A speaker event set for this Thursday, October 28th has generated negative social media comments, vandalized flyers, and a student initiative to cancel the event altogether. “In Defense of Mr. Jefferson,” hosted by UVA’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, will emphasize “the importance of preserving American History” as well as the legacy of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia. It will feature two UVA alumni— Editor of the National Review Rich Lowry and Republican Congressman Chip Roy of Texas.
Following YAF’s announcement of the event in early October, a number of UVA students immediately took offense. The club’s Instagram post received—among a few supportive comments—over a hundred negative comments. One student wrote, “defending a slave owner????? Might as well just say you hate black people and call it a day.” Other students mocked the lecture as a “Defense of a Slave Owning Rapist” and accused YAF members of stopping at “nothing to deify these old dead white men.”
When YAF members posted flyers across Grounds to advertise the event, more than half were either ripped off the columns on which they were mounted, purposely covered up with other flyers (particularly DivestUVA’s flyers, a student advocacy group committed to lobbying against UVA’s use of fossil fuels), or scribbled over in marker. Some of the flyers were written over with messages falsely labeling students in YAF and the event’s speakers as “racists defending rapists.”
In response to the defacement and vandalization—all of which are violations of UVA’s Honor Code—event speaker Rep. Chip Roy commented that the defacing of the flyers was proof of his alma mater “slouching into the leftist cabal of the Ivy Leagues.” He later sarcastically called students at the University “as open-minded as ever.”
Anti-YAF flyers were subsequently distributed to bring attention to an organized “Letter Writing Campaign Against YAF’s” event, which all included the message, “let’s do what we can to ensure that values of racism and slavery are NOT defended on UVA grounds!” along with a QR code to access a standardized letter template. The linked email template voices concern over the event by arguing that Rep. Chip Roy’s “presence… creates potential for conflict amongst the UVA community.” It then goes on to say that the event “indirectly defends values of racism and slavery” and concludes by asking the administration to “act in our best interest as a student body in efforts to protect the community at large.”
The number of students who used the template to write letters to the UVA administration is currently unclear. According to Fox News, the school “was not aware of a campaign to cancel the event.”
Due to the melee of smears and negative commentary circulating the school, the YAF club decided to reinforce its mission by releasing a statement saying the organization has “never defended or supported the ownership and treatment of slaves” by Thomas Jefferson. It instead claims it is holding the guest lecture merely to “encourage our community to recognize and preserve Thomas Jefferson’s positive contributions to the University of Virginia and the United States of America.”
Although much of the commentary on social media surrounding the event has been negative, many have still shown support for YAF and displayed excitement to attend. A Young America’s Foundation Twitter post regarding the outcry over the event prompted retweets from public figures, including Senator Ted Cruz. So much attention has been drawn to the event that its scheduled location has been switched to a bigger venue in anticipation for a larger crowd.
Thomas Jefferson, being the founder of the University of Virginia and a founding father of the United States, has been both revered for his tremendous accomplishments and discredited for his atrocious flaws by the university community and society at large for decades. Although lamented for his failures, Jefferson has been a legendary figure for students on UVA Grounds for many years, whether it be through the Society of Purple Shadows’s annual ceremony on his birthday or students printing out fatheads of his portrait to wave at basketball games.
YAF’s event comes as tension over Jefferson’s contradictory life, as well as the lives of other prominent historical figures, has spilled into the current culture war—particularly around the debate over monuments—permeating college campuses and national politics. Calls from students to slash Jeffersonian traditions from UVA culture increased dramatically following the “Unite the Right” rally that plagued Charlottesville in 2017 and again after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
UVA President Jim Ryan pledged last year that the school would “not walk away from Thomas Jefferson” and his vision of academic excellence, nor remove the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda, but would contextualize his legacy to “educate and pursue the truth.” The University also recently completed a commemorative Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and has introduced multiple ambitious initiatives to “make UVA a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable university.”
“In Defense of Mr. Jefferson” will be held in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom at 7 PM on Thursday, October 28th and is open to all students and the general public. The event will be co-sponsored by the Jefferson Council and will be taped by Young America’s Foundation, a national organization whose mission is to ensure “young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.”