Scholars discuss the Thomas Jefferson conundrum, exploring his thoughts on slavery, race
Tom Naatz | Friday, January 24, 2020
As the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson has always occupied a high place in the American pantheon.
But Jefferson is also a complicated and controversial figure in American life: how can the United States reconcile the man’s words — “all men are created equal” — with the reality that he owned slaves and espoused ideas that today would be considered racist?
Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, a professor at Harvard University and professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, respectively, considered this question in a Thursday lecture. Part of Walk the Walk Week, the lecture was titled “Thomas Jefferson, Race, Slavery, and the Problem of American Nationhood.”
The professors are preeminent Jefferson scholars and recently co-wrote a book about the third president. The event took place at the Notre Dame Law School.
Onuf introduced this question by first laying out the problematic nature of Jefferson’s position in history.
“It is common for pundits to talk about our Jeffersonian democracy, as if that’s a special characteristic of our democracy that makes it unique — you might even say exceptional,” Onuf said. “And then we have to account the dilemma that he wasn’t a perfect guy. He was — we would say now — a racist. No department in the country [now] would hire him.”
The Jefferson conundrum has implications about American national identity, Onuf said.
“What is it about this moment that makes Thomas Jefferson such a problematic figure? He’s somebody we identify with America,” he said. “There’s a famous … quotation from one of the first great, popular biographies of Jefferson: ‘if Jefferson is right, America is right … If Jefferson is wrong —and that’s what we think about him now — what does that say about us, and where do we go on from here?”
Gordon-Reed said Jefferson is unique in that he is a much-discussed Founding Father whose reputation has had a number of peaks and valleys. Ultimately, she said she thinks his complicated life offers an effective way to frame conversations on the founding.
“He’s a figure — not like Hamilton, Hamilton was in eclipse until [Lin-Manuel Miranda] brought him back — Jefferson is up and down,” Gordon-Reed said. “It’s hard right now in an era when we’re thinking about inclusion in history, different people’s stories, to figure out what we do with him. The interesting thing to me about it is his life gives us an opportunity to have that kind of discussion in ways that, [with] other members of the founding generation, you can’t do that. You can think about politics, you can think about slavery, you can think about race all through this particular person’s life.”
Gordon-Reed said she thinks Jefferson has returned to the fore as a result of the country’s present-day political environment. Though Jefferson did not have a hand in writing the Constitution, he set some important standards with the Declaration of Independence, she said.
“We’re sort of in a moment of constitutional crisis now, and people think about the founders — and Jefferson in particular — in a particular kind of way,” she said. “… I’m thinking, ‘what was this all for?’ They put this thing in motion and here we are now, at this particular moment trying to decide what does American democracy, what does the American republic mean in this situation?”
Though Onuf said one of Jefferson’s accomplishments in the Declaration of Independence was to create a sense of American peoplehood, the two scholars said Jefferson could not conceptualize a country where black and white people lived together.
For his part, he supported the emancipation of slaves but thought they should all be “expatriated” to Africa. These facts present a sobering reality about American national identity, especially as the consensus on what it means to be American has frayed.
“The confidence existed because largely one voice was being heard. The difficulty we have now is people are saying, ‘yes, we are a people,’” Gordon-Reed said. “But other people — African-Americans, other groups who do not feel that they were included before — now are beginning to talk about some of the terms of that peoplehood … that’s caused much more fracturing.”
Jefferson’s situation in life informed many of his ideas. He came from a family where the men had children with enslaved women. It is widely accepted that the third president himself fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemings, and Gordon-Reed said his wife had half-black siblings. She also said that one of the reasons these issues are perpetually brought up in relation to Jefferson is he wrote all of his thoughts down, leaving a record to attack.
“The more I think about this … his personal circumstances had to determine how he saw this,” Gordon-Reed said. “It’s very often when people who have a personal issue — some of the people who are the most vocal in talking about things, whether it’s same-sex sexuality, cross-race sexuality — why are they talking about it? Why is he writing about this? I’ve never had [James] Madison on mixing races. We don’t have George Washington on mixing race … but as far as we know, none of those people were married to people who had half-black siblings living in their house.”
Onuf added that the experience of living through the Revolutionary War also had an effect on Jefferson’s thoughts. Particularly, Onuf speculated that the author of the Declaration of Independence was probably worried about a slave revolt.
“In revolutionary times, when the future is radically uncertain, you have to be prepared for the next war,” he said. “And another front of that war very reasonably could be — and would be, in the War of 1812 and in other moments [like] 1811 in Louisiana — it could be that enslaved people constitute the biggest threat.”
For her part, Gordon-Reed said slaves could not be blamed for harboring rebellious thoughts.
“And why wouldn’t they? How could black people love a country that wasn’t their own? That had treated them the way they had been treated? But also that they had not voluntarily come to,” she said. “The idea of black people going back to Africa — that’s the equivalent of a racial epithet now, saying that — but for a person who said ‘these people did not come voluntarily, and we’ve treated them badly. Why would they love us? How could they be in a relationship of community and trust in that situation?’ He’s basically saying, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’”
Gordon-Reed also noted some hypocrisy with respect to Jefferson, noting that modern American society chastises him for his ideas when the country still continues to be racially separated.
“What we’re asking him to do is something we haven’t done,” she said. “It would be impossible for Jefferson … certainly as a political matter, to say that the answer to all of this is for black people and white people to become one people, as a family. That is to say ‘mix.’ That is something that we don’t do. To think that somebody born in 1743 is going to have that as an idea … it’s patting ourselves on the back. It’s being unrealistic. It’s not anything I think he could have contemplated doing.”
As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson had a belief that things would constantly improve — that they would get “better and better,” Gordon-Reed said — and that he thought each generation would have to renew America in some way. Paradoxically, the fight for belonging on behalf of group’s that Jefferson marginalized has fulfilled that prophecy to some degree, Onuf said.
“The answer to Thomas Jefferson is the refusal of people to go,” he said. “Their insistence that they were American. ’African-American’ — the hyphen is crucial. The assertion of belonging, to be attached to a place … these people are not going. They are us.”