WASHINGTON, PA (Feb. 16, 2018)—Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) ended its inaugural Symposium on Democracy Thursday, Feb. 15 with a discussion of the founding fathers for whom the college is named.
Dr. Richard Carwadine, FRHistS, FBA, FLSW, Professor of American History and Former President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, sat down with W&J’s Assistant Professor of History David Kieran, Professor of English Carolyn Kyler, and Assistant Dean of Student Life for Inclusive Campus Engagement Ketwana Schoos to examine the legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson through a 21st century lens. W&J President John C. Knapp served as a moderator for the discussion.
The panel considered how society can remember Washington and Jefferson for their contributions to our national ideals and how we can reconcile this with the actuality of the two men as slave-owners and flawed individuals.
“It’s not just that the words and actions of our founding fathers were diametrically opposite, but that the words and the words were diametrically opposed,” said Kyler as she considered the written works of Jefferson, comparing the equality stressed in the Declaration of Independence to the troubling “Notes on the State of Virginia” in which he wrote about his belief that white and black people could not live together in a free society.
“In the face of these…words of the Jefferson that I love and the Jefferson that I am terribly uncomfortable with, I think about legacy. What is it from Jefferson that is still important to us now and that is usable and good in the 21st century?” she asked.
As the discussion continued, conversations shifted to the way that these men and others have been memorialized in society. Carwadine noted that it’s important to expand our view of history and have conversations around these icons, but that clarifications must be made on why these creations exist and the time that they have come from.
“As one of my Oxford colleagues said, we need more history, not less. But let us be sure when we add to history, we are very clear in explicating why we have to add to that history,” he said.
All agreed, though, that the most important part of the conversation is to make sure that it happens. History must be viewed from all angles, even when they are not always flattering.
“We have built memorials for Washington and Jefferson—we remember Washington and Jefferson because of their legacy, not because of the parts of [them] that are disappointing,” Kieran said. “At the same time, that doesn’t absolve us from the hard conversations. We must fight the urge to stay silent about what is unpleasant.”
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.