ityThomas 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.