With the release of Steven Spielberg's epic movie biopic, Lincoln, the debate about another early American president appears to have resurfaced with a new intensity.
Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, has always had something of an albatross around his neck because of his relationship with slavery. A newly released book by Henry Wiencek, “Master of the Mountain,” attempts to further expose this dark side of Jefferson’s life.
Last week, a New York Times op-ed by Paul Finkelman, was equally damning in its verdict about our esteemed Founding Father. If the current flow against him gathers momentum, and his detractors are allowed to arbitrarily paint over all of his astonishing achievements, a complete reshaping of Jefferson's legacy may be on the horizon.
But how can we bring ourselves to forgive such a negative side to someone's life in the face of so much good? A lifetime of public service that produced one of the most important documents in human history, the pivotal Louisiana Purchase, and extraordinary advances in education and freedom of religion.
Forgiving can, and must, be done -- and not just for Jefferson, but also for all historical characters whose contributions of good outweigh the bad.
Fast-forward a century later to Winston Churchill, another national leader during a time of crisis. I have certain personal feelings toward Churchill. Growing up in the suburbs of London, with parents who emigrated from India, I heard nothing but glowing tributes to this great national icon. The fearless leader who stood up to Adolf Hitler and led the country in its brave solitary fight against the Nazis.
As I got older and began to learn more about Churchill, I was horrified to hear of his racist, derogatory views toward Indians. Of one of the world's greatest freedom fighters, he said: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."
It's well known that Churchill favored allowing Gandhi to die in prison. He was also quoted saying: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."
Those Indians he was talking about were my grandparents; thoroughly decent, law abiding and hard-working people who just wanted the simple right of self-rule. But it wasn't just Churchill’s words that were so offensive and hurtful. His deliberate policies are estimated to have starved millions of Indians during the famine of Bengal -- a loss of life on a terrible scale. The more I learned about this side to Churchill, the more dismayed I became. There's little doubt that had it been left to his bullish nature, India may never have even gained Independence.
I went through a period of disappointment and betrayal, because these aspects of Churchill's life seemed so conveniently forgotten. Yet over the years, I have become much less angry, and more reasoned in my approach to his legacy. Not only as I read more books about his fearless nature, but also through my job as a medical doctor I had the privilege of talking to dozens, if not hundreds, of people who lived through the war and constantly reaffirmed what a great leader he was.
As hard as it was, I found that I could not ignore Churchill's heroic qualities. I may have to constantly balance these against his views and acts against my ancestors, but he undoubtedly deserves to be held in high esteem for his service to his people and country.
So let's get back to Jefferson and the reasons to forgive, but not forget, certain parts of his legacy.
First, Jefferson had been born into the wicked culture of slavery -- his family was economically dependent on it. He lost his father at a young age, and had a big family to help bring up. He ended up tragically losing almost everyone he loved, but still soldiered on with his public duties.
From many of his statements, he knew that slavery was wrong. Jefferson once said: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and his justice cannot sleep forever." And: "I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation. He even went so far as to call slavery an "abominable crime."
When a vote to end slavery failed by one vote, he said, "thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man… and heaven was silent in that awful moment! But it is to be hoped it will not always be silent and that the friends to the rights of human nature will, in the end, prevail… no person hereafter coming into this country shall be held within the same in slavery under any pretext whatever…This abomination must have an end. And there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it.”
Was he a hypocrite? Probably. But a tyrant he was not, and he shouldn’t be condemned as such. He did have a conscience, and clearly knew somewhere inside that complex personality that slavery was morally wrong. It's a great shame for Jefferson's otherwise impeccable legacy to have this blot on him, but, as with Churchill, we have to ask: Was his influence for his country overwhelmingly positive despite being what we would call today a racist? The answer is yes.
Jefferson's views, however abhorrent, were not in isolation, and shared by many of his era. Had he been born today, a man of his intelligence and capabilities would have been just as forward-looking as the next person. The founding generation that fought for independence was engaged in a battle for their very survival, and, however painful to accept, the fight against slavery took a back seat at that time.
During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson was forced to abandon Monticello as the British armies advanced, and later as president there was the constant threat that the United States could disintegrate at any moment. These were the precarious times he lived in.
Talking to a friend who was from a Third World country, I asked him why the system in his nation was so unfair and unequal. He replied to me that all the "niceties" we take for granted in the West today -- whether they be equality, political transparency and justice for all -- can only possibly come about when a country is stable, unthreatened by war, and most of the population has enough food on their plates.
This is a very sad, but true, fact of history.
It is a very dangerous game to judge historical characters by today's acceptability standards. If we do this, even Abraham Lincoln would have held very questionable views (incidentally, Lincoln was a huge fan of Jefferson). Contrary to popular belief, Lincoln didn't believe that whites and blacks were equal and even pondered making free blacks leave the country. Will we eventually turn against him too?
The brutal truth is that many of our own grandparents would be harshly judged if we applied today's full equality measures. Where will our condemnation end? Will we rename all the monuments and institutions named after Jefferson? We simply cannot play this game with history.
Just as Winston Churchill's finest hour came during World War II, so too was Thomas Jefferson's in the founding of a new nation. And had it not been for the likes of Jefferson, who stood up bravely against a mighty king and empire, there may not have been an America for us be so free in today.
Paradoxical as this is, his critics would do well to remember it. Or perhaps, as Thomas Jefferson said himself, ““None of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love.””
Dr. Suneel Dhand is a practicing physician, and author of the book “Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha.” You can learn more about him at www.suneeldhand.com.