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In Defense of Tom Jefferson

Dear Editor, 

I compliment you for defending history last week.  There is a misguided effort in our country and this city to remove the likeness of from Thomas Jefferson from the public square.  This effort contorts history.  Jefferson was a brilliant and complex man who should be embraced by Americans of all stripes.   

Let’s cut to the rub. Activists are outraged that Jefferson owned slaves. This outrage is akin to the police captain who was “shocked, shocked” that gambling was going on in the casino. Jefferson was born into a family of means in 1743 Virginia. His parents owned slaves. His neighbors owned slaves. He inherited slaves from his father and father-in-law.  In that world, children of rich landowners were “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.”  No one questioned the inferiority and subjugation of “Negroes.” But Thomas Jefferson did. 

Jefferson was one of the foremost opponents of slavery in his time.  He came to national prominence during the debate on American independence in 1776 and is the author of one of the world’s most famous documents — the first to spell out American ideals. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced slavery and the slave trade.  Those clauses did not survive the debate because the southernmost states would not agree to a new union if the price of that union was giving up their slaves. 

But Jefferson’s efforts did not end there.  In 1778, he introduced a Virginia law prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784, he proposed a ban on slavery in new territories that would eventually choke off all slavery in America.  As President, he outlawed the slave trade in 1807.  President Jefferson suffered from migraines, supposedly due to his inability to find a way to end slavery in our country.  After his presidency, Jefferson continued to explore paths toward emancipation. 

A well-read foe of Jefferson can certainly point to things he wrote that are cringe-worthy by today’s standards – especially if taken out of context.  While he did not blindly accept the prejudiced thinking of his southern peers, Jefferson’s “scientific” conclusions over the years are contradictory and racist.  At one point, he believed black people were equal to white people in memory, inferior to white and “red” people in reasoning, and superior in music.   

If you want Jefferson to be as perfect as a statue, words like these are hard to read.  If you want to tear him down then words like these are the sum total of the man.  Both perspectives are dishonest.  The truth is more complex as was his personal journey of an American lifetime.  What is indisputable is that Jefferson, throughout his adulthood, argued for and worked for blacks to re-establish “an equal footing with the other colors of the human family.” 

I wonder if Jefferson would find it ironic that some modern activists now revile him because of his ownership of slaves whereas the white political opponents to his presidency in 1800 and 1804 pilloried Jefferson for his hatred of slavery and his relationship with a black woman. 

For decades, Jefferson – a widower – had a “relationship” with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. They had multiple children together. While Jefferson could never publicly acknowledge his other family, he educated his black children and –keeping a pledge he made to Ms. Hemings– set them free.  In his final words on slavery in 1826, Jefferson wrote that the end of this evil “will ever be in my most fervent prayer.”   

It is easy to look back 200 years and, with 21st century perspective, focus on things that we find appalling. Who knows what people in the 23rd century will say about us? Banishing Jefferson based solely on the fact he owned slaves (and failed in his efforts to end slavery in America) without looking at his life as a whole does everyone a disservice.  He was perhaps the most important Founding Father.  He had a profound impact on America and the world.  The contradictions of Jefferson’s life –the gaps between soaring ideals and questionable decisions– mirror America’s ongoing struggles.  If we banish Jefferson, we are banishing ourselves. 

Thomas Jefferson was not perfect. No human being is ever as wondrous as statues we create to memorialize them. Thomas Jefferson is, however, an important symbol for all Americans — regardless of skin color. Jefferson’s great accomplishments and his failures belong to all Americans. His story crisscrosses our great racial fault line.  Let’s learn from his life, not dishonor his legacy. 

Paul King