Jefferson and Slavery: Thoughts in Black and White [Nov. 25, 2008]
The purpose of this three-part study is to share different approaches and personal insights with regard to Thomas Jefferson's views on the institution of slavery. Each of the three sections have been independently researched and written by a multi-racial panel of historical writers. The contributors include a biracial female: Liane DiStefano, an African-American male: Christopher Williams, and a Caucasian male: Michael Aubrecht. The goal of this comparative and contrasting study is to showcase the diversity that people of different colors share when examining the same historical individual or subject matter. All three of the posted essays are based on credible source material, with each author's personal style, experiences, and interpretations added. We invite our readers to email their own insights on the subject, as our ultimate ambition is to generate an intelligent discussion on the sensitive subject of race as it relates to American history. Reader's comments will be posted as received in a special section here at The Jefferson Project.
By Liane DiStefano
"Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America." - Thomas Jefferson in his reply to Benjamin Banneker, a black astronomer and almanac author who sent Jefferson a copy of his almanac and a letter refuting the inherent inferiority of blacks.
Some often lament the "moral decline" they perceive to be all too obvious in today's society and will longingly recall the great character of our forefathers: George Washington, the great and honest general; or Thomas Jefferson, the brilliant statesman, Renaissance man, and primary author of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, I distinctly remember reading an editorial in my university newspaper in which the writer lamented that he sorely missed the upstanding values of days gone by and specifically named Washington and Jefferson as pillars of morality. This editorial appeared around the time that then-President Bill Clinton was caught being less than truthful, under oath, about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
At the time, I was reading about Thomas Jefferson in an African-American history class, and I learned that, among other things, Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, and he was reviled by the press in his day. In fact, Jefferson's contemporary, James Callender, launched a relentless campaign against him and alleged that he had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. This plotline rivals those of today's tabloid publications.
So who is worse, I wondered, William Jefferson Clinton or Thomas Jefferson? Is it even fair to hold our forefathers to the same standards we hold ourselves to today? More specifically, should I, as a biracial woman, be indifferent to Jefferson's slaveholding and apparent denial of his relationship with Hemings while lauding him for his contributions to the birth of this great nation? I didn't think so then, and here's why.
Jefferson's writings reveal a great deal about him and his belief that one's "moral sense" is "as much a part of man as his leg or arm." And there is ample evidence in his writings to support the understanding that Jefferson was considerably ill-at-ease with the institution of slaveholding. His writings also reveal his tendency to try to subscribe to the racial theory that blacks were inferior, even as he penned "...all men are created equal" and unequivocally believed that certain rights were endowed by the Creator to every man. Clearly Jefferson was of two minds, or two hearts, about the institution of slavery and could never reconcile the two. And he continued to own slaves. So, as a biracial woman, I've come to two conclusions about Jefferson as a slave owner:
1. He knew he needed his slaves to ensure his fortune.
2. He needed to believe the faulty science of enslaved blacks' racial inferiority, a theory that really got a toehold when the need to justify the practice of slaveholding became necessary.
Pragmatic? Maybe. But in my neck of the woods, this is also called "selling out."
In his "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson attempted to explain his position on the "inherent" inferiority of blacks:
"[Blacks] have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor...They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, knowing he must be out with first dawn of the morning...In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor."
So Jefferson discussed his mostly aesthetic observations of enslaved blacks, from which he inferred that by act of nature blacks are inferior to whites. He was evidently offended by the scent of a sweaty slave who had toiled all day in the hot sun. He observed that after working from dawn until dusk, the slaves still stole a few hours to commune with one another, instead of "refreshing" their bodies with sleep so that they might toil more productively the next day. Further, Jefferson presented the contradictory observation that instead of utilizing free time to cultivate their intellectual ability, enslaved blacks often slept. All of these observations led Jefferson to infer by inductive reasoning that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. He observed the behavior of his slaves and related his findings to the nature of the entire black race. Jefferson seemed to recognize this backward reasoning and attempted to justify it:
"Comparing [blacks] 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...It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them, indeed, have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society; yet many have been so situated that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites."
So for Jefferson, his initial declaration that blacks are naturally inferior to whites was complicated by his obligation to consider the environment in which enslaved blacks existed. And when Jefferson was presented with evidence that blacks are capable of intellectual achievement, he was less ambiguous (see opening quote). Jefferson made sense of his observations of enslaved blacks, not by conforming his thoughts to the observations, but by formulating the observations into his own mindset; therefore, he had little use for the very real evidence of the capacity of a black's intelligence, as demonstrated by Benjamin Banneker. Rather, he chose to regard Banneker as the exception, not the rule.
