CROSSOVER POST: Race and remembrance: A blog essay and photo tour that examines how slavery is being interpreted at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello by Michael Aubrecht.
“Reflection,...with information, is all which our countrymen need...” - Thomas Jefferson, 1798
The purpose of this blog is to share essays, insights, and personal thoughts on the life of Thomas Jefferson. Truly an enlightened man, Jefferson remains one of the most celebrated and debated politicians in the history of our nation. Some experts have even gone as far as to state that he was the most ‘civilized’ citizen ever to come from the Revolution era.
The roles of rebel and politician however, were only two of his many talents. He was also a brilliant statesman, inventor, architect, philosopher, lawyer, author, agriculturalist, farmer, scientist, surveyor, educator, horseback rider, violinist, chess master, correspondent, traveler, and diarist. He is directly credited with helping to create an infinitely prosperous nation that is rich in individual potential, liberty, and freedom.
He was also an extremely complex man whose legacy has touched many different Americans in many different ways. This is the inspiration behind “The Jefferson Project.” Historians and writers, black and white, amateur and professional will be using this forum to share their own personal thoughts and interpretations on Thomas Jefferson. There is an open invitation to participate and we simply ask that contributors formulate a well written piece that fits the overall theme of this venture. Any aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s life is open to examination.
If you are interested in contributing to “The Jefferson Project,” please email the site administrator, Michael Aubrecht at email@example.com. Please note: We do reserve the right to refuse materials that are poorly authored or are not rooted in credible research. All material posted on this blog remains the copyrighted property of the contributor. Please do not quote without permission.
Dr. Linda Sundquist-Nassie
The "Quotable" Jefferson
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