What seems to have gotten the most attention is today's birthday boy: Thomas Jefferson. And while he said a lot of things that could make a 21st century student think he is the I Ching, the one that might get him booted from history classes across the country was:
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
There are many things to dislike about Thomas Jefferson but this is not one of them. Let me walk you through a few of my favorites.
When I was in school, the big thing about Jefferson (& a measure of his greatness) was that upon his death, in his will even, all his slaves were to be freed. But they were not, nor is there any evidence he intended they should be. They were sold to settle his debts. That's right, after living as large as he could manage with slaves, he never freed them, as the myth relates.
He was not a particularly good father, even to the two daughters he acknowledged. As for those other children, their descendants went on to sue the DAR & won the right to be members despite the color of their skin. My gut tells me Jefferson would have liked this, although he probably would not have done anything to help.
Which brings us to the whole Sally Hemming's thing. I am not going to go into that here: I think Chris Rock has covered it most effectively. What could I say anyway, that he was no different from other Massas? Isn't it amazing that this is NOT what might get him knocked off the Uncle Of Our Country pedestal?
Other things not to admire: he was not a savvy or even attentive businessman. He had little patience for anyone he did not like & even then he was not what anyone would call charming. The list goes on.
But to his credit there is one thing Thomas Jefferson probably would do. He would probably ask why he gets so much more press than other signers of the Declaration of Independence, After all, what do we know about John Hancock except his name now means "signature" & is most closely associated with a financial institution founded in 1862 & not even by his descendants? Would it be better for everyone if we all knew, as a matter of course, the he was actually the First Presidential-type front-runner & fully expected the nomination but his fellow representatives did not think the Southern delegations could get behind him, that whole anti-slavery thing, & nominated George Washington instead? I think it might.
Or what about Roger Sherman, always a favorite of mine? He was part of the delegations from Connecticut, a truly self-made man trained & worked as a cobbler (think Manolo Blahnik, but more useful), taught himself mathematics, classics, etc. Sure this mostly meant he read about them in books but he had to lay his hands on the books to read them. Then he studied law, & then he...it goes on. He is also the only person to have signed all four of the key documents: the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and the Constitution. If you only know what two of these are, maybe you should be asking yourself why that is.
Maybe what Thomas would do is ask us to ask why we already don't know much about anyone or anything except a few cherry-picked characters. I also think he could offer a suggestion to those trying to keep his ideas front & center: hold your press conferences in front of his monument. Make sure everyone knows that building behind you is dedicated to the intellect of a man your local government does not want you to know about. Nothing tempts like forbidden fruit; Mr. Jefferson knew that, too.