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Thomas Jefferson: visionary or exclusionary?

By Brianna Saylor, News Editor

Originally Published October 30, 2023

How do you define someone’s nationality? How do you know a German is a German? Dr. Cara Rogers-Stevens explains how we associate this ‘knowing’ with someone having a familiarity with a piece of land, a history that is there, or even an ethnic relationship. But America is not Germany. Every country and its citizens have unique roots and stories behind those roots. The same can be said for historical figures as well.

The McKenna School Center for Political and Economic Thought hosted Dr. Cara Rogers-Stevens of Ashland University on Wednesday, October 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Fred Rogers Center where she spoke on defining identity, Thomas Jefferson, and the Fight Against Slavery. She discussed what Jefferson did–and did not–do to end slavery and bring equality to America.

Professors Dr. Jason Jividen and Dr. Jerome Foss join Dr. Cara Rogers-Stevens for CPET lecture. (SOURCE: MCKENNA SCHOOL LINKED-IN)

Rogers-Stevens obtained a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas at Dallas and a Ph.D. from Rice University. She is an associate professor of history at Ashland, teaching courses on the Age of Enlightenment, American history, and Thomas Jefferson. Her research focuses primarily on race and slavery in the Jeffersonian Age. The Journal of Southern History and American Political Thought has published her work, and she has also written for the Journal of the Early Republic and Law & Liberty. Her first book, Thomas Jefferson and the Fight Against Slavery, will be published by Kansas University Press in January.

“Being an American does not have to do with where you were born, and its ideas like these that really form the backbone of American identity,” said Rogers-Stevens.

Born in South Africa, Rogers-Stevens explains how, although she is an immigrant, for as long as she can remember, thinking about herself as an American through the ideas of the Declaration and the stories of the founding fathers has been incredibly important to her. Since she was a teenager–trying to figure out who she was–she discovered a sense of self by identifying with the founders.

However, recently, like some Americans, Rogers-Stevens has come to question those founding ideas and the men who wrote them. Did they have a truly inclusive vision for the nation, or was it exclusionary, with many limits on who got rights and who did not? This question especially resonated with Rogers-Stevens because her first country was strictly a Totalitarian regime based on the idea of inequality among men.

“It is hard for Americans not to look back at that group of men in Philadelphia without asking some hard question,” Rogers-Stevens said. “Questions like, how could Thomas Jefferson–the man who wrote the Declaration, and the author of those great words about liberty and inequality also have owned slaves.”

This is the question she had when she came to grad school, and it is the question she has spent the last ten years of her life trying to answer.

Dr. Rogers-Stevens speaks at McKenna School Center for Political and Economic Thought lecture series. (SOURCE: SAYLOR)

Rogers-Stevens shared her research on Thomas Jefferson, specifically, his views on freedom, race, and slavery.

“I believe these are topics worthy of our consideration, not just because of their part in American history but also how we as a society remember Jefferson and how it tends to affect our culture, our policies, and even the way we feel about ourselves as Americans,” Rogers-Stevens said.

According to Rogers-Stevens, Jefferson opposed slavery but did not free his own slaves; Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal,’ yet Jefferson also held racially prejudiced views against Africans. Jefferson is a paradox, but is he also a hypocrite?

Rogers-Stevens concluded by explaining why she thinks Americans care so much about Jefferson, despite his controversial status having been debated already.

“Jefferson represents both the best and the worst about America... Jefferson could have perhaps done more, said more, and tried harder to free more slaves, but he’s one of the founders most responsible for the freedoms America enjoys to this day,” Rogers-Stevens said. “A man who risked his life to write and sign the Declaration of Independence when to do so was treason, a man who helped establish religious freedom, and an advocate of democracy.”

A fifteen-minute question and answer followed the lecture where many students and faculty had the opportunity to ask Rogers-Stevens questions about Jefferson’s lasting impacts on America’s views on the founding fathers. But the final question of how Jefferson’s legacy has impacted America is still being debated today.

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