The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson

Good Sunday morning. My friend Denny Burke’s Sunday morning jazz selection this week is “Time After Time” by Miles Davis.

A few blogs ago, I tried to make sense of the move at James Madison Memorial High School to change the school’s name because Madison owned slaves.

Here’s a far more eloquent discussion on the same theme, this time from an historian, about the decision to move a statute of Thomas Jefferson out of New York City Hall. This piece by Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, was posted on October 22nd in Persuasion. I’ve excerpted it below. I’ve taken the editor’s prerogative of highlighting passages that I thought were most compelling.

Here goes:

“Efforts to repudiate Jefferson are, by now, familiar enough. The reassessment of historical figures traditionally celebrated for their contributions to American equality is nothing new, as in Lerone Bennett Jr.’s much-criticized but widely-read vilification of Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist. Jefferson has become a particularly fraught case, due in large part to his slaveholding and his ugly remarks about Africans in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Additionally, historians have affirmed longstanding speculations that he had sexual relations and conceived several children with one of his young slaves, Sally Hemings, who also happened to be, almost certainly, his late wife’s half-sister.

“The most authoritative interpreter of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Annette Gordon-Reed, has described it as a fundamentally absurd and unequal but ultimately respectful long-term bond. Contrary to Gordon-Reed’s historical evidence, however, Jefferson gained a reputation as a rapist, a systematic abuser of black women, and a sadistic slave owner. Blend enough sensational falsehood into his biography and it’s easy enough to invent a Thomas Jefferson who was a perfect monster, unfit for celebration of any kind, let alone in New York’s City Hall.”

“One need not accept portrayals of Jefferson as a moral monster to see that he had flaws from which any fair-minded twenty first century observer recoils. But study him awhile and he appears to have been a man of contradictions. Notes on the State of Virginia indeed contains hair-raising comments about black people, closer than not to the common view among his fellow white Virginians. It also contains an indictment of racial slavery as an offense to heaven—an uncommon view in Virginia, especially among slaveholders. (“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Jefferson wrote, a remark that impressed his antislavery Massachusetts friend John Adams as “worth diamonds.”) 

“There is the early Jefferson who took firm antislavery stances, to the point of heading a committee of the Confederation Congress in 1784 that sought to ban the introduction of slavery into any American territory. About two decades later, as president, he completed the abolition of U.S. participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Then there is also the later Jefferson, who backed off from any public expressions of antislavery opinion, to the point, in 1820, of supporting the introduction of slavery into Missouri Territory over the intense objection of antislavery northerners.

Above all, there is Jefferson’s greatest contribution to America, indeed, to humankind, in the Declaration of Independence’s simple assertion that all men are created equal. The declaration’s universalist claim was a deeply radical statement then, and remains radical today. It expressed an idea that swept beyond Jefferson’s own time to inspire future abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and every variety of champion for human rights. Although there were radical egalitarians before Jefferson, there had never been anything quite like the declaration, which became the basis of a democratic political order that rejected monarchs, hereditary aristocrats, and theocrats. Furthermore, had Jefferson prevailed over the objections of delegates from the Lower South, the declaration would have included a denunciation of slavery and the slave trade as violations of human nature’s “most sacred rights of life and liberty.”

Even when Jefferson lived, there were some who claimed that he didn’t really mean what he wrote in the declaration, that he really meant to say that only white men were created equal. Yet never, either in public or in private, did Jefferson seek to amend or modify the wording of his greatest contribution. His failure to do so made him and his declaration deeply suspicious to later generations of pro-slavery advocates and their allies, who denounced the declaration as a pack of “self-evident lies,” a farrago of “glittering generalities”—that is, as a standing rebuke to their barbaric cause. 

Indeed, it was Jefferson, more than any other American, who set the standard by which we find him so lacking, the universal standard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked when he quoted Jefferson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, meanwhile, warned that those who would forsake Jefferson were “the vanguard—the miners and sappers—of returning despotism.”

“The statue in City Hall, created by the great French sculptor David d’Angers, specifically honors Jefferson for the declaration, as well as his work to secure religious liberty. Thinking back on Lincoln’s observation, it thus struck me as especially bizarre to repudiate Jefferson and his declaration at the very moment when authoritarianism and despotism are on the rise. Now, more than ever, the most vulnerable among us depend on Jefferson’s egalitarian standard.”

Welcome to the 249th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson

  1. “…he appears to have been a man of contradictions”. Any person with aspirations of a better life or a better world has to deal with the contrast between the current and future situation. Most people who give up smoking fail 8 – 11 times. Good for them. Gorbachev was a communist. Jesus was Jew. Any couch potato knows that the benefit comes from moving their bodies for a year and not just joining a health club. But health club owners know that many people will not stick with it. Greta Thunberg would save a lot of greenhouse gas emissions if she just stayed home. It’s the human condition to have our feet on the ground (Earth), and if we dare, our heads in the sky (Heaven).

    Anyone who has ideals greater than themselves is a hypocrite! You can add George Washington to the list of greats who really disappoint when you read the story of their lives.

    If only we had had a perfect group of people to found the nation. Or, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered. Britain ended slavery in their colonies in 1833, decades before the un-United States in 1863. (Before we give them too much credit, I would point out that Britain spent billions compensating enslavers for their lost property instead of the enslaved for their lost wages.)

    What a mess! All the greats were engaged in taking imperfect steps on the path. It’s a lot easier to condemn than it is to stand up and improve on their legacy. I’ve decided that I’m a bigger George Washington fan than ever. Looking at these people makes me want to get up and get on with it. I’m going to save the planet! Now if I could only figure out what kind of replacement boiler will work in a 114-year old house. Future generations will point out that I’m just another carbon-burning addict. Give me a cheap energy fix, dammit!

    The greats said, go ahead and criticize me, I’m going to make a difference anyway, and furthermore, I’m going to enroll you in my vision and the ensuing imperfect experiment. And then Washington, Jefferson, and Madison got on with making mistakes and sometimes failing to live up to their ideals. It got messier before it got better. That’s what made them great people.


  2. Great historical perspective Dave, thank you. I would have bolded the Lincoln statement:

    Lincoln, meanwhile, warned that those who would forsake Jefferson were “the vanguard—the miners and sappers—of returning despotism.

    as particularly prescient and in no way bizarre that these events are happening right now. Despotism and totalitarianism are coming from the Left this time. The far left is unable to see the complexity of being human. Unless the moderates are able to wrest control of the Democratic party, Lincoln’s statement only a taste of our near term future..


  3. “A historian who judges a man in the context of today’s time and standards and not the standards and conditions of the time in which the subject lived commits a scholarly sin. The attempt to understand people in their context and on their terms requires that we temporarily suspend judgment. Understanding the America of the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s obliges us to make the effort of not judging it by the standards and values of today.”__Norman L. Wacht


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