief of the Democrats, as well as many Republicans, in the Congress.

But Trump is far from retreating from his comments on the Charlottesville confrontations, again denouncing on his twitter account the removal of the “beautiful” Confederate statues as “foolish.”

Trump’s Jewish convert daughter Ivanka, and his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, might also have something to say about the virulent Anti-Semitic Neo-Nazi’s who marched in Charlottesville.

Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia was inspired by the Patheon in Rome. It represented for Jefferson: “The authority of nature and the power of reason.” Jefferson was certainly a slave owner as Trump says. But he was also the author of the Declaration of Independence which proclaimed that all men are created equal.

His words on the Rotunda at the University of Virginia are noble aspirations.

But Jefferson was no saint, nor a stranger to political confrontation.

Negative campaigning in the United States is not new. It can be traced back to the campaign of Jefferson versus Adams for President. The tone and substance of the criticisms rivals anything seen today in the United States.

Things got ugly fast. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.

As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”

It is the legacy of Jefferson to support the rule of law, the equality of man and to focus on the right of free debate, which needs to be recalled in a time of confrontation.

And to remember his challenge to all those driving rivets of division in the American system:

“The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people.”

He also added to that challenge the following: “To restore… harmony… to render us again one people acting as one nation should be the object of every man really a patriot.”

Former president John Adams and former president Thomas Jefferson in the end had one of the most memorable reconciliations in American History, and conducted in the process one of American History’s finest and most mutually respectful correspondences.

And, certainly unintended, a symbolic reconciliation was that they both died on the same day, July 4, 1826 and within five hours of each other.

We can remember their confrontation; but more memorable was the reconciliation of political rivals and opponents.

Not an easy task but one which Americans are certainly capable of doing.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Maxwell visited the University of Virginia and lectured on the friendship and the accomplishments of Jefferson with Correa da Serra. 

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