The Founding Father vs. Founding Father: The war over Thomas Jefferson’s statue

More than two years ago, the city of New York commissioned an advisory panel to study how best to honor Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father and Virginia governor. After listening to public and elected officials, it made its recommendations on Sept. 28. It voted 9-1 to install a statue of Jefferson near the other members of the United States House of Representatives, in honor of the War of 1812.

Thus began the great battle of Jefferson vs. Jefferson over whether the city should honor the key influence of one of its founding fathers and whether one of the founding fathers should enjoy honor outside a museum or a city landmark.

This conflict has been going on now for more than 20 years. The Jeffersonian North fought for four years to keep the statue of Jefferson outside the Museum of the American Revolution on Massachusetts Avenue. In the end, the fight and the long debate dragged on for seven years before, on Oct. 11, the vote was finally made on the recommendation for a statue to be installed. The statue will be next to two other likenesses of Benjamin Franklin in the lobby of New York City Hall and placed in bronze.

Historically, it’s true that Franklin fought to keep the Jefferson statue removed. Franklin wanted the statue to be placed outside an armory. In the debate, he said, “Everyone should see the face of a man who gave his life in defense of his country, and, without hesitation, we should deny the right of putting it on any other scale or association.”

Randall W. Johnson, a member of the commission that made the recommendation, said he is not sure why Jefferson would have wanted to keep the statue inside of the museum. But even some of the Jeffersonians who have questioned the legitimacy of Franklin’s views about Jefferson agree with the recommendation. “My father is a mountain man, an engineer, and he will say if I agree with you, I agree with you.” This is what Jefferson said to Charles Evans Hughes in an 1852 letter when Hughes objected to having Jefferson’s likeness on display at Monticello.

There has also been a theme in American history of Jefferson himself as characteristically seeking things outside of the mainstream. He was very hesitant about going to New York to make fortunes in the fur trade. Franklin refused a commission to place Jefferson under glass in the Statuary Hall in Washington to be the most prominent American figure at the Capitol.

Yet the voices of the Jeffersonians on the panel that made the recommendation were outnumbered.

“In their consensus decisions, the Commission has shown that it works to honor those who deserve it the most,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘A portrait of the president is worth more than a thousand presidents; that a portrait of our first president is worth more than all our presidents,’ and in these tough financial times, I am proud to stand behind that statement.”

Jefferson’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, Susan Jefferson Bullock, on Thursday said she was pleased with the decision. “Thomas Jefferson has long been a beacon for good, hard work and quiet self-sacrifice,” she said. “It is a sad day in New York when a monument honoring so many American heroes is erected in the right place. And it is a good day for the Jefferson family to be proven correct about the right places for this tribute.”

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