Five Questions with Dr. Paul FinkelmanThe 2022-23 Rydell Professor previews his Public Lecture on Thomas Jefferson and racism in America
Posted on February 16th, 2023 by

Dr. Paul Finkelman will present the Rydell Public Lecture on Monday, Feb. 20

On Monday, Feb. 20, Dr. Paul Finkelman will present the 2022-23 Rydell Professorship Public Lecture, Thomas Jefferson: Apostle of Liberty or Father of American Racism? The provocative and timely discussion reflects Dr. Finkelman’s work as a prolific scholar of American legal history, U.S. Constitutional law, race and law, slavery (both modern and historical), African American history, and numerous other areas of study. His discussion is at 7 p.m. in Cec Eckhoff Alumni Hall and is free and open to the public. Ahead of his discussion, we talked with Dr. Finkelman about Jefferson’s complex legacy, how it informs current philosophical and historical debates, and the challenges today’s college students face as they become active public citizens.

Gustavus: How did you choose this topic for the Rydell Public Lecture?

Well, it’s Presidents’ Week, and it’s also Black History Month, so I wanted to do something that would connect those two. I’ve written a great deal on Thomas Jefferson, and on the history of slavery and race. Jefferson is an enormously complicated person. Not always admirable, but always interesting. If you read some history books, he is called the “icon of liberty” as the writer of the Declaration of Independence. But he also was a man who owned more than 200 slaves, bought and sold them his whole life, and had children with one of them. Not only that, but the only book he ever wrote, Notes on the State of Virginia, has a long discussion of his views of race, which are, quite frankly, deplorable.

At the same time, he was one of the leading experimental scientists of the age, so when he proclaims notions of race, based on biology, that are not only wrong, but also truly repulsive, one wonders what kind of experimental scientist and observational scholar he is. And thus, what kind of icon of liberty he is. On the upside, he wrote the greatest statement of liberty in American political history and was an unyielding supporter of religious liberty and separation of church and state. So, he wanted everybody to be able to go out and do their own thing—everybody, that is, who was white.

Gustavus: Two of your areas of expertise are history and the U.S. Constitution, both of which have been under siege the last few years. What’s your assessment of this?

What good history does is to explain to people the enormous complexity of how we got to where we are—as a people, as a country, as a world—and to alert people to understand that human society is extremely complex and cannot be understood in sound bites. It cannot be understood in slogans; you have to actually read and know things. The other thing that good history does is give you the view of something from different perspectives.

As understood by the general public, history is often about the way of justifying who we are, what we are, what we do. People who appeal to “history” are often appealing to a justification of the status quo. But if you happen to have been born wealthy, you have one view of history. If you happen to have been born poor, you may have a very different view of history. In the early days of the U.S., the majority of the people here originally came from Europe. They were White. And today, we are very close to having a nation where there is no majority, but rather segments of the population. There’s a substantial Asian population, both South Asian and East Asian, which are, of course, very different cultures and very different people. There is a growing Hispanic population, mostly coming from Latin America. We have always had a large Black population. Most are descendants of people who were brought here in chains, as slaves. So, most people who have sub-Saharan African ancestry, we describe them in this sort of common language as Black or African American, but even that’s very complicated.

Since the mid-1960s, we’ve had increasing emigration from Africa itself, such as people who are of Nigerian, Ghanaian, or Kenyan birth or whose parents were immigrants from Africa; and a significant number of people who came from the Caribbean, from places such as Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados, and Cuba. This includes, for example, General Colin Powell, whose parents immigrated from Jamaica, or the baseball star Alex Rodriguez, whose parents were from the Dominican Republic. None of these people are African American in the sense of being from the United States. So, we now live in a very complicated country where the dividing lines are less clear.

As the U.S. has changed, people begin to look at history in different ways, which leads, I think, to many people being uncomfortable with having to learn about things they don’t want to learn about. For example, there are people in the American South who don’t want public schools to teach about slavery, because they don’t want to have to come to terms with the fact that their ancestors owned slaves. And they don’t want to have to come to terms with the fact that slavery was really awful. It was not happy people being taken care of by kind masters. It was cruel, it was brutal, it destroyed families. People were whipped, they were punished. Lives were destroyed. And at the same time, the people who owned the slaves were the richest people in the United States. So, when someone says, “What a wonderful country; look how lucky I am,” and somebody else comes along and says, “Yeah, but you got that because your great-, great-grandfather owned my great-, great-grandfather and great-, great-grandmother, and you got your wealth by never having to pay them for the labor they did for you,” that creates conflict.

My view as a historian is that you can’t know who you are as a country until you know where you’ve been. We are what our history is. So, learning this history is vital. But some politicians think they can run on what I would call an anti-history platform: If you teach this history, it’s going to make my constituents unhappy. And if I attack teaching that history, people will vote for me. Think about the many controversies over the Confederate flag. The Confederacy was created to protect slavery. The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave a speech right before the Civil War started, saying that the cornerstone of the Confederacy was the understanding that Black people were inferior to White people and that slavery is central to Confederate society. At the time there were literally thousands of Southern ministers who gave sermons on why God created Black people to be slaves. So, when you fly the Confederate flag, you’re endorsing that, even if you don’t believe you’re endorsing it. Even if you think the Confederate flag stands for something else, like being a rebellious person, it in fact represents a country created to preserve slavery and perpetuate racism. So, we have to come to terms with this, and that’s what’s going on in our country today.

Gustavus: Along those lines, how do you reconcile that two people could be looking at the same passage in the Constitution and have completely different interpretations of it?

