Glenn Beck is predictably freaking out over a new exhibit at the Smithsonian that looks at race and racism in the United States through "biological, cultural, and historical points of view." On his radio show today, Beck specifically attacked a five-minute video featured in an exhibit named "RACE: Are we so different?" for pointing out that Thomas Jefferson was a "slave-holder" when he penned the Declaration of Independence. Beck said he was angered not because "they said that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, 'cause it's technically true," but because owning slaves was "not the sum total of his work."
Beck continued by saying that Jefferson "himself was conflicted" about owning slaves, but did so because "he was broke," having "spent himself into oblivion." Beck further said that "the only thing [Jefferson] really had of value was the ownership of people," adding: "How many people do things that are wrong today knowing that it's wrong but [are] kind of conflicted on it ... but because it is their income, or because it keeps them afloat, they just don't want to even think about it?" Then, after saying that Jefferson "inherited the [slavery] problem from the British," co-host Pat Gray attacked President Obama for using the "excuse" that he inherited a bad economy from Bush.
Beck's website The Blaze featured a piece suggesting that the exhibit's characterization of Jefferson as "simply 'a slave holder' " isn't "fair to [the] founding father."
However, the RACE Project "seeks to expand current thinking about race and human variation and encourage an integrative and comprehensive view of this complex topic." The project hopes to initiate conversations in order to "challenge how we think about" race and to combat "discrimination and oppression" in American society. As the narrator of the video explains, the exhibit was created "to share the complicated story of race, to unravel fiction from fact, and to encourage meaningful discussions about race in schools, in the workplace, within families and communities."
In other words, the RACE Project is not an exhibit on Jefferson. It's an exhibit on the history of race and racism in America. Jefferson plays a tiny part in that exhibit. But certainly no discussion of the complicated history of race in America would be honest if it did not at least mention that the writer of the cherished words "all men are created equal" owned slaves. And it doesn't seem necessary to go into a long discourse about Jefferson's reasons for holding slaves to make that point.
In any event, no museum should take advice on what the Founders thought about slavery from Beck, who has defended the constitutional provision protecting the international slave trade and espoused a view of the Constitution's Three-Fifths Clause that one historian called "completely wrong."