Sunday, July 26, 2015

Thomas Jefferson Was a Hero, Not a Villain

On Wednesday night, the Connecticut state affiliate of the Democratic Party voted to remove Thomas Jefferson's name from its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. This follows some suggestions in the media back in June, during the intense debate over public displays of the Confederate flag, that perhaps it might be time to "rethink" public monuments of Jefferson, even the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. The issue at hand, of course, is that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner.

This is just a part of a trend that has been ongoing for several years. At a time when interest in America's Founding Fathers seems more intense than at any time during my life, Jefferson's popularity seems to have taken a nosedive. Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and even Madison seem to be in the ascendant, while Jefferson is now dismissed as a despicable hypocrite or, worse, ignored altogether. A few years ago, the Texas State Board of Education voted to revise its United States history standards so as to remove Jefferson from the list of important political philosophers that schoolchildren should learn about. Needless to say, if the Jefferson Memorial did not already exist, I highly doubt that a proposal to build one now would gain much traction.

This is to be truly lamented, because Thomas Jefferson is one of the greatest men who ever lived. The gifts he gave to both our country and the larger world are incalculable.

In dazzling prose that still shines brightly across the space of two centuries, Jefferson articulated better than anyone before or since the ideals on which America was founded and which should inspire America still. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If he had never done anything else then write these thirty-five words, Jefferson would still have been rendered immortal. They gloriously summarize the intellectual and moral awakening that took place during the Age of Enlightenment. They are the values upon which America was founded. In the two centuries since, they had rightfully been held up as the greatest statement of freedom and equality ever put on paper.

History has seen no greater champion of democracy than Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's legacy to our country goes far beyond mere words, however. He was one of the most influential statesmen during the era that saw the birth of our nation. More than any other single individual, Jefferson can be considered the father of public education in America, on both a grade-school and university level. In partnership with his friend and ally James Madison, Jefferson secured religious freedom for Americans, for us no less than those in his own time, by establishing the separation of church and state. Jefferson also established the uniform system of weights and measures and established the parliamentary procedures that still largely govern the United States Senate. He rewrote the laws of Virginia to abolish primogeniture and reform the previously brutal laws of criminal punishment into something more humane and worked to ensure that British and Hessian prisoners-of-war were decently treated.

In the 1790s, the High Federalists led by Jefferson's arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to try to silence their political opponents and raised a large army intended, at least in part, to intimidate the followers of Jefferson into obedience. Jefferson refused to be cowed and led his party to victory in the 1800 election, thereby saving the country at the moment when the American experiment in self-government faced perhaps its greatest peril.

As President, Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of our nation and ensuring that North America would never become part of the colonial empires of France, Britain, or Spain.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition, the greatest exploratory venture of the United States before the launching of the space program, was Jefferson's brainchild. He pardoned everyone who had been convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. He balanced the budget every year of his term and never issued a single presidential veto. He established the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his administration, the Navy and Marine Corps fought and won the First Barbary War, defeating the North African pirates who had been capturing and enslaving American sailors and passengers on the high seas.

Even in his retirement, from 1809 until his death in 1826, Jefferson continued to work on behalf of his nation. He devoted his final years to establishing the University of Virginia, which became the model for all the public universities around the United States. Almost as an afterthought, he essentially created the Library of Congress, which is today one of the great libraries of the globe.

Jefferson's gifts to the nation are greater and more varied than any other single individual. Yet his accomplishments as a private man are no less impressive. In addition to being a statesmen, Jefferson was an inventor, a pioneer of archeology, a renowned architect, a linguist who could speak seven languages, an accomplished musician who played the violin, an astronomer, and a scientific gardener.  He was the greatest wine connoisseur of the age and one of the greatest of all time. When John F. Kennedy addressed a White House gathering of all living American winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Indeed, I often suspect that the true reason so many people are determined to belittle Jefferson in our time is that they simply resent the fact that they can never become as accomplished as he became.

