October 30, 2009


There's a popular myth out there that upon completing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson went back to Virginia and freed all of his slaves. That didn't happen in real life. Jefferson's relationship with slavery remains for me (and everyone else) the hardest part of his legacy to accept or make sense of. It's easy enough (right or wrong) for us evolved folk to gloss over the people-owning. We are all products of our time. But to do so would be letting TJ off the hook too easily.
First, of the thinkers and potuses of the time, none was so Cavalier about accepting the slavery. Washington was exceedingly kind to his servants and during his presidency operated his plantation as Schindler did his factory: losing money, poor productivity, everyone treated as a person. His excellency freed his slaves upon his death. The Adamses abhorred slavery. They received a slave once as a gift and immediately set her free. Abigail thought that EVERYTHING- from the revolutionary war to a child's sore throat- was God's punishing america for the evil institution. Yeah, he was from Virginia, but so was GW, and besides we expect greatness greater than this from our great men.
Also there is Sally Hemings.The Bernstein book largely ignores that elephant, but as literary convention would have it, the book has an epilogue.It points out that despite 200 years of compelling circumstantial evidence, mainstream historians.usually dismissed the claims of the Hemings-Jefferson offspring, and those who supported them. They were the original birthers. Now with widely accepted DNA testing techniques (which came way too late for generations of jefferson issue and ronald goldman), we know that the rumors are true. And as it is hard to imagine one's property consenting to a sexual relationship (or even having the capacity to do do), well, it's uncomfortable.
It's actually nonsensical. How could this guy, who as a youth proudly considered himself a "freeborn british subject," who started a war over tea taxes, who penned the clearest moral statement in the western world's history of man's responsibility to his fellows (We hold these truths to be Self-Evident...)--- how could he house one of his families in luxury in Monticello and the other in squalor in his backyard?
In her last post Janet notes that Jefferson was famed for his stoicism. Shakespeare (whose house Janet and I will never tire of telling you that Adams and Jefferson visited together) told of another Stoic, who crushed his conscience's stirrings under a belief that his compromises were in the best interest of his country. But Brutus is an honorable man.

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