Thomas Jefferson was not the first slaveholder. There have been slaves since time immemorial, but the actual "race" of those enslaved was not a relevant issue until the need to justify the continued subjugation of blacks arose; then the scientific endeavor to prove blacks as inferior took root. And Jefferson chimed right in - a man of such great intellect presenting such a weak argument!
To this day, when I visit Monticello, I'm so moved by what is revealed about Jefferson's intellectual capacity. He demonstrated mastery of horticulture, paleontology, architecture - the house is a wondrous masterpiece! Jefferson was a man of invention, endowed with a rare intelligence. It's difficult not to be inspired by him and his work.
So I cannot subscribe to the belief that Jefferson ever felt that slaveholding was natural; I believe he knew, for him and many other economically successful white citizens, it was necessary. Jefferson wasn't an "uneducated hick" doing what had always been done. His writings and work reveal that he knew slaveholding was wrong, but he still held slaves, for whatever reasons. That's a painful realization.
Today he, like all of our founding fathers, is considered in the context of our knowledge of their times and each one's accomplished life as a whole. At this point, to try to "expose" Jefferson as anything less than the brilliant man he was and deny his work in building this great nation would be silly. He's reached that realm of infallibility that we all - white, black, or other - assign to our Founding Fathers and other great Americans. But also, I live in an age in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not solely granted to whites. I was born after the Civil Rights Movement and in an era in which it is legal for a black man and a white woman to marry. And ultimately, I do believe that this was indeed Jefferson's dream.
Liane DiStefano is a copy editor, born in Georgia and raised in Virginia where she still resides. Her interest in Thomas Jefferson began when she read a fictional account of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings (Sally Hemings: A Novel by Barbara Chase-Ribaud) and grew while studying Southern and African-American history at George Mason University. One of Liane's favorite pastimes is taking (dragging?) her children to historic sites throughout Virginia.
By Christopher Williams
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "To be great is to be misunderstood."
As a fourth grader at Salem Elementary school I first learned of the great Thomas Jefferson in Mrs. Jones class. We learned how much of a role he had in shaping the foundation of our country. One of the field trips we went on that year was to the very place he constructed, Monticello. This was said to be one of his most crowning achievements. He was indeed a multitalented and multifaceted individual whose influenced spread not only nationwide but abroad. I've often wondered with all the power he had in shaping the United States of America could he have done more to abolish the slave trade in the same respect William Wilberforce did in England.
My feelings for him over the years have remained the same. Growing up in the Commonwealth of Virginia there are certain things you learned when you were in elementary school like the stories of George Washington as a boy when he cut down his father's cherry tree and threw a rock across the Rappahannock River as well as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson playing instrumental roles in establishing the foundation for a nation that would eventually be named the United States of America.
As an African-American child, the only things I learned about blacks in school were the fact they were enslaved by an unjust system, Crispus Attucks, Dr. King and Malcolm X, and some inventors such as Charles Drew and George Washington Carver. I yearned to learn more about my own heritage and the roles they played in helping leaders like Thomas Jefferson acquire the fortitude to take on the British crown to demand their independence and formulate a strategy to develop their own country, but that didn't come until after my formal years of schooling.
Through the information I've digested about Mr. Jefferson it seems he was contradictory with the very notion of freedom and enslavement. He grew up on a slave plantation, owned slaves, and through DNA testing is believed to have produced six offspring with a slave named Sally Hemings. This is information I learned when I took a history course at my alma-mater Virginia Commonwealth University. While in the House of Burgesses he proposed that the House should emancipate slaves in Virginia but was unsuccessful. In his drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson spoke eloquently about human rights in the Preamble. Inside of the original document there was a section that touched on the topic of the rights of African slaves, but was voted to be extracted by the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia.
Jefferson condemned the British crown for sponsoring the importation of slavery to the colonies, concluding that the crown "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 hemisphere." In the Northwest Ordinance he stated that slavery should not be permitted to operate in the new territories admitted to the Union from the Northwest Territory. He also signed a bill in 1807 as president of the United States requesting the abolition of the slave trade, in that same year, England abolished slavery in all of her colonies. It makes me think that if the United States waited to fight the Revolutionary War thirty-five or forty more years the practice of the slave trade would have been abolished here as well.
Here are two excerpts about his thoughts of slavery from the only book he ever published "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1784.
"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient."
"For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another; in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. - But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation."
