I think we need to take a more nuanced view of public figures, especially historical ones. I fear that, eventually, nobody will measure-up to the standards of everyone in society. Eventually everyone will offend someone’s mores and be cancelled.

My other fear is that by canceling offenders entirely we lose two important messages:

  • That they perpetrated the offence and had victims – silencing the existence of the perpetrator also cancels their victims and their stories
  • That the kinds of people who commit these offences are otherwise perfectly normal, and sometimes, extraordinary individuals – they look just like us, sound like us, seem like us, which means that it could be happening around us and there are victims around us

Of all places, I think the Monticello museum walks this line quite well. I went there interested in the architecture and came away with a far more rounded view of Jefferson. Monticello guides state the facts and let you draw your own conclusions. They show you where Jefferson lived, Hemings lived and the route between their rooms. They state the age difference and that he freed her children. They also point out that he didn’t free her!

I think it is conceivable that Sally Hemings enjoyed Jefferson’s company – that they enjoyed each other’s company. But it’s also obvious that coercion was the elephant in the room of their relationship. There was nothing to stop him freeing her and inviting her to stay on his estate voluntarily. But he didn’t.

Was he afraid that, given the freedom to leave, she would? Did he love her? Or did he just like having her around because she was attractive, convenient and obliged to ‘serve’? I wonder if even Jefferson could see past his own entitlement to know the answer.

I’m a writer and publisher working in Sydney, Australia and London, UK. I specialise in finance, technology, insurance, property, medicine and sustainability.

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