Thomas Jefferson was an impressive thinker and writer, vital to our American Revolution, but I've never been quite sure how our society should remember him, how we reconcile his good with his bad. My negative knowledge of the man is limited to his most glaringly obvious, by modern standards, failings: slave ownership and sexual relations (producing children) with one slave in particular, Sally Hemmings.
Many people feel that we must forgive historical men their historical context, asking, "If slave owning was the norm at the time of the American Revolution how can we judge a man harshly for owning slaves?" The primary difficulty I have with that line of thinking is the use of the "norm" as a measuring stick. History is replete with examples of barbarous atrocities committed by those observing societal/cultural/historical norms. If any forgiveness is to be granted our collective ancestors I think it must be based not on what was normal but on what those individuals knew (or should have known) and what they themselves believed (versus what they did).
In the case of Jefferson the question becomes, what did he know and believe about slavery? Did he know (or should he have known, i.e. was the information readily available to him that) it was wrong to own another human being? In determining these matters we have the benefit of Jefferson's own words.
Here are a few examples:
"Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, or morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both." -- Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, 1816
And yet despite recognizing bigotry for what it is, he sees black people as inferior, if not by their color than by the situation they are in, as indicated by this quote:
- "For men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young. In the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them."
And yet if it were merely their situation and not their skin color, why would he not try and assist them in elevating their situation and restoring to them the necessity of their thought, as others did and would. He elected not to.
Ultimately he wholly acknowledges the untenable nature of slavery, saying:
"Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." -- Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, 1821
But instead of helping to hasten their expected freedom, he fought that future. And while he supported the concept of gradual emancipation, he wanted emancipation tied to deportation, to ensure that his wealth and that of the nation he helped found was not lost to the possible righteous fury of the men "We the People" kept enslaved. He states it clearly:
"...there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery]... 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. -- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia
Further, he strongly discouraged his friend and protege, Edmund Coles, from freeing his own slaves in a letter titled "Slavery and the Younger Generation". Jefferson wrote:
- "...the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come; and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds; or by the bloody process of St Domingo [slave revolt], excited and conducted by the power of our present enemy, if once stationed permanently within our Country, and offering asylum & arms to the oppressed, is a leaf of our history not yet turned over."
Coles, unlike Jefferson, freed his slaves, taking them to present-day Illinois, a free territory, and giving each head of household 160 acres of land. Coles even provided many employment to ensure their transition into freedom was successful. Jefferson could have done this as well, but he chose not to.
And despite Jefferson clearly preferring and planning for a Whites-only nation, and writing about the evils of mixed-race marriages (miscegenation) with words such as, "Their amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent." Jefferson engaged in at least one prolonged relationship with a slave, and produced mixed-race children (perhaps as many as six).
And one must not consider his relationship with Sally Hemmings, nor any other female slave, to have been anything less than a form of rape. How can property "consent"? How can a woman who has been "rendered as incapable as [a child]" (his words about black people) consent? She may not have fought his advances, may even have encouraged his advances, but at no time did she have the freedom to do much else.
Jefferson kept hundreds as slaves, and counted very much among them were his lover and his many children; not even upon his death were they freed. He sought in death as he did in life to ensure that this nation would not quickly release its claim to their bodies and their souls.
And yet most modern folk forgive Jefferson entirely, dismiss his ownership of fellow humans as normal for the times, making him no less worthy of celebration and praise. And I can't help but wonder, if these people are willing to forgive a man willfully ignoring his informed conscience, his own avowed principles, even to the point of bearing children with a slave and keeping those children in bondage, what then would cause a figure like Jefferson to lose respect? I can imagine few things worse than slavery and rape. Would he have needed to rape a child for his legacy to be seriously tainted? Likely that would not do it either as there is a good chance he did rape a child, at least in the context of our current view on such matters. His relationship with Sally Hemmings began when he was 37 and she was somewhere between 14 and 17. She was sent to Paris (as companion to his daughter) at 14 and was pregnant with his child at 17.
And so I suppose little would, could, or has diminished Jefferson in our nation's eyes, and that makes me uncomfortable, less for the past than for our present crop of popular sinners who should feel emboldened, knowing their own legacies will be similarly forgiven.