Rydell lecture covers Thomas Jefferson

Elliot SteevesStaff Writer

Dr. Paul Finkelman is the new Rydell Scholarship Professor for the 2022-2023 school year. On Feb. 20, he delivered a lecture titled Thomas Jefferson: Apostle of Liberty or Father of American Racism?

The lecture was free and open to the public, as well as recorded and archived for the following week. It took place at 7 p.m. in Alumni Hall in the Johnson Student Union.

The College’s official description of the Rydell Scholarship reads as, “a scholar in residence program designed to bring Nobel Laureates and similarly distinguished scholars to the campus as catalysts to enhance learning and teaching. The Rydell Professorship was established in 1993 by Drs. Robert E. and Susan T. Rydell to give students the opportunity to learn from and interact with leading scholars.”

“How do we understand the third President?” wrote the Gustavus website in a description of the lecture. “Should we revere him, hold up our hands in horror, or both?”

The answer was both, but the horror was more present than one may imagine for the founding father.

Dr. Finkelman lectured extensively about how Jefferson was more than just a complex historical figure. Jefferson, for Dr. Finkelman, was a walking contradiction. He both wrote the Declaration of Independence, with the line “All men are created equal,” and actively referred to free Black people as, “pests on society.”

This scratched the surface of the depths of Jefferson’s character that Dr. Finkelman covered. He talked about how Jefferson sold 85 slaves to raise money, sometimes just for his personal wine. Per Dr. Finkelman, the same man who was behind the First Amendment allowing for freedom of religion had slaves enmeshed into his life.

Dr. Finkelman additionally talked about how Jefferson was an active white supremacist. He discussed how Jefferson actively thought of Black people as inferior to white people and would ignore evidence to the contrary. His ultimate emphasis was that, for all of what Jefferson wrote about human equality, he himself had completely missed the point in his life and with his views on black slaves.

“I thought it was insightful”, commented Senior Sophie Artley on the lecture. “He did a good job of applying [Jefferson] to issues today, which can sometimes be an issue for history.”

Dr. Finkelman did recognize the importance of Thomas Jefferson in examining our current position in the United States as well.

“I would be the last person to admit that [Jefferson] is extremely important to American History. It’s President’s Day and African American History Month…he’s a symbol of contrasting visions for our country,” said Dr. Finkelman.

Dr. Finkelman is described by the Gustavus website as a specialist on American Legal History, US Constitutional Law, race and law, American Jewish history, and the law of American slavery, among other specialties. He is the author of over 200 articles and 50 books. His work has also been cited by the United States Supreme Court in four separate decisions.

Further, the Gustavus Adolphus College website says Dr. Finkelman has held many positions in his academic career. Not only is he the former president of Gratz College, but he has also taught at several universities, among them the University of Saskatchewan, Duke Law School, the University of Tulsa Law School, the Albany Law School, the University of Ottawa School of Law, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Greg Kaster, Professor of History at Gustavus Adolphus, sang the praises of Dr. Finkelman and also talked about how he was a slight break from the norm for the Rydell Scholarship.

“He is the leading scholar in slavery in the constitution and law,” emphasized Kaster. “He has that kind of caliber; there isn’t a Nobel prize in history, but he is an extremely distinguished historian.” Kaster also pointed out that the Rydell position is typically awarded to someone in a science or statistics field, so having a humanist was something that was overdue.

Kaster also brought attention to how important it was for students to see a historian at work in a real setting. “More than just reporting it, [Dr. Finkelman] will be modeling what it means to be a historian at the top of your game,” commented Kaster.

The Rydell Scholarship has a long history behind it of bringing renowned scholars to Gustavus Adolphus in residence. Barb Larson Taylor, Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communication, had much to say about the history of the position.

“The very first one was in 2010…[Robert and Susan Rydell] gave the money for this to happen because their son loved Gustavus. They saw what a difference Gustavus made for their son…They wanted to give students the opportunity to hear from professors and teaching, not at the level of these scholars,” said Taylor.

Taylor also commented on the feedback that she had received about the annual lecture from other students: “The people that come are academic all-stars. For some students, it’s neat that they’re meeting someone like that, a world-renowned expert in the field they’re studying.”

A further opportunity like the Rydell Scholarship Lecture will occur during the Lindell Residency in Conservative Thought. Lectures will be given by Glenn Loury on March 29 in Wallenberg Auditorium at 7 p.m., and by Rev Dr. Russell Moore in April 2023. This is another opportunity for students who missed out and want to get in touch with an academic of equally high regard.




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