There are various ways you might interpret the Constitution. My view is we have a text, we read the text, we follow the text, we can look to history for guidance, we can look to history for inspiration, we can even look to history to understand why the text may be what it is. To give a simple example, the reason we have an Electoral College is because the slave states insisted that they had to get some political power for their slaves. If you had a direct election of the president [by popular vote], the free population of the North was much bigger than the free population of the South, but Southerners couldn’t let slaves vote. And of course, if slaves could vote they probably wouldn’t have voted for the same people their owners were voting for. So, the Constitutional Convention created the Electoral College, which was based on counting slaves for the purpose of Congressional representation, even though they couldn’t vote. That shows you why we now have this weird system where someone can win three million more votes than their opponent and lose the election. No one in 1787 would have imagined that. But then no one would have imagined a black president, or a large Asian American population, or a vice president who is Black and female married to a man who’s Jewish. They couldn’t even have imagined a Catholic president, and we did not have one until the mid-20th century.

The other part of it is, again, a debate over history. Some people want to say the Constitution meant “this” in 1787 or in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, and they get very, very upset when some historian comes along and says, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Some justices say they want to apply the original intent of the Constitution—except when they don’t. For example, in 1791, when the Eighth Amendment was ratified, the most common form of execution was hanging. But it’s not what we see in a cowboy movie, where somebody has a coiled rope, and they slap the horse, and the horse runs away, and the guy drops and breaks his neck and dies instantly. Hanging was a slipknot, put around your neck, and a chair is kicked out or a trapdoor opens, and you drop. You don’t break your neck, and you’re slowly strangled to death for anywhere between a few minutes and a half an hour. Today, I think almost everybody in the United States would say that is cruel and unusual punishment, which the Eighth Amendment prohibits. But we don’t get justices saying we should go back to hanging because that’s what the framers wanted. Nobody’s saying that.

And of course, the other question about the text of the Constitution is how you read the most contested language today. The only plain, logical way to read the Second Amendment is as an amendment about the militia. Here is what it says: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It is about the collective people keeping arms in their armory for the militia, and there’s a long historical reason for that. There were people who were afraid that if you had a national government, that government would create a national army and abolish the state and local militias. And these people wanted to protect the right of their state to have a militia. Congress said, fine, because there are other clauses in the Constitution that specifically refer to arming and regulating the militia. So, the Second Amendment was simply an add-on to that. There were some people who asked for an amendment that gave the people the right to arm themselves for their own protection, but Congress at the time ignored those demands.

Gustavus: Are these conflicting interpretations why we seemingly have to keep fighting the same political battles over again?

Another example: When I was growing up, it was basically illegal to be gay in almost every state. When I was in college [in the late-1960s and early 1970s], people were beginning to say, “I have a right to be who I am; I have a right to live my life.” Even later, when the first same-sex marriage cases came along, I had friends, colleagues, professional acquaintances who said, “If there’s gay marriage, it’ll be the end of marriage in the United States.” And I always asked these guys—they were almost always men—”Are you afraid that if they legalize gay marriage, you’ll divorce your wife and marry a guy? Why would you be harmed by what people next door to you do?” And they could never give an articulate answer. Because they didn’t have one. It was simply emotional.

Now we’ve managed to have a president who appointed Supreme Court justices who were set, possibly, on undermining the rights of people to choose their own marriage or choose their own lifestyle. And some of this is based on religion. The argument is, “The Bible says you can’t do this.” Well, the Bible says lots of things. I’m always amazed when somebody says we should follow the Bible. The Ten Commandments are found in the Book of Exodus, chapter 20. But chapter 21 of the Book of Exodus begins by describing how you could sell your daughter into slavery. So, as with the Constitution, they pick and choose the text they want to support, which may be their religious goal, but it’s also their personal, ideological, political view of things. So, we refight the battles again.

Gustavus: Speaking of the late-1960s, that was obviously a turbulent time, and you were roughly the same age as our students here today, during this current turbulent time. What are some of the similarities and differences between then and now?

I think it’s probably much harder to be a student today because I think the level of confusion is so much greater. Obviously, in some ways, it was more difficult in 1969, when if you were male and flunked out of college, you got a one-way plane ticket to Vietnam. And 55,000 people in my age cohort got killed in Vietnam, and a couple-hundred thousand more came back as walking wounded, some disabled, some emotionally scarred. Vietnam was an unnecessary tragedy. On the other hand, we didn’t face a pandemic, we didn’t see a million Americans die because of a disease that initially there was no defense against. And when there was a defense, we had a president who refused to go on television and say, “I’m getting vaccinated, everybody should get a vaccination. We can stop this. We can save lives.” Instead, we got massive disinformation from lots of people.

I think another huge difference between college students of my generation and today’s college students is that the way they get information is overwhelming. They have no training or education about how to sort out what they’re hearing and reading on the internet or politically biased TV. If I were to design a curriculum for college freshmen, it would have a required course on how you deal with the internet and other media, just in terms of sorting through the information. When we were younger, there were three TV networks, plus PBS. All of them were different. They had different personalities, and they each took a slightly different stance. But all journalists in those days essentially said, “We are not political.” Many of them would not even vote in an election because it would hurt their ability to report neutrally about what is happening. Today, we have news networks that unabashedly say, “We are not interested in the truth. We’re interested in supporting our political position. And we will hide the news, we will slant the news, we will sometimes even lie about the news in order to get our position across.” That’s really a huge difference from the earlier years. That often means the loudest mouth wins, whether they’re right or not. That is very dangerous to our democracy.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


One Comment

  1. Greg Kaster says:

    Excellent. My History colleagues and I and our students look forward to your visits and teaching this spring, Paul. Thanks!