Thomas Jefferson: America's Best, Worst (and Most Bizarre) Founding Father

L. R. Laverde-HansenStarred Page By L. R. Laverde-Hansen, 16th Feb 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/38m3dclx/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>History

In honor of the recent Presidents' Day, here is a very mixed profile on our third President, Thomas Jefferson.

An Extraordinary American

Of all the Founding Fathers, none may have been as important and influential as Thomas Jefferson. He was a patriot, lawmaker, author, inventor, academic, architect, diplomat, polemicist, revolutionary and third President of the United States. Not even Benjamin Franklin, for all his genius, can claim Jefferson's reputation as statesman.

And if being the chief author of the Declaration of Independence were not distinction enough, he would later serve as Minister to France, our first Secretary of State, and our second Vice President.

A confirmed polymath, he would later become President of the American Philosophical Society. He designed and built his own estate, Monticello, a premier example of Neoclassical architecture in early America. Monticello, along with the nearby University of Virginia (which he also designed) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A tireless tinkerer, Jefferson invented, improved or popularized such innovations as the cypher wheel, the dumbwaiter, the moldboard plough, and the swivel chair.

With James Madison he not only wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which famously asserted the rights of states and individuals, but also founded the Democratic-Republican (later Democratic) party, one of the first major American political parties. Later he established the University of Virginia, one of the first nonsectarian academic institutions in the United States. So manifold were his achievements that when Jefferson composed his epitaph, he omitted his service as President of the United States.

Given this, it is not surprising that when speaking to a group of distinguished luminaries, President Kennedy once said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House--with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

A Mass of Contradictions (on Slavery)

What may still be more extraordinary--and bizarre--is not Thomas Jefferson's accomplishments, but his fiendishly contradictory views and actions on race and slavery--even given his day and age. That Jefferson was a slave owner is not extraordinary. Twelve presidents of the United States, owned slaves, including George Washington and James Madison. Of these twelve, more than six kept slaves at the White House. What made Jefferson so unusual--indeed bizarre--is not one, but a series of contradictions, which make sense only to Thomas Jefferson himself.

The first was that Jefferson began his career as both a slave owner and as a champion of liberty--and against slavery. It seems unusual, indeed hypocritical, that Jefferson, like George Washington and other leading Southern planters would advocate, "that all men are created equal." But Jefferson went further than that. As early as 1778, he had pushed for the banning the importation of slaves into Virginia. In 1807 as President of the United States, he signed the bill prohibiting the slave trade throughout the country. He also had close friendships with fellow patriots who were against slavery, such as John Adams and the Polish-born Tadeusz Kościuszko. Kościuszko even bequeathed funds in his will to Jefferson, so that he might free his slaves.

The Uglier Truths

What makes Jefferson so outrageously contradictory, even repugnant, was his transformation from a slave owner who suggested an end to slavery to one who dug in and perpetuated it as much as possible. Jefferson never accepted Kościuszko's generous bequest, though he could have used the money. Somehow he transformed from an ardent champion of the French Revolution (It was Jefferson who wrote from Paris in 1787, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants." ) to a man who owned 600 human beings in his lifetime and only freed a scant five of them upon his death.

His views and attitudes on slavery may have been complex, but his views on African Americans were much clearer. Notes on the State of Virginia was the one book he wrote that was published in his lifetime. Here are Jefferson's own words:

"Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous...

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
"

Granted, white supremacist views (with pseudoscientific justifications) were not unsual in Jefferson's lifetime, but these are the words of the Sage of Monticello, a man who supposedly should have known better.

The Damnable Acts

Possibly still more outrageous, as president Jefferson refused to recognize the Haitian Republic in 1804, which arose from the only successful slave revolt in modern history. After several revolts the mostly black Haitians had overthrown their brutal French colonial masters and proclaimed the first independent nation in Latin America. The irony is that it had been the Haitian Revolution that had prompted the French to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States, since maintaining a New World Empire had become untenable.

Jefferson went so far as to call on Congress to stop trade with the newly independent government in 1804. Once passed, this embargo did much damage to the nascent state in the Caribbean and may have contributed to problems which persist there today.

Monticello, his great monument to his high ideals, was itself founded with hypocrisy at its core. Largely built by slaves, the mansion and plantation gave the appearance of beauty, detailed proportion and elegance. To maintain this estate, a near army of slaves had to toil night and day. Boys as young as ten worked in a profitable nail factory. Jefferson went so far as to write a letter to George Washington in 1792 explaining his discovery of a "four per cent. per annum" dividend that resulted from human beings born on the plantation (which in Jefferson's mind, became additional property).

