Judging Jefferson

(Thanksgiving week 2021, the New York City Council removed the 187 year old statute of Thomas Jefferson because it “made” some people feel uncomfortable. After all, Jefferson was a slave owner.)

Thomas Jefferson is an enigma. Judging him fairly is a formidable, if not impossible, task.  I have added and removed him several times from my personal Hall of Fame.

On the one hand, few people in history have accomplished as much good and inspired as many people as Thomas Jefferson.  On the other hand, he was both a racist slave owner and an anti-racist abolitionist.    

Is Thomas Jefferson a hero or a villain? Does he deserve our praise or our scorn?

Anti-Racist Abolitionist

Jefferson’s words and actions demonstrate he was an anti-racist abolitionist.

  • He “was the first statesmen in the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.”
  • He freed 2 slaves while he was alive and 7 slaves after his death.
  • He very publicly opposed the international slave trade throughout his life, and took measures to end it.
  • He branded slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” and he believed the institution of slavery forced “tyranny” and “depravity” on master and slave alike.
  • As a young lawyer, Jefferson represented slaves for free who were seeking their freedom. One victorious black client went to work for Jefferson at Monticello as a paid employee.
  • In 1775, Jefferson submitted a draft for the Virginia Constitution containing the phrase, “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held within the same in slavery under any pretext whatever.” His proposal was rejected.
  • In 1776, Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence called the African slave trade an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberties.” The Southern colonies refused to sign the Declaration unless that language was removed.
  • In 1778, he convinced the Virginia General Assembly to ban importing people to be used as slaves. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the slave trade.
  • In 1784, Jefferson proposed that the Continental Congress prohibit slavery in new states and territories in the west by 1800. The proposal was rejected.
  • In 1806, President Jefferson called for a law to make the exportation or importation of slaves a federal crime subject to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Congress complied.  (In 1823, slave trading became a capital crime.)
  • On the very first day on which it was constitutionally permissible to do so—Jan. 1, 1808—the slave trade was abolished by law. This was Jefferson’s last year in office.
  • Jefferson believed that slavery was the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation. 
  • Jefferson thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature.
  • Jefferson’s anti-slavery views were considered radical at the time.
  • He advocated gradual emancipation believing that slaves and society were not ready for immediate freedom. The first step of his plan was to end the importation of slaves, and the prohibit the slave trade’s expansion into the western territories.

Racist Slave Owner

Jefferson’s words and deeds demonstrate he was a racist slave owner.

  • He owned over 600 slaves throughout his lifetime.
  • He opposed slavery and slave ownership in word, but not in deed.
  • As governor of Virginia during the Revolution, he signed a bill to promote military enlistment by giving white men “land, a healthy sound Negro…or £60 in gold or silver.”
  • In 1785, Jefferson wrote that slaves were intellectual inferior and had produced no great scholars of poets.  (Of course, it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write.)
  • In 1785, Jefferson also wrote that slaves had an offensive unique body odor. (Of course, slaves were not fed gourmet cuisine, not allowed to bathe frequently, and not given deodorants or perfumes.)
  • In 1785, Jefferson also wrote that slaves engaged in frequent sex without love. (Of course, love could not survive the slave trade when it ripped apart spouses, parents, and children. Plus, slaveowners, bred slaves like their livestock, irrespective of family relationships.)
  • White slave owners, including Jefferson, “had to believe” African blacks were inferior in order to rationalize their ownership to themselves and others.
  • Jefferson calculated that he made a 4% profit every year on the birth of a black child. He recommended that those struggling financially should invest in slaves.
  • Jefferson’s magnificent estate, Monticello, was built and operated by slaves who were expert artisans, blacksmiths, painters, glaziers, millers, weavers, shoemakers, masons, carpenters, and cooks professionally trained in French cuisine. He did not give them credit.
  • As President Jefferson brought slaves from Monticello to work on the White House and to maintain his lavish lifestyle
  • Jefferson’s economic self-interest and dependence on slavery outweighed his moral objections.
  • Although Jefferson worked very hard to abolish the slave trade, he did little, if anything, to actually abolish slavery itself.
  • Jefferson believed abolition would only occur when the younger generations finally internalized his revolutionary concepts of liberty and universal equality.  
  • He also viewed slavery as a problem for the states, not the national government, to resolve.
  • A young Jefferson promised his dying wife that he would never remarry.  He kept his promise, but had a slave mistress who gave birth to his children.  He publicly denied this during his lifetime. (Modern DNA suggests otherwise.)
  • Jefferson continued to struggle with debt, and he used slaves a collateral for loans. Due to his extravagance, upon his death, most of his slaves were sold to his creditors.
  • Jefferson believed that racial equally was not possible in the South, and freed slaves should be colonized in Africa.
  • In April 1820, Jefferson wrote, “there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach of slavery … We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Amazing Accomplishments

How do we weigh Jefferson’s words and actions regarding slavery against his unprecedented achievements and phenomenal influence for good? The founding generations considered Jefferson a demi-god. His influence still inspires the world.

