To celebrate the 4th of July, when Americans commemorate their country’s birth, I’d like to offer a few comments on Thomas Jefferson.
No one is more closely associated with Independence Day than Jefferson. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which the American Congress formally adopted July 4, 1776. Jefferson, judged by his rhetoric, was a true man of the Enlightenment, who embraced reason, science and democracy and rejected superstition, tradition and tyranny.
I once admired Jefferson, seeing him as an essentially good, no, great man with one tragic flaw: The writer of the inspiring words “all men are created equal” owned slaves. Now, I see Jefferson as an egregious hypocrite, who willfully betrayed the ideals he espoused.
I reached this conclusion only after visiting Monticello, Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate, last month. Previously, I didn't realize the extent of Jefferson’s slave ownership, and I lazily—and ignorantly--excused it as a common ethical blind spot of his time.
At Monticello, I took a tour called “Slavery at Monticello,” which I highly recommend. Below are facts I learned from our eloquent, well-informed guide, from the Monticello website and from other readings.
*Jefferson often denounced slavery. He wrote in 1774, "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.” Yet over the course of his life he owned a total of 600 slaves, who worked on his Monticello farm and other holdings.
*Jefferson was a “brutal hypocrite” even when judged by the standards of his time, according to historian Paul Finkelman. He notes that “while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution--inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration--Jefferson did not.” Jefferson also “dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality,” Finkelman writes. As a Virginia state legislator Jefferson “blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.” As President he purchased the Louisiana Territory but “did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast ‘empire of liberty.’” Finkelman accuses Jefferson of being “deeply racist,” noting that he called blacks “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
*Jefferson was not a kind slave-owner, our guide at Monticello said, because that is a contradiction in terms. Although there is no evidence that Jefferson beat slaves himself, he employed overseers who did. From the Monticello website:
William Page, an overseer at Lego farm for four years, had a reputation as a “terror” among slaves and was characterized as “peevish & too ready to strike.” William McGehee, an overseer at Tufton farm for two years, was “tyrannical” and carried a gun “for fear of an attack from the negroes.” And Gabriel Lilly, a nailery manager and overseer at Monticello for five years, whipped James Hemings three times in a single day, even when he was too ill “to raise his head.”
*DNA testing and other evidence have convinced most historians that Jefferson fathered six children with a slave, Sally Hemings. Hemings is believed to have been the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, and one of his slaves. That means Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who died in 1782. (The scholar chiefly responsible for bringing to light the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed, author of, among other books, The Hemingses of Monticello, which won the 2008 National Book Award and 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History.)
*Some writers, grotesquely, have romanticized the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. As our Monticello guide pointed out, a relationship between a master and slave cannot be consensual, let alone romantic. The relationship might have begun as early as 1787, when Jefferson took Hemings to Paris for two years. He was 43, she 14. She gave birth to the first of their six children in 1795. Jefferson never freed Hemings. After his death in 1826, Jefferson’s daughter Martha allowed Hemings to leave Monticello and live out her days in nearby Charlottesville.
*The Monticello website notes that “in the few scattered references to Sally Hemings in Thomas Jefferson's records and correspondence, there is nothing to distinguish her from other members of her family.” Perhaps Jefferson viewed Sally Hemings merely as valuable livestock, or "capital." He wrote this about female slaves in 1820: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm… What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption."
*Jefferson freed only two slaves in his lifetime and another five in his will, all members of the Hemings family. According to our guide, one man freed by Jefferson’s will had a wife and eight children, who remained enslaved and were sold to four different owners. For all his reputed brilliance and “scientific” approach to agriculture, Jefferson was an inept farmer and businessman. When he died, he was deeply in debt, and his slaves, aside from the few he freed in his will, were auctioned off.
*Jefferson apparently thought black slaves wouldn’t be greatly affected by the forced dissolution of their families. He once wrote that “love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient.”
*Jefferson, who harped on the importance of education, never encouraged his slaves to become literate. As historian Gordon Wood puts it in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Jefferson “made no effort to prepare his enslaved offspring, whom he had promised to free, for their financial futures, and he apparently did not even teach them to read.” Wood adds that Jefferson, far from agonizing over his hypocrisy, felt morally superior to most people, such as his fellow slave-owners in Virginia. “He stood apart from them and was superior to them, scorning their manners, their architecture and their parochialism,” Wood writes.
*The Marquis de Lafayette, who helped the U.S. achieve its independence from England and later fought in the French revolution, urged his old friend Jefferson to free his slaves in 1824. The Monticello website has an eye-witness account of a conversation between the two men:
Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle--the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on. Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived.
The United States has come a long way since Jefferson’s era. Our moral progress is exemplified by the fact that a black man is President. But this country still falls far short of its professed ideals of peace, equality, justice and liberty for all. Perhaps if Jefferson had set a better ethical example, we would have come further by now.