Jefferson Who? Democrats Are Disowning Their Founders

In several states, the Democratic party is dropping the name of slave-owning presidents from annual fundraising dinners.
by | July 31, 2015
Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, left, and Andrew Jackson, right (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Matt Hennessy attended the Connecticut Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner recently. He was surprised when Nick Balletto, the party's chair, announced that the name of the dinner will change next year.

Like other state and local Democrats around the country, those in Connecticut for decades have named their annual dinner after two of the party's primary founders: Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. But after the killing of nine worshippers last month at a church in Charleston, S.C., party leaders have been rethinking the wisdom of honoring the two slave-owning presidents.

"Their names on this party event have the potential to interfere with party unity by appearing to honor slaveholders and an oppressor of Native Americans," said Hennessy, a Democratic consultant. (Jackson pursued a policy of "Indian removal" that might be likened to ethnic cleansing.)

Connecticut Democrats aren't alone. The state parties in Georgia and Missouri have also dropped Jefferson and Jackson from the name of their functions, and other state parties -- including those in Arkansas, Iowa and South Carolina -- are likely to follow suit.

It's in keeping with other debates that are taking place around political symbols such as the display of the Confederate flag. Minnesota is debating whether to remove paintings from its capitol that depict white settler and Army attacks on American Indians. (Although admittedly those paintings are not as blatantly offensive as the Indian slaughter murals at the fictional City Hall in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.)

"As far as these symbolic gestures, these are perfectly legitimate, fine and polite things to do," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

But he cautioned that removing the name or images of old-time leaders who acted in ways that many now find abhorrent is not sufficient.

"We need not only to erase this stuff, but confront it," Thompson said.

Many are concerned that the "PC police" threaten to worsen historical amnesia by portraying leaders of the past as villains. Jefferson owned slaves, but he also wrote the Declaration of Independence, among other accomplishments still worth celebrating.

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Shutterstock)

"There is a universe of difference between Jefferson and Jackson," said Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello, a Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the family sired by Thomas Jefferson with his slave Sally Hemings. "Jefferson was a slave owner, but he authored words that have been used by black Americans, and others seeking inclusion into full citizenship, since the founding."

The memory of Jefferson has been distorted by political groups of various strips misattributing various quotes and positions to him, said Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information.

"As people know less and less of American history, what remains is only the snippets -- 'slave owner,' 'Indian fighter' -- which turns this into a conversation you might just as well want to avoid," Nunberg said.

Parties might do well to continue remembrance of worthy leaders of the past, while also adding new and more contemporary figures who represent a wider range of historical participants, said Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the moderate strain in the GOP over the past half-century.

Republicans traditionally named their annual dinner after Abraham Lincoln, but many state and local parties have added the name of Ronald Reagan in recent years.

"The urge to represent different people is there," Kabaservice said. "Seeing yourself in politics is a more and more important part of politics nowadays."

It appears at this point that the historical baggage that Jefferson and Jackson carry outweigh the value for Democrats of holding them up as exemplars.

Jefferson, who supported the idea of revising the Constitution itself every generation, probably wouldn't so much mind branches of his party taking his name off their fundraising dinners, suggested Gordon-Reed, who teaches history at Harvard.

"Thomas Jefferson believed that each generation should chart its own course," she said. "He wanted to be remembered but would understand if Americans of today wanted to honor other Americans who have made contributions."