Thomas Jefferson: the Man, the Myth, and the Morality
Thomas Jefferson was a man of the greatest moral character who has been
excoriated routinely over the last 30 years by historical revisionists
and presentists. His commitment to America and his vast contributions to
the framing of society as it is today are overlooked in favor of base analysis
of his character that, while not flawless, is that of a morally upright
person who has deeply held convictions and lives by them.
Jefferson was born to a prominent family of Virginia tobacco growers.
Plantation life is based largely around the work of slaves, so Jefferson
was surrounded by them from the time of his birth in 1743 until the day
he died. One of the harshest criticisms of Jefferson comes from the fact
that, while he vehemently opposed slavery, was indeed a slave owner himself.
As historian Douglas L. Wilson points out in his Atlantic Monthly article
"Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue", the question should be reversed:
"...[T]his was of asking the question... is essentially backward,
and reflects the pervasive presentism of our time. Consider, for example,
how different the question appears when inverted and framed in more historical
terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family
and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent
on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally
wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished?" (Wilson 66).
Wilson also argues that Jefferson knew that his slaves would be better
off working for him than freed in a world where they would be treated with
contempt and not given any real freedoms.
Another way that Thomas Jefferson shows his moral character is in his
most famous achievement, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
This document is probably the most important document in the history of
the United States, and one of the most important in the history of the
world. Jefferson writes that "all men are created equal" and argues that
every man has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Jefferson's document shows not only his strongly held beliefs in freedom,
but his acceptance of and belief in the views of the Age of Reason. He
believed himself to be a person who was doing what was morally right, not
for the fame that would eventually accompany it. In fact, he didn't want
to write the Declaration to begin with. In 1776, the song "Not Me, John"
shows how Jefferson was pushed into doing it, despite the fact that he
would have actually rather gone home to see his wife. When nobody else
would do it, he acquiesced and agreed to write it. His quote, "What will
posterity think we were -- demigods? We're men -- no more, no less" (1776),
shows how as a contemporary of such philosophical greats as Voltaire and
Mill, he did what he did because it was what needed to happen -- not in
any way, shape, or form because he wanted to be remembered as a demigod,
a status he actually had anyway, according to Wilson, until the 1960's.
Another thing that Jefferson's character is criticized for and blown
out of proportion is his liaison with a slave, Sally Hemings. Historian
Fawn Brodie argues that it was "not scandalous debauchery with an innocent
slave victim, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the
slave woman much happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years." True,
their affair started when she was only 14 years old, but to criticize this
is terribly presentistic. In colonial times, especially in the middle and
southern colonies, girls were married off between the ages of 13 and 16;
it was not considered defilement and abuse like it is today. In fact, his
relationship with Hemings could actually be considered to be a positive
thing for him on two fronts: Since she was 52 when he died, Jefferson obviously
did not lust after her solely on a physical basis; also, he promised his
wife when she died that he would not remarry. He fulfilled his promise
only because he found a woman to love whom he was not expected, indeed
not allowed, to marry. This is a weak front on which to criticize Jefferson.
Given Jefferson's contributions to American society, it is almost impossible
to find him to be morally weak and coarse. Those who do are presentists,
cynics, and nay-sayers who are simply looking for a way to criticize one
of the greatest Americans who has ever lived.