The University of Virginia witnessed the passing of another great Virginian—a Virginian in the sense of his association with the University—just shy of two centuries, or 183 years to be precise, after the passing of the founder of the University. Ted Kennedy’s ties to Virginia, of course, do not compare to those of Mr. Jefferson. Yet they are, in a sense, two bookends on the long and growing bookshelf that is the University, with the architect at the beginning and a man emblematic of an important moment in the University’s history further down the shelf.
The two men were alike in ways that are profoundly revealing about our country. Both were aristocrats in a country that shunned aristocracy. Both were dominant figures in the Democratic Party. Both stood for the common man in spite of their great privilege, something reflective of the egalitarian aspirations of the country they loved. Both led large and complex families, in Kennedy’s case, a legacy of three older brothers who died violent deaths while serving their country. Jefferson and Kennedy were patricians, patriots, and patriarchs.
Yet in spite of their privilege they were also “levelers,” dedicating themselves to providing opportunities to those who lacked their inheritance. Jefferson was a slaveholder, of course, from a different era in our history; Kennedy was born to great wealth in a house full of servants, yet he was at the forefront of the civil rights movements that finally brought equality under the law to former slaves a century after the Civil War. And as both men grew older, they grew bolder, more outraged by inequality, yet with gravitas and dignity. They became more human, and humanized, at the end of their lives.
They were also alike in being bundles of contradictions. Jefferson had a long relationship with Sally Hemings, a beautiful black woman who was a half sister-in-law and, of course, a slave. Ted Kennedy long had a reputation as a womanizer. It took an appalling tragedy at Chappaquiddick for him to become the most important champion of women’s rights in the Senate. He also became, like Jefferson, a workaholic who was responsible for a myriad of legislation. (In the vast commentary after his death, his work on civil rights, voting rights, health care, immigration, the environment and many other endeavors were mentioned, but hardly anyone noted his long and sterling record as a champion for the rights of women.)
Ted Kennedy and the founder of our University were, in short, complicated men who lived and wrestled with their contradictions, both privately and in the public arena, always willing to fight the good fight, never downcast, and in the end better men for having confronted and tried to overcome their human-all-too-human frailties—even as their lives ended with battles still to be won.
When people say the United States is “the last, best hope of mankind” I often pause, because so many countries around the world have high standards of democracy and human rights. But there is something intangible about the United States, with its extraordinary complexity and diversity, part of a great continent anchored at the beginning by states as different as Massachusetts and Virginia, states that so embody that diversity—one, a former member of the Confederacy; the other, the most liberal state in our time; both, sites of the country’s creation at Plymouth colony and Jamestown, and both producing great politicians who gave their all to overcome the worst legacies of our national heritage. And two great universities distinguish those states, Harvard, as one of the greatest private schools, and Virginia, as one of the greatest public schools, both overflowing with a diversity that would warm the capacious hearts of two great men, one the son of the Commonwealth of Virginia; the other, son of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. One attended William and Mary and then went on to found the University of Virginia. The other attended Harvard and then had the good sense to come to Charlottesville to study the law. He would go on to become one of the great American lawmakers of the twentieth century.
At the University of Virginia we mourn the passing of an era, and of a formidable alumnus: we will miss Ted Kennedy.