Recent situations such as defacing Thomas Jefferson's statue at his alma mater and renaming institutions associated with slaveholders from former times reveal limitations in our conceptions of history.
Students in a rigorous history curriculum learn classic tenets such as how to evaluate sources and make reliable inferences. Contemporary academic trends such as counter-factualism yield more supple understandings: how facts and their interpretation can change based on contexts, and how making a case for a position and then its opposite expose basic assumptions and flaws in arguments.
We face a central dilemma for our times: how do we generate a compassionate and respectful understanding of differences, allow for myriad expressions of identity all the while disclosing common ground and discovering paths that lead us away from nihilistic rancor and extremism?
Perhaps we can enlighten ourselves by viewing history as a liberal art — a core of the humanities — and looking to the hard sciences for metaphors of understanding.
The process we seek is synthesis: standing on the ground of a classical past uplifted by vistas afforded by science. Like the Roman deity Janus, we must look to the past and future while reconciling opposites in our present. All times, all cultures, and all persons have strengths and vulnerabilities: how do we recognize and draw on the upside while honestly assessing the downside without violent rejection?
Our founders comprehended this. James Madison studied the histories of republics in preparing himself for the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson used the metaphor of slavery in justifying release from the bonds of British authority through the Declaration of Independence. George Washington achieved this release through irony and unintended consequence: losing more battles than he won, yet going on to American victory in the War for Independence. As a nation we have employed the old as a launching pad for the new. Our system is like jet propulsion: yes, we have excluded, but in this process we have propelled ourselves forward by using inclusion as thrust. This is why all lives matter in a context of universal and fair application of Constitutional governance and law.
In my affiliation as a board member of the Jefferson Legacy Foundation, I seek to create circumstances for contemplating these founding ideals in American history. Approaching Jefferson in a setting of dispassionate reflection and compassion may raise us above the meticulous restoration of his physical world, the editorial curating of his writings, the polemic of academic discourse, the superficialities of public history to an appreciation of ourselves as flawed human beings with magnificent capacities.
Maturely understanding what inspires and challenges us regarding Jefferson is the most unique product of the Jefferson Legacy Foundation. We seek to foster contexts for this approach. The intended consequence would be an engaging renewal within ourselves and for our world. Like Jefferson, we aim for a harmonious reconciliation of our head and our heart realizing the fineness of our humanity
LaClair is a Jefferson Legacy Foundation Board Member and a 1973 alumna of the College of William and Mary.