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Thomas Jefferson: Was the Sage a Hypocrite?

4 minute read
Annette Gordon-Reed

Of all the Founding Fathers, it was Thomas Jefferson for whom the issue of race loomed largest. In the roles of slaveholder, public official and family man, the relationship between blacks and whites was something he thought about, wrote about and grappled with from his cradle to his grave. Jefferson’s first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave when he was two years old; on his deathbed, the last face he saw was that of the slave who attended him in his final hour. The interest in Jefferson’s racial views, long the subject of scrutiny, has reached a crescendo in our time. As Americans attempt to build a more egalitarian, multiracial future, we crave a better understanding of what the man credited with most eloquently expressing the American creed felt about race. What did Jefferson think about black people? How does his relationship with Sally Hemings complete our picture of him? How should we, in a more racially enlightened era, interpret what we know about his thoughts and actions?

Two documents authored by Jefferson have served as templates for examining his racial beliefs. The Jefferson we know from the Declaration of Independence pronounced “all men are created equal,” a phrase that provided a central argument for ending slavery and bringing blacks into citizenship, and it still offers the best hope for conquering the doctrine of white supremacy. As unbelievable as it may seem to modern observers who have a knee-jerk sensitivity to signs of Jeffersonian hypocrisy, this language genuinely alarmed many of Jefferson’s contemporaries. Even though Jefferson was a slaveholder, the sentiments in the Declaration, when added to his well-known antislavery stance and his support for the hierarchy-shattering French Revolution, made him seem a radical bent on leveling the social order. Whether he truly believed in the equality of mankind or not, they argued, it was dangerous for him to express the thought–people would get ideas. They were exactly right. People did get ideas, and continue to do so.

Then there’s the Jefferson of the Notes on the State of Virginia, who in the time-honored fashion–“I’m no racist but …”–proclaimed whites’ superior beauty and ventured his “suspicion” that although racial intermixture improved them, blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Although he qualified his disparaging remarks because he hadn’t observed blacks in their natural state of freedom in Africa, Jefferson’s presentation leaves no doubt that he, like a typical white person of the 18th century, believed in white supremacy. Consider Abigail Adams, who upon seeing Othello expressed her “disgust and horror” at the thought of a black man touching a white woman. And the Jefferson-Hemings connection places Jefferson firmly within the world of Southern plantation society, where the rules of the game featured public denunciations of “amalgamation” but private practice of it at all levels of white society.

Perhaps most challenging to America’s present aspirations is Jefferson’s belief that blacks and whites could never coexist as equal citizens of the U.S. Whites, he said, would never give up their prejudices against blacks, and blacks would never forgive what whites had done to them. This is often cited as another example of how wrong Jefferson could be about the future of the American experiment. In reality, it shows that Jefferson had a deeper understanding of the true nature of America’s racial dilemma than many are comfortable admitting. Yes, blacks are citizens. But look what it took to achieve that status and maintain it: a civil war followed by an endless procession of lawsuits, legal initiatives, commissions and efforts at social engineering, all designed to prop up blacks’ civil and social rights.

It has been a hard road, and the Jefferson of the Notes would be astounded that we have come this far. The Jefferson of the Declaration, who at the end of his life voiced the hope that the document’s mandate would one day apply “to all,” would understand that we still have ground to cover.

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