(Original post of 2011; revised July 4, 2021)
Among America’s iconic Founding Fathers, is there a more complicated and contradictory figure than Thomas Jefferson?
Scientist, humanist, Enlightenment thinker, writer, architect, politician. He was all these things. The confusion over this genius comes from one basic question: How could the man who wrote, “All Men are Created Equal” and “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” go home to a Monticello plantation, completely dependent upon enslaved labor?
Even Jefferson’s birthday is confusing. History books say he was born on April 13,1743. But the grave marker at Monticello says he was born on April 2. That one is easier to answer than some of the larger contradictions in Jefferson’s life. Jefferson was born while the old Julian calendar was still in use in Protestant England and its American colonies. So the April 2 date is called “Old Style” (O.S.). When Great Britain and America finally came around and adopted the Gregorian (named for Pope Gregory) Calendar in 1758, Jefferson’s birth date was changed to April 13.
Birth date aside, Thomas Jefferson more than anyone embodies the “Great Contradiction” in American history. How could a nation dedicated to ideals of freedom and liberty continue a system that enslaved human beings in the cruelest of ways?
That contradiction is nowhere more evident than in Jefferson’s original draft of Declaration of Independence.
A few years ago, at the New York Public Library, I had the thrill of seeing Jefferson’s handwritten copy of his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. We may take the words for granted now. But Jefferson gave full voice to the idea that we all possess “inalienable rights.” That we are “created equal.” That we have basic rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That governments exist to advance those human rights, and only with the “consent of the governed.”
This document was written on both sides of two pieces of paper. In his careful, flowing script, Jefferson included all of his original wording to show what the Congress in Philadelphia had changed, underscoring words and phrases that had been deleted. Those alterations, Jefferson, thought were “mutilations.” Distressed by the editing, he made these “fair copies” of his original some time after July 4th.
The most startling of these changes is a paragraph about what Jefferson calls “this execrable commerce” — slavery. Jefferson charged that King George III was responsible for the slave trade and was preventing American efforts to restrain that trade. The section was deleted completely. But it is striking to see Jefferson’s bold, block lettering when he describes:
an open market where MEN should be bought & sold
He clearly wanted to underscore his belief that enslaved people were “MEN.”
The contradiction is troubling and difficult to resolve. Jefferson knew slavery was wrong. He believed, like fellow slaveholder George Washington, that it would end. But both were inextricably tied to a society and economy, built on enslavement, even though they believed that the “peculiar institution” would gradually die out.
Of course, part of the cynicism in Jefferson’s case is due to the relationship between Jefferson and an enslaved woman Sally Hemings. Monticello now acknowledges that relationship existed, a contention first raised publicly in 1802 by muckraking newspaperman James Callender. In recent years, Monticello has also gone a long way in addressing the question of enslaved life at the plantation.
Jefferson, who died on July 4, 1826 –the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration– and his deep contradictions are the perfect reminder that politicians are people –even the marble gods like Washington and Jefferson. Their all-too human flaws are proof of that as well as the fact that history books once tried to hide these flaws by pointing to the past with pride and patriotism.
Those flaws are explored in several of my books, including Don’t Know Much About History, Don’t Know Much About the Civil War and most recently, In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents and Five Black Lives.