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: "...This 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. 

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