New York City Council Votes to Remove Statue of Jefferson

On Monday, the Public Design Commission of the New York City Council voted unanimously to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the Council’s legislative chamber. The City Council plans to relocate the statue to the New-York Historical Society, but the decision for the relocation has been delayed. 

The Jefferson statue in the New York City Council chamber. By Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

To many, Jefferson is viewed as a prominent figure in the foundation of America. A major author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, many of Jefferson’s ideas about government are forever engraved in the political system and institutions of this nation. The Jefferson statue in New York was commissioned by Uriah Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson for his advocacy for religious freedom in the military. The seven-foot-tall piece was modeled after the bronze statue of Jefferson in Washington D.C., in the Capitol Rotunda. It arrived in New York City in 1834 and was installed in the City Council chamber in the 1910s.

However, the man who wrote “all men are created equal” was also the owner of more than 600 slaves, two-thirds of which were held in bondage at Monticello, his primary plantation. To the members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the City Council, who filed the request for removal, the Jefferson statue stands for very different things. “Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history,” says Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the caucus, and his statue is “a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country.” 

The historian community, in contrast, opposes the removal of the statue. A group of 17 historians wrote a letter to the City Council to object to the removal of the statue and proposed its relocation to the governor’s room. Sean Wilentz, an American history professor at Princeton University, writes in a separate letter: “The statue specifically honors Jefferson for his greatest contribution to America, indeed, to humankind.”

The removal of Jefferson’s statue in New York is far from an isolated incident. In 2018, a statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, widely known as the father of modern gynecology, was removed from Central Park because Sims experimented and perfected his procedures on enslaved women. Earlier this year, the Public Design Committee voted to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural Science following protests against the statue for being a symbol of colonialism. Just a month prior, the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia attracted public attention and reignited the debate over the role of historical statues in communities. 

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