Those words are indicative of a man who was strongly against slavery, but unlike William Wilberforce he couldn't nullify the expansion of the trade itself. Yes, it's true Wilberforce devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade, but he never thought that blacks were an inferior race to whites. In this same work Jefferson clearly states that blacks are unequal to their white counterparts.
"To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. 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. This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people."
If I were to have a conversation with Mr. Jefferson, I would ask him one question, ‘How can blacks be subordinate to whites when never given an opportunity to compete and have equal rights and citizenship?' In same breath you yearn to give blacks freedom, you desire to have them deported back to Africa peacefully. He also said that blacks and whites could never co-exist in the same homeland and I'll be the first one to admit it has been a struggle, but as saying the goes the proof is in the pudding. Every great man has his faults and this topic was indeed his Achilles heel. He was on the right side for providing manumission for an entire race of people who were being subjugated by his constituents, but dead wrong on the inferiority between the races.
As history has shown when you give everyone the same opportunities successes are more prevalent than failures. When Jefferson wrote those aforementioned words he still was a slaveholder in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was unwilling to let go of his slaves and produce the very labor his African counterparts were undertaking. Some will say he was a product of the society he was living in, but he was one the great minds who molded their philosophical and moral thinking. Jefferson held every important office in politics during the 18th and early 19th centuries. He served in the House of Burgesses and the Virginia House of Delegates. He was the governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and the 3rd president of the United States of America. A man with such accomplishments could have done everything in his power to assuage the inhumane practice of slavery.
It is fair to say Jefferson understood the implications of morality in the argument against slavery, but not for the morality in placing the races on a balanced playing field. From the inception of this country, race has been a delicate subject to discuss. Even the greatest of minds like Thomas Jefferson struggled with the subject, but few of those great minds had the power Thomas Jefferson did in formulating the blueprint of a country. The blame doesn't fall solely on him, but he should share some of the responsibility. For it is worth at the end of his life due to his debts he emancipated his five most trusted slaves and the others were sold after he died in 1826.
Christopher Williams is a lifelong Virginian who attended Virginia Commonwealth University and graduated with a degree in journalism. He has a great interest in African-American history, as well as World History as it pertains to telling the stories of how the world has developed over centuries. His interest in Thomas Jefferson was re-ignited by this endeavor. Christopher was recently selected as a contributing writer for Fredericksburg, VA's Free Lance-Star: Town & County paper.
By Michael Aubrecht
As one who has been traditionally referred to as a ‘Confederate' historian, meaning that I have written the majority of my published materials from the South's perspective, I am very aware of the current controversy surrounding ‘Lost Cause' mythology. I recognize the unfortunate reality that the Confederate Battle Flag has been hijacked by hate groups who have desecrated the banner with their own political agendas. And I consciously acknowledge the hypocrisy of secessionists fighting for their own independence while maintaining the institution of slavery over another race. It is an unfortunate, but indisputable truth. That said, I have had little trouble resolving the issue of slavery when examining our nation's history. From our Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, to Confederate commanders like "Stonewall" Jackson, my personal judgment over their practice of racism remains relatively minimal when compared to the rest of their contributions to America. Both Jefferson and Jackson were, to the best of my knowledge, known to have treated their slaves decently and perhaps it was this ‘paternalism' that helped to soften the harsh reality that they both looked down upon African-Americans.
This mindset of course was commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, as most members of the South's aristocratic society practiced white supremacy in one form or another. Others not as openly racist were, at best, benign on the issue of human bondage. Still many historical figures, including the aforementioned gentlemen, were troubled by the practice of slavery. We know this as writings from both men exhibit the moral conflict that plagued their consciences. It is extremely challenging, at times, to accurately interpret their true feelings, and historians still struggle to understand them today.
As my own studies advanced deeper into the life of Thomas Jefferson, I found myself becoming acutely aware of the stark differences in how one may interpret the lives of our nation's notable figures, when compared to the interpretations of others. Specifically, I discovered a completely different point of view when these were defined by my African-American colleagues. It seems that "my Jefferson" isn't at all like "their Jefferson" and my experience when visiting Monticello is also very different from theirs. I don't believe that this is due to any insensitivity on my part, as I do not approve of any form of racial inequality. However, I do believe that it's because, as a white man, I don't take the institution of slavery personally. My ancestors were never victims of this injustice. Therefore, when I examine the issue, I tend to look at it from "a distance."
