“Every man has two countries, his own and France.” This was the emphatic declaration of Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789. As president, he introduced the White House to Bordeaux wines, ice cream, and French fries. This hardly prevented him from criticizing the “dissolute morals” of the French; as ambassador, he had frequented only the court and libertine salons. During the same period, Lafayette consulted with him on the formulation of what would become the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was largely inspired by the American Declaration of Independence. It was fitting that Paris should honor Jefferson, which finally happened in 2006, with a bronze statue in the traditional style, sponsored by the Florence Gould Foundation. Striking a classic pose, Jefferson looks to the horizon, a quill pen in his right hand and a plan of his Virginia residence in the other. One could not blame the casual sightseer for missing this monument tucked away along the Seine. I confess I had walked by it without noticing it, or asking myself whom it represented.
The statue is close to the Musée d’Orsay, which specializes in nineteenth-century art—so no link with Jefferson. And the quay there is named after the novelist Anatole France—again, no connection. The statue stands at the entrance to the footbridge crossing the Seine in front of the Tuileries Gardens and named after Léopold Sédar Senghor. The Senegalese poet introduced the term négritude (which he intended in a positive sense) into the French language, while Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. It seems, in fact, that the Florence Gould Foundation chose the spot for its proximity to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, built by a German prince in the 1780s. Jefferson admired this palace, even using it as the model for his future residence, Monticello.
Our research on the placement of the statue would have little point if Jefferson’s name did not now provoke political controversy. Having begun 20 years ago in the New York mayor’s office, this scandal came to a head this past October, when the statue adorning the chamber of the city council was removed. A local group had successfully campaigned to have it taken out of the building because the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave owner.
Woke ideology is at work here. One can understand that an African-American of today might not wish to deliberate under the eyes of an owner of slaves, among whom may have figured one of his ancestors. But should not these woke elected officials also consider the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, which in the end prevailed over slavery? History becomes further complicated if we consider the origin of this statue: it is only a plaster copy of the original bronze, which stands in the Capitol rotunda in Washington. In the 1830s, the person who commissioned the plaster statue, Uriah Levy, charged local visitors to see it and used the money to help the poor. To banish Jefferson from City Hall is also an insult to charity: Levy had ordered the work at his own expense from the famous French sculptor Pierre-Jean David d’Angers because Jefferson had given citizenship to the Jews—an unprecedented emancipation in Western civilization. This allowed Levy to become the first Jewish senior officer in the U.S. Navy. The scales of judgment become more and more loaded, and Jefferson’s character more complex.
How can we decide? The simple solution is to strike a pose: I am woke, down with Jefferson the slave owner! Or, I am anti-woke: long live Jefferson, who liberated America from British colonization and religious discrimination! In today’s world, it is not fashionable to adopt a moderate position. But can we not recall that we are all citizens of our own era? Today’s truth is yesterday’s prejudice. A solution, though one too facile to excite enthusiasm, would be to propose the addition of a historical note at the base of every controversial monument. We might begin with the Jefferson statue on the Quai Anatole-France and then move on to the plaque honoring Marshal Phillipe Pétain in Lower Manhattan. The plaque commemorates the 1931 visit to New York of the conquering hero of Verdun —and, unbeknownst to them, future Nazi collaborator. Yet so few are indignant that this commemoration remains. Where are the woke when we need them?
Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP via Getty Images