The decision by the New York City Council to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from City Hall indicates a worrisome disregard for religious liberties associated with the constitutional republic Jefferson helped create. Increasingly “contextualization” of supposedly controversial statues has been offered by municipalities as a chief reason for whether to keep or remove statues. If New York City did not seek out the context of a statue honoring the third president of the United States and removed it on a whim, they are intellectually unserious and seemingly hypocritical. If—as seems to be the case—they did seek out the context of the statue and made the decision to remove the statue anyway, they are something worse than hypocrites.
The statue was given by Uriah P. Levy, the United States Navy’s first Jewish commodore and a champion of Jewish rights in civil society and the military. His legacy also included tireless advocacy that eventually helped to end flogging in the navy in 1861. Levy endured anti-Semitism routinely in the navy and he refused to take his harassment lying down; he was court-martialed six times and demoted once. Levy saw bigotry in United States at its worst but still loved the Union he served. His ancestral story convinced him that the United States was the freest and least oppressive polity on the planet for Jews. Levy’s family—Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal—fled Iberia to escape the Inquisition. For Commodore Levy, and for hundreds of thousands of emigres fleeing Europe’s authoritarian political and religious regimes in the Nineteenth Century, Thomas Jefferson represented the greatest religious freedoms ever granted in human history.
Levy regarded the Virginia statute on religious liberty as Jefferson’s greatest creation. The Virginia General Assembly passed the bill in 1786. It stated:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities
Jefferson also believed the statute to be one of his greatest legacies. It was one of three accomplishments he had etched in his tombstone; the others were his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.
The reasons the City of New York offered for removing the statue was Jefferson’s slaveholding and racialized attitudes. Yes, Jefferson owned slaves, and he held unpalatable and indeed wrong views on race. But that was not his entire legacy, and it certainly was not the context of the Levy’s gift of the statue. By removing the statue, the City of New York has signaled it does not value the historic fight for Jewish rights in the American republic or care about who Jews believed were their allies in their fight for their rights. It has signaled it does not believe Jefferson’s legacy is worth commemorating or upholding because of his slaveholding. If this is the case, the City of New York would rather United States not be independent of Great Britain; they’d rather the University of Virginia cease to exist; and they’d rather Americans—Christian Americans, Hindu Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans etc—not be granted freedom of religion. Honestly I’d rather the city council of New York had just been hypocrites.