Jefferson experienced the institution of slavery directly, as Monticello's slave population resided just over the hill from the main house, on what was referred to as "Mulberry Row." Often the master would walk along the path tracing the 150+ slave workforce community which included family dwellings, wood and ironwork shops, a smokehouse, a dairy, and a wash house and stable. "Mulberry Row" was the center of plantation activity from the 1770s to Jefferson's death in 1826. Five log cabin dwellings were also built near the site for additional household servants who did not fit in the basement-level dependency wings of the estate. Today, visitors can trace Jefferson's footsteps on the grounds of Monticello, although the outbuildings are no longer standing on Mulberry Row. The dependency wings are open to the public and the adjoining kitchen and sleeping quarters appear much the same as they did in Jefferson's time. Despite the initial appearance of a bustling plantation community, one cannot forget that it was populated by slaves. And regardless of the quality of life that Jefferson's servants appear to have shared over other Africans held in bondage, they were still held as property.
Like their proprietor, Monticello slaves maintained an arduous schedule. Most servants worked from dawn to dusk, six days of the week. Only on Sundays and holidays could they pursue their own affairs. These included prayer meetings and worship, spiritual singing, and night excursions, when wild honey would be gathered for their personal consumption. The supplementing of rations was also practiced as farm hands grew acres of vegetables, fished the river, and trapped game. Unlike many masters, Jefferson actually paid his slaves a monetary share for extra vegetables, chickens, and fish for the main house, as well as for special tasks performed outside their normal working hours. He also encouraged some of his enslaved artisans by offering them a percentage of what they produced in their shops. An extremely diversified man himself, Jefferson was most likely impressed by the skills that were cultivated by his slaves. In this respect, his treatment of them imitates a mutual respect for hard working individuals who cared about contributing to Monticello's well-being. Jefferson's very good friend James Madison also appreciated the vocations exhibited on Mulberry Row and purchased all of the nails used to enlarge his neighboring estate of Montpelier from Jefferson's nail foundry.
The conflict that existed between Jefferson the slave holder and Jefferson the proponent of liberty is still being debated and examined to this very day. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, who is tasked with preserving and presenting the storied legacy of its namesake, Jefferson's words and deeds are contradictory on the issue of slavery. Although he drafted the words "all men are created equal," and worked to limit the stranglehold of slavery on the new country, he personally found no political or economic remedies for the problem, and trusted that future generations would find a solution. "But as it is," Jefferson wrote, "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."
For his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by the practice of slavery. In 1764, he inherited 20 slaves from his father. Ten years later, he inherited 135 more from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who was involved in the importation of enslaved Africans into Virginia. By 1796, Jefferson owned approximately 170 slaves with 50 living on his property in Bedford County and 120 residing in Albemarle. Each residence was completely dependent on the use of forced labor, from the planting of fields to the daily operations of the house. Slave labor was also the economic force behind many of Jefferson's enterprises. It seems that his lifestyle demanded the practice, regardless of his prejudices against it.
Ironically, throughout his career, both politically and personally, Jefferson repeatedly voiced displeasure with the institution of slavery. He often referred to it as an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity," a "hideous blot," and a "fatal stain" that deformed "what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts." He was successful in outlawing international slave trade in the Old Dominion, but continued to keep slaves on all of his farms in Virginia. This blatant contradiction illustrates the complexity that was Thomas Jefferson. One conclusion is that he believed that a practicable solution to this moral dilemma could not be found in his lifetime. He still continued, however, to advocate privately his own emancipation plan, which included a provision for colonizing slaves outside the boundaries of the United States.
Without a doubt, the most controversial issue, with regard to slavery and the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, is the proposed relationship between Sally Hemings and him. A house slave, Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha. Not merely a modern scandal, rumors that Jefferson had fathered multiple children with Sally Hemings entered the public arena during his first term as president. It continued to hang over Jefferson's memory for many years. In 1998, Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists revealed that they had, "established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings (born 1808), the last-known child born to Sally Hemings. There were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this chromosome living in Virginia at that time, and a few of them are known to have visited Monticello. The study's authors, however, said ‘the simplest and most probable' conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings."
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation's official statement on the matter declares, "Although the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been for many years, and will surely continue to be, a subject of intense interest to historians and the public, the evidence is not definitive, and the complete story may never be known. The Foundation encourages its visitors and patrons, based on what evidence does exist, to make up their own minds as to the true nature of the relationship." This adds an entirely new layer to the complexity of Thomas Jefferson's views, not only on slavery, but also on race in general.