Yes, it's true that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Indeed, at any given time during his life there were around two hundred slaves working his farms. Nobody denies that this was morally wrong, and neither did Jefferson himself. He was born into the slave system in 1743 and he was still enmeshed in it when he died in 1826. In one memorable phrase, Jefferson said that the institution of slave was like holding the wolf by the ears. As a member of a landowning Southern family in the late 18th and early 19th Century, Jefferson was trapped in slavery much as we are today trapped in the carbon-based economy. He did not like it but could never devise a way to get out of it.

Then you have the Sally Hemings controversy, but despite popular belief and what the "pro-paternity" advocates would have you believe, there is no conclusive evidence that Thomas Jefferson was the father of the children of Sally Hemings. The DNA test conducted in the late 1990s only proved that a member of the Jefferson family, not necessarily Thomas Jefferson himself, was the father of one of the Hemings children (Eston Hemings, to be exact). There are only two other pieces of evidence that have ever been presented. One is a scurrilous attack piece in an 1802 newspaper written by James Callender, a scandalmonger who personally hated Jefferson and was thoroughly despised throughout America as a liar, drunkard, and all-around reprobate. The other is an interview given to a Republican newspaper editor in 1872 by Madison Hemings, which has been found to be so full of errors and distortions that no stock can be put in it.  Personally, I think it much more likely that Randolph Jefferson, the President's brother, was the father of Eston Hemings and that the others were fathered either by Randolph or one of the Carr nephews. Either possibility is perfectly consistent with the results of the DNA test and there is enormous circumstantial evidence to back them up as well. If you ask me, it is extremely unlikely that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children.

(It would take far too much time to fully explore the nitty-gritty details of why I reject the idea that Jefferson fathered the Hemings children. Readers who want a deeper explanation should read In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal, by William G. Hyland. Whatever you do, though, don't read the book on Jefferson by David Barton. Although he also doesn't accept the Jefferson-Hemings story, his books are not worth the paper they are printed on and pretty much everything else in his book on Jefferson is. . . well, never mind what it is.)

It's important to remember that though Jefferson owned slaves, he recognized that he should not own slaves. He would have been aghast if he could have seen his fellow Southerners such as John Calhoun decades later claiming that slavery was a "positive good", for he recognized all his life that it was an evil. Had he been able to destroy slavery, he would have, as the historical record proves. As a member of the Virginia state legislature, he pushed several plans for emancipation. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included a ringing denouncement of slavery and the slave trade and was distraught when the Continental Congress removed it. He was the crafter of the Northwest Ordinance, which forever banned slavery in the states north of the Ohio River. Had he had his way, slavery would have been banned completely from all the Western territories, but his proposal to implement that policy was defeated in 1784 by a single vote. In his innumerable letters, and in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson says again and again that he looks forward to the day that the scourge of slavery would be removed from America.

Others try to blacken Jefferson's name by calling him a racist, pointing out that his writings also state his belief that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and that the two races could not exist side-by-side in a free society (Jefferson advocated that freed slaves be removed to a separate colony). In doing this, Jefferson's detractors are committing the fallacy of historical anachronism. It simply makes no sense to subject a historical figure who lived two hundred years ago to modern standards of which he could have known nothing. Even the term "racist" would not make any sense to Jefferson, because virtually every white person in Jefferson's time and place could be classified as a racist if one uses the modern definition. For that matter, even later figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill could be as well. One can speculate on what we all do on a daily basis in the year 2015 which will be seen by future generations as morally repugnant.

To sum up, Thomas Jefferson was a hero, not a villain. He deserves to be celebrated, not condemned. He was one of the greatest men in American history and everyone reading this blog post owes him an enormous debt. If a wrecking ball crew ever arrives at the Jefferson Memorial, they will find me chained to its pillars and daring them to do their worst.


  1. An excellent article of the sort which is sadly too rare in defending Jefferson's legacy from the refrain of ignorant and emotionalistic attacks which have so deluged it in recent times.