It’s complicated. It is, for many, difficult to rationalize redemption for Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner. It is also, for me, difficult to imagine American history without Thomas Jefferson.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine American history at all without the twelve presidents of the United States who were slave owners, eight while they served as President. Four of the first five presidents of the United States owned slaves while they were President. Of the first twelve Presidents of the United States, only the Adams’, John and son John Quincy, were never slave owners. Of course, the first President to have owned slaves was George Washington, who won the Revolutionary War, and the last President to have been a slave owner (though not while President) was Ulysses Grant, who won the Civil War. Of all the Presidents of the United States who owned slaves, only Washington provided for the freedom of the slaves he owned.
Jefferson authored our Declaration of Independence, Madison, also a slave owner, our Constitution. To expunge these men from history is to largely expunge America from history. It can’t be done. Instead, we must simply recognize the often enormous baggage great men often carry to the detriment of their reputation, but not to their role in history.
Slavery was America’s original and scandalous sin. The institution of slavery in America far predated the birth of any of America’s early presidents. It was the milieu into which their generation and generations before them were born. Jefferson was, in a sense, addicted to the very institution of slavery he bemoaned and yet, was too weak and too selfish to disavow. Slavery was established in America nearly a century before his father, Peter Jefferson, was born. Thomas’s father owned over sixty slaves when he died in 1757, leaving 52 of them to his fourteen-year-old son. Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, bequeathed him another 135 slaves. Slavery had been an institution in the American colonies for over a century before Jefferson’s father-in-law was born.
Thomas Jefferson was not a defender of slavery. He lamented its existence while depending on its accessibility. In that sense, his weakness far overshadowed his strength. His disgust with slavery, and perhaps with himself, is well documented. It is as essential to understanding this American founder as it is vital to understanding his extraordinary role in America’s founding.
We can and must condemn the sin of slavery and spare no criticism of those sinners who indulged in the cruel institution of slavery, but we cannot cancel their contributions to the making of America. The milieu into which America was born included slavery, and there is nothing we can do about that. Ironically, Jefferson had no illusions about the evil of this wretched institution. I have always been fascinated by the words he chose in writing the Declaration of Independence. One might view his remarkable choice of words as a confession as much as a statement of fact when he penned (and therefore acknowledged) that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among those; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was both an acknowledgment of fundamental truth and very public condemnation of his disregard of that truth.
Jefferson, both brilliant and flawed, left little doubt about his view of slavery. He was strong enough to condemn its very existence but too weak to disengage from its reality. While Jefferson, sadly, avoided the subject of slavery during his presidency, his repeated acknowledgment of its evil is explicit. He was, before becoming President, an opponent of the slave trade, and he was opposed to the extension of slavery into the new Northwest territories. He had called slavery “a moral depravity and a hideous blot.” It was, of course, to become the greatest blot on his place in history.
Jefferson, who did so much to give voice to the promise of America, believed slavery represented the greatest threat to the fledgling American experiment. His writing on the subject of slavery, that it was contrary to the laws of nature, was anathema to his fellow Virginians, who, by the time Jefferson became President, were making as much money selling slaves as they were selling crops.
Jefferson was an enormously consequential American and an enormously consequential American President. He doubled the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase, my choice as the greatest real estate deal in recorded history. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their remarkable land trek to the west coast. He abolished the slave trade. He wrote the radical Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He created the United States Military Academy at West Point. He successfully faced down the Barbary Coast Ottomans and the Sultanate of Morocco to end the scourge of Mediterranean piracy.
Jefferson was, sadly, a racist as probably were most of his fellow citizens at that time in history. He believed whites were simply inherently intellectually superior to blacks, and he couldn’t conceive of the two races living in harmony in the same country. He was spectacularly wrong about that. He could not have envisioned an America with Barrack Obama as President or Kamala Harris as Vice President, Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, or Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense. There would have been no place in his wrong-headed assumptions for Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, Maya Angelou, General Ben Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, NASA scientist and physicist, Katherine Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas, Toni Morrison, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, August Wilson, and a veritable pantheon of other great black contributors to the success of America. There is no contradiction in liberally recognizing his accomplishments as an American statesman even as we condemn his failures as a product of his time.
So, I believe that Thomas Jefferson and the other slave-owning presidents, with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, would look down and rejoice at how wrong history proved them to be. I believe they would celebrate the spectacular accomplishments of once enslaved people who they thought to be inherently inferior. They were wrong. We can recognize that as we also recognize their unique contributions to establishing the great American paradigm; “Out of many, one.”
NOTE: an earlier version of this essay was mailed with Vice President Kamala Harris’s name misspelled. We regret the error.