Legacy

The letter to Washington may have had unintended consequences. The Father of our country owned several slaves, but he was genuinely queasy about it. A few years later, Washington's will set provisions to free all his slaves upon his widow Martha's death. By Virginia law, he could not free his wife's "dower" slaves.

This is the key difference between the two men. While Jefferson's amazing skills and achievements were invaluable to the nation he helped establish, his decision to perpetuate an inhuman system he knew many despised has to be taught to future generations. Washington, who was also brought up in the plantation aristocracy, decided at least to end his participation in it when he was gone. Not even Jefferson's exhortations about the decidedly lucrative value of forced and unpaid human labor changed his mind. That should also be taught to the future.

Many will argue that Thomas Jefferson was simply a man of his time, and his words and deeds should be seen in the context of his contemporaries. I have tried through this relatively brief biographical essay to show that while Jefferson's actions and attitudes about race and slavery were as complex as the man himself, there is sufficient evidence that, even given his extraoridinary contributions, Jefferson's attitudes were particularly horrendous, hypocrtical, cynical--and bizarre--on these matters.

"You will know them by their fruits."
All of them.


Originally Composed in New York
February 16, 2015
Latest Revision
February 27-March 4, 2015

Photo Credits

Thomas Jefferson Photo Credit: Rembrandt Peele portrait from New York Historical Society (image is in the public domain).

Declaration of Independence: wikimedia commons (image is in the public domain).

Monticello Photo Credit: YF12s for wikimedia commons.

Slavery image: No known source (possibly in the public domain)

Tags

Declaration Of Independence, Monticello, Slavery, Thomas Jefferson

Meet the author

author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
Poet, playwright, commentator. I write wherever I can. Currently I reside in the City of New York.

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Comments

author avatar Utah Jay
5th Mar 2015 (#)

Jefferson owned almost 10,000 acres of land, much of it inherited with a high debt on it. He also owned between 100 and 200 slaves and the colonial attitude towards slaves made it a practical necessity for him to keep the slaves, though he detested the institution and tried many times in his life to bring an end to it.
Scribner’s Sons 1928-36 10:38
Also see Malone, Jefferson the Virginian Appendix ll The Jefferson estate
No servants ever had a kinder master than Mr. Jefferson. He did not like slavery, I have heard him talk of it a great deal. He thought it a bad system.
From a slave named TJ to Edmund Randolph (16 Sept. 1781) Bergh 4:187
It is true however that at Jefferson’s death he only freed the house slaves, though he wanted to free them all, but because of the debt on the land the law prohibited it.
It seems easy enough to tear down one of history’s great men, but when we put context to it the story changes. We must learn to never trust a modern history book as they are almost always slanted to the author’s politics.
And by the way...TJ worked in the nail factory.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
5th Mar 2015 (#)

There is no such thing in my book as a "kind" slave master. But I am glad you read it, Utah Jay. I tried to be as balanced as I could listing the man's vast accomplishments. "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” ~ Abraham Lincoln.

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author avatar Dawn143
5th Mar 2015 (#)

Well the way history is translated is varied at best. We cannot deny that politics and politicians will always be a how shall we say "sticky" issue. Hypocrisy can be seen in the most good intentioned individuals, despite that it doesn't excuse the bad behavior either. I've long wished for a time machine to travel back in time and be the truth keeper for many a history maker, sadly as time travel has yet to be realized, I will have to be content in this century. On that note, I enjoyed all your facts and opinion and enjoyed gaining another perspective on a very famous or notorious person of interest.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
5th Mar 2015 (#)

Love that balanced view, Dawn. History is never an easy thing. I wonder how we will be judged by the future.

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author avatar Retired
5th Mar 2015 (#)

Slavery in all its forms was a repugnant institution for which no excuses are allowable. It is a matter of lasting shame to all the "white" races that they ever allowed themselves to treat the "black" races as lesser beings whose only function was the improve the lives of whites.

For those reasons alone, all Jefferson's achievements can be discounted as worthless when set against the evils he perpetrated.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
5th Mar 2015 (#)

John, I agree heartily with the first paragraph. I can't quite accept the "worthless" second one, though I see the moral impetus behind the assertion. And again, thank you for reading. That's all I ask for here.

