Over the last several days presidents have been in the news, one way or another. In this case the lucky winners are Thomas Jefferson and Warren G. Harding, two men whose personal lives have been the subject of sustained scrutiny.
First, out of nowhere, came this op-ed about Jefferson. Doubtless it was spurred by news that across the country, state Democratic parties are renaming their traditional “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinners, a sure sign that we are to embark on another discussion of political correctness (and, for all I know, “activist historians,” a term coined by a few unhappy right-of-center bloggers who seem blind to their own political activism and prejudices and how that shapes what they have to say). Professor Robert Turner, who teaches at the law school at the University of Virginia (on national security policy), is unhappy with this turn of events, and so he wants to remind us of Jefferson’s antislavery credentials, including his efforts to bar slavery from the western territories in 1784. Turner reminds us that Jefferson “denounced slavery as ‘an abominable crime,’ and struggled for decades to eliminate it.”
To simplify Jefferson’s views on slavery (let alone race) in such a fashion does violence to the historical record, but Professor Turner wants to feel comfortable about Jefferson. I understand the sentiment. During my four years as a UVA undergraduate, people always struggled to find a version of Jefferson to support whatever they believed (“what would Mr. Jefferson do?” was a common refrain in various discussions). People often discussed Jefferson, slavery, and race, just as much as they examined the intersection of the private and public man, most notably in discussing rumors that Jefferson had bedded slave (and half-sister-in-law) Sally Hemings in a relationship that produced several offspring. Professor Turner’s determined to share his feelings about that as well. Simply put, he tells us it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, we learn that Washington never said anything about abolishing slavery during his lifetime, and that Lincoln remained silent on the subject until 1854, a finding that will astonish people who are familiar with his earlier career, including his time in Congress and in his 1852 eulogy of Henry Clay.
One could argue that “political correctness” swings both ways here. Conservatives, after all, embrace their own form of “politically correct” history even as they denounce others for the same shortcoming. In their time, both Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind were “politically correct” versions of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Students of Jefferson’s life and beliefs know that the story of Jefferson, slavery, and race is a tad more complicated than that offered by Professor Turner. To point this out outrages some people (including one blogger, who went haywire on Twitter when I suggested the article was flawed and declared that to point out such issue “was typical of you Brooks Simpson,” as if it was a bad thing). Talk about an activist historian abandoning scholarly dispassion and objectivity to advance a personal agenda!
Professor Turner also terms Jefferson a “reluctant racist.” Well, that’s reassuring. I’ll remember that when reading “Notes on the State of Virginia” or John C. Miller’s The Wolf by the Ears:Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (1977), an oldie but goodie from my days in Charlottesville (yes, I know there’s been more scholarship since … showoffs).
Compare this to the news today that DNA testing (an issue about which Jeffersonian scholars are a bit too familiar) apparently confirms what Nan Britton knew all along: that she had a six-year tryst with Senator and President Warren G. Harding that resulted in Britton giving birth to a daughter with Harding as the father. I can tell you that while far fewer people are invested in Harding’s legacy than they are in Jefferson’s, the private life of the 29th president has been the stuff of scandal, including a fine study by James Robenalt that highlights another Harding affair with national security implications. Although some people in the Harding family are still unhappy about this finding, others have accepted it, as does Robenalt, whose book expressed skepticism about it. Someone else may be unhappy at the reminder that Harding and Britton were intimate in a small room (in this case a closet) off the Oval Office, which seems to be a favorite place for such things to occur (note: the Oval Office now is not in the same location that it was during Harding’s presidency).
One doubts that this finding will have a major impact on Harding scholarship, in part because far fewer people are as invested in Harding as some are in Jefferson. This was not always the case, by the way: as a kid I took up my father’s interest in stamp collecting, and I was astonished at the number of stamps issued in the wake of Harding’s death that suggested that somebody liked him).
So what are we to make of all this?
First, some of the very people who decry “political correctness” or denounce “activist history” are blinded by their own advocacy of an interpretation of history that justifies their own sentiments and needs. That this is as much emotional as intellectual in origin is evident when one witnesses the desire of such folks to construct a strawman, an “other,” complete with vague allusions about what such people “must” believe … all of which tells me more about the architects of such delusions than it does about the ostensible target of their scorn.
Second, we still must ponder the crossroads of public and private lives in prominent people, including presidents. We often find that these junctions are messy indeed, filled with contradiction, conflict, and cognitive dissonance. Things are rarely as easy as we would like them to be.
Third, the concept of historical accuracy does not exist to make you feel comfortable. It is a principle that should guide real scholars in trying to find out what happened and why. In fact, it should be “typical” practice for historians. For someone to get upset about that tells us about them … maybe too much, in fact.