  • He is the drafter and “Father of the Declaration of Independence
  • His advocacy of inalienable universal human rights has blessed the lives of millions throughout the world.
  • In 1803 he consummated the Louisiana Purchase which increased the size of the U.S. 50%
  • He publicly opposed the slave trade and worked hard to abolish it.
  • He commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore and map the West.
  • During the War of 1812, the 3,000 volume Library of Congress was burned, and Jefferson offered his personal library of 6,400 books as a replacement.
  • Jefferson is acknowledged as one of top ten presidents.
  • He is immortalized on the Jefferson Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and dozens of cities and schools are named after him.
  • Jefferson, the “Sage of Monticello,” is recognized as one of the few universal geniuses in history, along with Aristotle and Leonardo DaVinci.
  • He was a naturalist and is the “Father of American Paleontology.”
  • He mastered economics and translated several European books on economic theory.
  • He was an expert cryptographer and invented the cipher wheel, still used today.
  • He founded the University of Virginia, the first public secular university in the world.
  • He received several honorary degrees and awards.
  • He was an accomplished musician and gave violin and cello recitals.
  • He is considered was a brilliant political philosopher.
  • He was an exceptional architect, and the rotunda of University of Virginia, the Virginia State Capitol, and Monticello, are on the World Heritage List.
  • He was a prolific writer leaving 27,000 documents and 18,000 personal letters of substance to historic figures.
  • He was an avid astronomer and built the first American observatory.
  • He was a theologian and edited the “Jefferson Bible.”
  • He was a prolific inventor and mechanical engineer, and he invented or further developed the: iron plow, swivel chair, lazy Susan, pedometer, folding chair, dumb-waiter, double acting doors, spherical sun dial, revolving book stand, seven day “Great Clock” powered by gravity, and the simultaneous writing machine that made handwritten copies of Jefferson’s letters
  • He was a linguist and was fluent in five languages and literate in over seven.
  • He was an accomplished archeologist and anthropologist and invented the method of “stratigraphical” observation which has become the basic principle of modern archeological investigation.        
  • He was an expert in agronomy and horticulture. He was the first to use crop rotation to replenish the soil, and the first to use contour plowing to reduce erosion.   He is recognized as “America’s First Agronomist.”
  • He was wine connoisseur and gourmet and introduced French fries, mac and cheese, and other foods to America.
  • In 1962, President Kenney hosted a dinner in the White House honoring Nobel Prize winners.  He gushed: “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”   

Final Verdict

To judge Thomas Jefferson by our modern “politically correct” “cancel culturestandards is unfair and intolerant. It rips everything out of context.  It reveals our own hindsight bias, modern snobbery, moral hubris, and ignorance. This is the fallacy of presentism.” Clearly, “the past is a foreign country, and they did things differently.”

Regarding slavery, Thomas Jefferson was born into the “planter class of a slave society.” When he first inherited slaves, slavery had been legal and morally acceptable in Virginia for generations. All the leading citizens in Virginia, including Washington and Madison, owned slaves.

In his day, Jefferson’s opposition to slavery and the slave trade were progressive and radical. But he was swimming against the tide. He condemned slavery in the strongest language, but he believed that full emancipation could only come gradually as the rising generations internalized his ideals of universal equality and liberty. Importantly, Jefferson did everything in his power to abolish the international slave trade, and he was successful.

Slavery was a universal institution accepted and embraced by nearly all human societies, until Jefferson planted the seeds of abolition. Tragically, those seeds of emancipation took several more generations than Jefferson hoped and predicted. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln recognized the power of Jefferson’s words, that our nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery and the international slave trade is still relevant. Tragically, slavery is still rampant in some parts of the world.  An estimated 40 million people are enslaved. Rather than trying to erase past slavery, and the lessons we learned from history, perhaps we should focus our outrage on the present. How will people judge us in 200 years if we tolerate slavery in the world today?

Jefferson’s advocacy of inalienable universal human rights still motivates mankind. His proclamation that “all men are created equal” inspired Martin Luther King, and still inspires humanity. His declaration that everyone is endowed by the Creator with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” still resonates around the world.

In sum, Thomas Jefferson’s serious flaws as a slave owner, are overshadowed by his prodigious accomplishments and his incomparable influence for good. His positive influence is worldwide and everlasting.

So, I will keep Jefferson as a hero in my personal Hall of Fame, unless I change my mind — again.

(Sources: Personal Tours of Monticello; “Jefferson and Slavery,” Wikipedia; Stephen E. Ambrose, “To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian,” p 14-26; “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Henry Wiencek, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2012; “Thomas Jefferson: Liberty & Slavery,” http://www.monticello.org;  “Creating the Declaration of Independence,” Library of Congress, http://www.localgov.org; “Scrapped Declaration of Independence Passage Denounces Slavery,” NPR, July 3, 2015, http://www.nprorg; “A Dynamic Dui: Jefferson and Madison,” David Thorson, http://www.monticello.org.)

(Other stories and articles at: londonedition.home.blog or http://www.londonedition.net)

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