Ian Cooper

We are all Thomas Jefferson

Ian Cooper
We are all Thomas Jefferson

The Jefferson Memorial. Photo by Kerr Photography. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Students and professors at the University of Virginia recently protested the university president, Teresa Sullivan, after she wrote a series of emails to students in which she quoted Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university. The protesters argued that quoting Mr. Jefferson was offensive because he owned slaves. Ms. Sullivan has defended her writing.

Everyone has good points here. Mr. Jefferson helped many people. He stood up for freedom and human rights, served as President, and wrote some of the most significant and powerful words in American history: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Mr. Jefferson also hurt many people. He owned a plantation where he enslaved hundreds of fellow human beings. While in his earlier years, he worked to limit slavery and pass legislation allowing slaves to be set free, once he became president, he did nothing to change the status quo. 

Reasonable people will disagree over whether the good actions outweighed the bad. But rather than focusing on judging Mr. Jefferson as either, I think there is great benefit to seeing him as a mirror. Maybe if we see the contradictions in him, we can acknowledge them in ourselves. 

Who among us hasn’t said one thing and then done another? Who among us hasn’t done that often? Who among us wanted to do the right thing and done wrong instead? Most of my writing is about practicing love and kindness, yet I have committed many unloving and unkind acts. 

To live a human life is to be full of contradictions. If we can see our own contradictions and our own hypocrisies and our own flailing about, then we can understand ourselves in a more mature way. Better still, we can move beyond understanding into compassion. 

If we look at ourselves with compassion, we don't have to be heroes or villains. We don’t have to be perfect, or close to it. We can just be human beings. We can forgive instead of judge, and take it easy on ourselves and our fellows.

If we put anyone on a pedestal, they will disappoint us. But if we can see that everyone is doing their best with where they are, and that people do eventually change and grow for the better, we can bring greater ease and serenity to our lives. 

Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.