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author avatar Utah Jay
5th Mar 2015 (#)

I agree that slavery is a very ugly thing, and it is good to know that my people who were here at the time, both red and white, were not slave holders, but in Jefferson's case he truly did work for the freedom of those in chains, trying to make it possible to free them at some time in the future. It is easy for us to say that they should of never been slaves in the first place, and I agree, but we did not live those days, and we did not have the pressure of being a new country with all of the known world, and when I say that I mean England, who wanted so dearly our cotton, that at that time was not possible to do without slaves, and of course they knew that. We must also remember that the world was just coming to the end of a long and ugly history of slavery, who all the other countries say "we got rid of them before America did, but then demanded our goods of which we needed to sale to pay our war debt to France. It is all a very confusing thing to those who have not studied it out, but it was Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams and the like who are blamed for something they worked to make possible the end. As for what Jefferson said about the African race seemed to be the attitude of most whites in this country until the early 1950's and I see no one beating their fathers about that. On the other hand, right now today there are more children and women sold into sex slavery than all the slaves that were in America then and we say nothing, leaving only the Founding Fathers, who cannot defend themselves to beat about. I am sorry L.R. to take up so much space on your post, but it is something I feel very strongly about. After all, if it wasn't for these men we must wonder if any man would be free today.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
6th Mar 2015 (#)

Very passionate argument, Utah Jay. I really appreciate it. I hope you understand the presentation as I wrote it. The facts are there, and granted my history, like all written history, is an interpretation of the facts; but I still stand by the conclusions I have a made. You have, however, placed those facts in an even richer context.

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author avatar Retired
6th Mar 2015 (#)

Yes, Utah Jay does make a valid point here. and I apologise for my earlier intemperance.

As I have said elsewhere, it is important not pass judgments on the actions of people in the past when we view them through the lens of the present - in other words, although there are some universal rights and wrongs, there are others that are nowhere near as clear-cut. We should not blame people unduly for behaving in ways that nobody at the time would have condemned.

That said, having double standards is not easy to forgive - such as demanding that other people act morally when one has no intention of applying the same structures to oneself. That is the charge that Jefferson's ghost has to answer!

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
6th Mar 2015 (#)

Gentlemen, your comments remind me of that great quote of William Faulkner: "'The past is never dead. It's not even past."

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author avatar Retired
7th Mar 2015 (#)

You have garnered a number of interesting comments that reveal more about the commenters than they reflect on your piece!

Well, perhaps that's an overstatement reflecting poorly on your quite excellent article on Jefferson. Not my intention. It was well written and researched.

Jefferson was an aristocrat of his time, and, in my opinion, reflects the attitudes of the elite liberal ruling class of today. As many know, they speak of the values they would impose upon others while they act out the practices prohibited for others...kind of like Al Gore demanding everyone to reduce their carbon footprint while his has far outgrown his shoes!

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
7th Mar 2015 (#)

Thank you, LeRain. I probably put more into that piece than any other individual wikinut article. I actually became more critical the more I researched TJ's life, though I acknowledge his brilliance and service to the country are of incalculable value.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
20th Mar 2015 (#)

This is a well-written and very balanced article -- as you already know. Jefferson was at best a complicated individual, and being under the scrutiny of 20th and 21st century historians on his French and American leadership and choices is perhaps unfair.
I think, for example, the way he spoke of blacks' lesser intelligence in his quote probably has more to do with their level of education and poverty (as he does mention is a possibility). Given his limited exposure to workers in the field, given history, it's not surprising he would have this view -- and it's not unlike some men's views of women, or any oppressor's views of those they oppress.
So many facets here, and no easy answers. And that is what makes it so difficult to change the present -- people in power don't want to give it up.
Thanks for taking the time to study this biography so carefully, for attempting to educate, and for taking such trouble not to rush to condemn. Jefferson was a man, not a saint, and though he had a futuristic eye on many things, he was still a product of his history, the people he had to rule, and more that our view may not allow us to understand.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
21st Mar 2015 (#)

Very well stated, Phyl. I approve this message.

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author avatar Annie69
5th Oct 2015 (#)

Very good article. Much of what you quoted Jefferson as saying (which was accurate) was also said by Lincoln. Lincoln didn't consider them equals in any sense of the word either. He just wanted them free so they could be sent back to Africa. I haven't researched as much on Jefferson, YET. Thanks for the eye opener,

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author avatar Retired
5th Oct 2015 (#)

Annie, You might also bear in mind that the African state of Liberia was created not so much to return former slaves to their home continent as to rid America of an unwanted black population.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
5th Oct 2015 (#)

John is largely correct, though this fact must be tempered with the good intention that blacks, by "returning" to Africa (even if they were born here) would evade discrimination and hostility.

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author avatar Retired
5th Oct 2015 (#)

Many of the returnees were no more welcome in Africa than they had been in America - but I would not have expected the American "exporters" to know that.

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