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We the People: Jefferson’s legacy remains complicated, as shown by the reaction to his portrait in Pullman library

Anne Robertson moves a cart of books near an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson by Dan Piel in January at Neill Public Library in Pullman.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
Anne Robertson moves a cart of books near an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson by Dan Piel in January at Neill Public Library in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Catherine Buchaniec For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

The Neill Public Library in Pullman has delayed the opening of a new exhibit examining the life and complicated legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

The library’s education task force requested the exhibit be postponed so members could focus on Juneteenth events, said Joanna Bailey, the library’s director. The federal holiday every June 19 is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

The delay follows public outcry earlier this year over a portrait of Jefferson – the third president of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence who was also an enslaver – that hung near the library’s north entrance since last summer.

After considering the requests that the Neill Public Library remove the artwork, Bailey announced in March that it would run the Jefferson exhibit throughout May before moving the portrait to a different location in the library in June. The library rotates its artwork every year. The library, however, has yet to announce a new date for the Jefferson exhibit’s debut.

Sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent nationwide protests, activists nationwide have rallied behind the removal of memorials that some argue are associated with racial injustice. In November, New York City officials voted unanimously to remove a 19th-century statue of Jefferson that stood in City Hall for more than a century.

While many of the memorials removed or renamed depict members of the Confederacy, works associated with Jefferson have also faced heavy criticism.

Born in 1743, Jefferson is one of the most well-known founding fathers. A statesman, lawyer, author and architect, the Virginia native eventually rose to the presidency and has long been considered a champion of democracy. He penned the Declaration of Independence and frequently advocated for American liberty. Yet Jefferson was a man of many contradictions.

While he is frequently cited as a democratic icon, his legacy is simultaneously shaped by his role as an enslaver. Over the course of his life, Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people, including Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his deceased wife, Martha Jefferson. Hemings gave birth to several of Jefferson’s children.

For more than a century, many historians denied their sexual involvement, but since DNA evidence became available during the 1990s, the consensus among scholars has shifted toward acknowledgment of their relationship and children, adding to the discourse about how Jefferson ought to be remembered.

Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf, emeritus history professor at the University of Virginia, said Jefferson has long been the subject of controversy.

Even before contemporary debates over his involvement with Hemings, Jefferson was the subject of much contention, starting with the Declaration of Independence.

The document, which explained the grievances held by the 13 colonies against British rule, announced the colonies’ independence and launched the American Revolution. Although Jefferson is credited today as its primary author, that hasn’t always been the case, Onuf said.

At the time of the Revolution, the Continental Congress directly issued the declaration, leaving Jefferson’s part unknown. It wasn’t until a debate between Jefferson’s party – the Jeffersonian Republicans – and the Federalists years later that Jefferson’s role came to light, Onuf said.

“They needed a hero to put up against (George) Washington,” Onuf said. “By invoking the Declaration and Jefferson’s role as author, they were able to claim the higher authority of the people.”

Jefferson’s controversy with the declaration didn’t end there, Onuf said.

Although famous in its entirety, one line of the declaration in particular has been much debated: “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.”

What Jefferson meant by “all men” has long been disputed. For most of American history, the rights given to “all men” only applied to white men rather than the general populace.

Over time, the phrase has morphed into a rallying cry for those seeking equal rights, such as civil rights activists and suffragettes, calling into question the line’s true meaning.

While some have argued that Jefferson expected “all men” to only apply to the few rather than the many, Onuf believes Jefferson intended for the line to be applied universally, explaining that the document’s intention was to mobilize the public.

“He wasn’t the father or savior of this country,” Onuf said. “But he was the man who enabled Americans to collectively declare their independence.”

Reading the declaration only as an exclusionary document misses what Jefferson intended, Onuf said. Jefferson, he explained, believed in progress and hoped to inspire the American public through the imagined benefits of a better tomorrow.

He also pointed toward the document’s reputation abroad, explaining that its words have impacted the globe.

“The history of the declaration is that it inspired interests throughout the world and in various forms was adapted and adopted to declare the independence of other peoples, and that’s what Jefferson had in mind,” Onuf said.

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