To this day, the "Hemings Affair" remains a hotly contested topic among Jefferson experts and enthusiasts alike. It is inevitably a blemish on the life of a man who ultimately helped to establish a nation built on the foundation of freedom. Ironically, the division over the matter is often rooted in conflicting racial perspectives. This has been expressed in a variety of ways over the years. Regardless of the color of their skin, some individuals do not feel comfortable with the idea of an interracial or intimate relationship between a master and his slave. Others are bothered by either the notion of an older white man taking advantage of a younger black woman, or the hypocritical practice of owning some African-Americans while simultaneously bedding another. Perhaps there is no clear conclusion to the mystery surrounding this relationship. Still it speaks to the idea that different people of different races look upon the matter in different ways.
This can be said for all aspects of Thomas Jefferson's extraordinary life. When visiting his estate, I have always been in awe of the magnificent architecture, beautiful gardens, and the breath-taking view of the valley that surrounds Monticello Mountain. Inside the main house, I remain in astonishment of Jefferson's boundless creativity, ingenuity, and practicality. Every room and every item appears to have a distinct purpose. Beneath the dependency wings, I can also appreciate the daily contributions of the house staff, from the baking of bread in the kitchen to the ingenious preservation of perishable goods in the icehouse. A visit to the nearby Visitor's Center reinforces the notion that few men were as intelligent or as creative as Jefferson and that few households in the Commonwealth were as productive as Monticello.
Over the years, I never realized the difference in appearance that Jefferson's world offers to whites and blacks. I sympathized with Monticello's servants, but was distracted by the romantic stories of Victorian life. It never entered my mind that the residents of Mulberry Row were not there by choice. They were not working for themselves, nor were they living for themselves. They were working and living for Master Jefferson. These slaves were considered property and were even included in Monticello's official inventory of goods. I now wonder how Jefferson resolved this. Like many slaveholders in the antebellum South, his paternalistic approach to slavery may have eased his conscience.
According to the Jefferson Encyclopedia, "By creating a moral and social distance between himself and enslaved people, by pushing them down the ‘scale of beings,' he could consider himself as the ‘father' of ‘children' who needed his protection. As he wrote of slaves in 1814, ‘brought up from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [they] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.' In the manner of other paternalistic slaveholders, he thus saw himself as the benevolent steward of the African Americans to whom he was bound in a relation of mutual dependency and obligation."
If Jefferson simply viewed his slaves as his children, then perhaps his intentions were more civil than those of his contemporaries. But why didn't he simply free them? One answer may be found in the legal requirements of that time period. In a letter to Edward Coles, dated Aug 25, 1814, he wrote, "The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good." In 1789, he wrote to Edward Bancroft, "As far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children." Thus, he seems to have sincerely believed that the real source of this injustice was the institution of slavery itself.
Another answer may be found in the extreme debt that he collected over the years. Some historians say that if Jefferson had attempted to free any of his slaves, his creditors would have repossessed them immediately, because they were held as private property and were considered collateral for his debt. Regardless, Jefferson's actions in owning slaves, denying his ‘rumored' paternity of them, and refusing to release all of them even upon his death, remain quite bothersome when considering the very standards he articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
So the question remains: Does his practice of the sin of slavery make Thomas Jefferson any less deserving of our accolades? Personally, I would say no. Racism is a fault that has spanned all peoples and generations. It is a primal flaw in man's fallen nature. It is to be condemned and it should never be glossed over. Unfortunately, it will probably never go away. That said, we cannot judge our forefathers with the same standards that we live by today. We are light-years ahead of our ancestors in terms of racial and gender equality. Perhaps this was no better illustrated than through the 2008 presidential race. In the very month that I type this, America has just witnessed the election of the first African-American president of the United States. Jefferson himself would likely be pleasantly surprised by this development as he was an enlightened man who sought progress in humanity.
I believe we can still praise Thomas Jefferson's gifts while honestly acknowledging his flaws. He was a man of many words and he produced thousands of writings that span hundreds of volumes over his eighty-three years. Perhaps his feelings on slavery can best be answered by quoting his own autobiography, where he wrote, "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [blacks] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them."
Of course Jefferson's first statement is true and the second one, thankfully, couldn't be more wrong. In fact, this series of multi-racial essays, and the kinship of the diverse authors that wrote them, are a testament to that fact. It is certainly self-evident, that all men and women are created equal regardless of the color of their skin, or their historical perceptions.
Michael Aubrecht is an author and historian from Fredericksburg, VA. His affection for the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson began on a family vacation to Monticello. His favorite book is "The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson: An autobiography and public and private letters," which was penned by the man himself. Michael has published multiple books and hundreds of articles on the histories of Major League Baseball and the Civil War.