Is Jefferson being erased from history?

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tags: Jefferson

One of our most venerable magazines, the Atlantic Monthly, has published an article suggesting that the new hit musical, Hamilton, does serious damage to Thomas Jefferson’s reputation. The author cites the show as further evidence that “Jefferson’s star may be fading.” Democrats are erasing his name from political dinners because of his slave-owning history. A Gettysburg College professor recently told us that Abraham Lincoln “hated Thomas Jefferson.” In 2012, when historian Henry Wiencek published a controversial book on Jefferson as a slave master, the New York Times called him “The monster of Monticello.”

In the musical, Jefferson is a well dressed dandy who avoided fighting in the war and – – for a man who wrote the phrase “all men are created equal” -- holds hypocritical positions about slave ownership and women’s rights. “Hey neighbor. Your debts are paid because you don’t pay for labor,” Hamilton snaps at Jefferson during one of the play’s cabinet face offs. Hamilton represents everything currently in the Zeitgeist – he is an immigrant, an orphan and a self-made man. Jefferson represents everything that is out of fashion. He’s a slave owning aristocrat. Despite promises to free his 175 slaves upon his death, Jefferson only freed five – those related to his mistress Sally Hemings. Jefferson doesn’t show up until the musical’s second act. The American Revolution is over when he returns from Paris. “What did I miss?” he sings, dressed in a foppish purple velvet outfit, dancing across the stage like a dilettante. “I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies. I guess I basically missed the late ‘80s.”

In a 1996 article for the Atlantic Monthly, the Irish historian Conor Cruise O’Brien predicted Jefferson would soon have no place in American history: “I believe that in the next century as blacks and Hispanics and Asians acquire increasing influence in American society, the Jeffersonian liberal tradition will become socially and politically untenable.” The Atlantic concludes that the Puerto Rican born creator of the musical, Lin Manuel Miranda, has indeed made Jefferson seem socially and politically untenable. The question is, will the urge to re-examine an American icon catch on?

Read entire article at The Newsletter of the New York American Revolution Round Table (special to HNN)

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