Thomas Jefferson is one of the most interesting figures in history. Not only was he a well-read and cultured individual, but he defined the American conscious perhaps more than any other Founding Father. His influence on the American philosophy changed the course of the world forever. His contribution as the author of the Declaration of Independence alone sealed his place in world history as the philosopher of freedom.
But while he was a man of great accomplishments, he was also a man of great conflict. He was, after all, human like the rest of us. His journey in life required him to truly evaluate every issue in a way that most of us wouldn’t dream of. Jefferson’s many layers make him imperfect, but his imperfections made him that much more incredible.
There are many aspects of his life, however, that we have been taught to believe was not only imperfect but immoral and hypocritical. These are the things that people point to from Jefferson’s life not to showcase his complexity but diminish his legacy. Friday, April 13, was his birthday and I’d like to commemorate it not by trying to pretend he was an American demigod with an untouchable legacy, but to set his legacy straight.
Much of what we think we know about Jefferson that makes us think he was an American Sphinx. Someone who talks a good talk about liberty and equality and the rights of man, but his actions say otherwise. The first thing that many will have come to mind is his seeming hypocrisy over slavery.
Unfortunately, his legacy over issues like slavery, as well as other aspects of his life, has been severely blurred. Much of what we think we know about Jefferson’s less than desirable traits are, at best, half-truths, and at worst, flat out lies. Many modern pundits love to exploit this misinformation about his legacy as a means to further their own political agenda. If Jefferson, the philosopher of liberty, was so hypocritical in his own life about freedom, then it is easy to discredit his entire philosophy. Individuals like Shaun King have even written articles comparing him to the likes of Hitler and saying he was more of an evil monster than a hero.
A statue of his was even vandalized on the night of his birthday with the phrase “racist + rapist” spray painted on it. The statue was at the University of Virginia, the very university he founded.
DEVELOPING OVERNIGHT: Sitting statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Lawn at UVA has been vandalized. "Racist + Rapist" are spray painted on the statue. pic.twitter.com/MTwBmZhIqS
— NBC29 (@NBC29) April 13, 2018
I want to take time here not to make Jefferson out to be a greater man than what he was, but to correct the slander that has been attached to his legacy. Jefferson was without question a conflicted and fallible human being, but he was entirely principled in spite of those flaws and more consistent than any of us can ever hope to be.
Slave Owners Were Not Free
In the 1700’s there was perhaps no more divisive issue than slavery. As we all know, that divisiveness only intensified until it came to heads during the Civil War. But what is often misstated (at best) is the Founders’ opinions on the matter. And no founder has a more infamous tie to slavery than does Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson is well known for having owned hundreds of slaves. This, on the surface, is all so many people need to know about his attitude toward true human liberation. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence, which famously declared “all men are created equal,” have owned one other human being, let alone hundreds of them? Surely the man who believes so surely in human liberty must see the hypocrisy in depriving that very liberty to his fellow man.
Like much of history, this version we are taught in history class only teaches a portion of the story. Jefferson, like many of the most famous Founding Fathers, was a die-hard abolitionist. Not just in word, but in action. And the only reason he had so many slaves was not that he was a hypocrite, but because of government coercion.
Jefferson inherited slaves in his father’s will. Once he did, Jefferson had his hands tied. It is easy to look back and cast judgment on him for not freeing his slaves then and there, but that simply was not legally possible. While Jefferson despised the institution of slavery, the Virginia legislature did not share his disdain. Slavery in Virginia, like much of the South, was institutionalized as a way of life and a means of wealth. If slaves began tasting what freedom was like, it could have very well fundamentally altered or ended the economic powerhouse of southern plantations. Not to mention that politicians then played to people’s fears much like they do today. In 1723, this led to the Virginia legislature passing a law forbidding the liberation of slaves except under very strict and extreme circumstances. The 1723 Manumissions Act made freeing your slaves a violation of the law. Several bills passed in Virginia after this would amend this act slightly but made it no less difficult for individuals like Jefferson to free any slave.
Washington was fortunate enough to utilize a caveat carved out by the 1782 manumissions act that allowed slaves to be freed in a person’s last will and testament. This loophole, however, was closed by the time Jefferson died. Jefferson’s only option to free a slave would bind him to take care of their financial wellbeing once they were freed. Seeing that he died in tremendous debt, so much that he sold his 6,000 volume library to help pay it off, this was all but impossible.
The Original Abolitionist
While Jefferson’s hands were tied as a slave owner in Virginia, this did not mean he wouldn’t fight to see the horrible institution eventually end. It is easy to forget, in our modern and American perspective, that slavery was the rule all across the world. This was not unique to America. But although it was a tradition of the old world brought to this country, Jefferson and many other founders envisioned a nation that would end it. This was such a strong belief of Jefferson’s that he even included it in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was so obvious to him that it was a violation of human liberty, and thus counter to the ideas he was trying to found a country on, that it was a grievance he listed to King George.
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. [determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
Furthermore, not only did Jefferson’s opposition to slavery become vocally known in public, he did not mince word in private either. He wrote several private letters to friends to friends and family members that demonstrated his consistency in public and private life. In one particular letter to Thomas Cooper, in September of 1814, he wrote:
“I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. On the contrary there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.”
Jefferson knew certainly of the strong immorality and violation of liberty that is the institution of slavery. He struggled daily with his own dilemma of owning slaves. But this is in no way a dilemma he bestowed upon himself. The very reason he believed so much in the idea of America was that he had a vision that it could one day be a refuge for slaves rather than a continuation of the status quo. In a way, Jefferson’s philosophy of government and liberty was shaped and solidified by his experiences with the Virginia legislature. While he was working to build a nation where all men would be free, he himself was denied the liberty to free his fellow man.
There are many things you can say about Thomas Jefferson, but when it comes to slavery, he was no hypocrite. He knew what kind of immoral and inhumane institution it was and how it deprived people of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of all the issues he faced in life, there were few things he hated more than slavery. This made his legal predicament that much more infuriating to him in Virginia. Yet despite his hands being tied in his personal life concerning his slaves, he dedicated his public life to see that all men would be treated as equals.
Thomas Jefferson would not live to see the day that the practice and institution of slavery would be abolished. He can take solace and pride in the fact that the country he helped give birth to would indeed see the abolition of slavery and a fortress of refuge for men and women all over the world.