Thomas Jefferson (1743 – July 4, 1826]
- Much overrated: deeds trump words.
- His few fine words didn’t stall two centuries of racism. Even gave the nation false comfort.
- Deeds fell far short, especially condoning, facilitating slavery growth in US.
- Leading the early D-R Party he never understood the role of government in modern liberal democracy.
- Blindly promoted individual rights above the democratic collective good.
- An archaic out of touch utopian. No hero for modern liberal democracy.
FEATURED: An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796; Maryland Historical Society
- Based on the facts – deeds not words – Jefferson is much overrated.
- What difference did he really make?
- There is a case for his country having been better off without him: his fine words did not budge the US from its racist road – even gave false comfort – and his deeds fell far short.
- A few fine words [in the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom] did not prevent -were contradicted by – two centuries of racism in the US, emergence of mass slavery, a dreadful Civil War, and another century of racial violence thereafter, including “re-enslavement” and lynching.
- Perhaps the “fine words” even distracted, gave the nation false comfort, that at least their heart was in the right place.
- His words are drowned by hypocritical, irrational, narrow-minded deeds.
- Slavery above all blots his name:
- a/ He held reactionary racist views on blacks as a people . This was in step with most in his times. But he was meant to be a leader, and he was also well behind many other founding figures like G Washington, Benjamin Franklin [to an extent], Benjamin Rush, and John Adams.
- b/ He owned many slaves, mistreated some, freed hardly any and used them to help fund his extravagant self indulgent lifestyle at Monticello;
- c/ But above all for his nation, as a leading politician he not only failed to recognise and act on the danger of growing slavery to the Union, but helped grow the problem, hence enjoys a clear partial culpability for the eventual calamitous denoument, the Civil War.
- During his active adult period [c50 years, 1770-1820] he tolerated, helped facilitate growth in slave numbers from c 650k to over 1.5m by 1821 [and slave states from 8 to 12]. In 1820 he even supported the spread of slavery west to Missouri.
- His professed [early] dislike for slavery seems more about the eventual problems it posed for whites than concern for the stricken.
- In various government roles Jefferson, for all his “learning” – and along with his Democratic-Republican Party colleagues –showed little practical understanding of government and economic policy in an effective modern industrialising liberal democracy, the need for strong central government [including a central bank and supervision of the private economy], for rational trade policy, the role of industry and commerce, hence of companies and business people.
- He was blinded by an irrational residual fear of matters British [like it or not the mother of liberal democracy], and a utopian fantasy of an economy built on [white] “yeoman farmers”.
- As President for two terms [1801-09] he was largely ineffectual, not a natural collegial leader, achieved the important fortuitous Louisiana Purchase [which anyone in his job would have done], but messed foreign trade [like the 1807 Embargo Act], and, contrary to fondness for liberty, bristled at media criticism.
- On a personal level, his indulgent obsession with building his own Disneyworld at Monticello, to accommodate his social life and books and wine, was quite at odds with modern liberal values, financed as it was by a significant endowment of slaves, the residue of which, numbering around 130 “negroes”, was sold on his death [along with the dream house] to pay off debts.
- Why then is Jefferson still so popular? Thus he came third after Washington and Lincoln in a 2014 poll. For the same general reason that Americans don’t face their history honestly.
- In the main the US and its conventional historians celebrate – cling to – a comforting myth of the US as a Light of Liberty, despite its egregious, blatant failure in race relations, long and costly.
- As part of this myth Jefferson is feted mainly for his few fine words in the Declaration of Independence, standing pure and frank, by contrast with the slavery compromised Constitution. His performance as President was mediocre and his attitude and behaviour re slavery was deplorable.
- So his popularity helps reveal an insecure country, moulding national heroes to their liking, oblivious to the facts in a self-deluding feel-good quasi-religious fashion.
- This failure to be open and honest clouds appreciation of what the US nation has done for the cause of modern liberal freedom, particularly in two world wars, then in squaring off against the post WW2 Communist dictatorships, first the Soviet Union and now China.
- And it tarnishes the ongoing US appeal today as a global example of liberal democracy.
Racism compromised US for near two centuries after founding.
Among the comparative national journeys to modern liberal democracy that of the US is remarkable for not just being tainted by racism but stained by it from the start, violently for near two centuries, despite beginning in the late 18th C with a blank slate, unlike the European nations.
Slaves were imported during the British colonial times [c290k], numbers growing fast in 18th C so the small new nation in the 1780s, after eventually winning its freedom from Great Britain, started with c580k slaves, comprising about 20% of the population.
Moral qualms with slavery were clearly on the radar at the time of founding, the cause of abolition being alive in Europe and the Colonies, and known by the Founders.
But the issue was allowed to compromise the new nation from the start, the new Constitution [ratified by 1789] accommodating the slave favouring colonies for the sake of a Union, and contradicting the 1776 Declaration of Independence.
“Twelve of the first eighteen American presidents owned slaves”.
Then thanks to sudden confluence of unforeseen factors the cotton gin, territorial expansion [especially the 1803 Louisiana Purchase], the 1812 War, and the European cotton boom – and especially, crucially, to ongoing accommodation, facilitation by the Federal Government – slave numbers soon exploded so by early in the 19th C the issue at founding had de facto become a runaway problem, realistically to be solved only either by the slave South seceding, or the North fighting.
The fight finally came in 1860, a great cost, but it still didn’t solve the problem, racism remaining virulent, the blacks “re-enslaved” for near another century.
… and the country’s mainstream historians cannot look the matter in the eye?
By and large the US persists in not acknowledging its history, honestly, its protracted costly failure in race relations.
Mainstream US historians by and large still cling to a myth about the birth of the US, the New World winning “liberty” from the “tyrannical” Old World Britain, its constitutional monarchy of Westminster and George III, so throwing off antiquated oppression, embracing the new European Enlightenment to become a Light of Liberty.
There is a near constant stream of books paying homage to this myth, books about the “Revolutionary War”, the War of Independence and its main characters.
In addressing the founding most historians acknowledge the compromises to facilitate slavery, because they’re too obvious to ignore, but then, trying to keep alive the Light of Liberty myth, they excuse this compromise on two main counts:
a/ it allowed the Colonies to overcome differences and achieve a Union, a united country.
b/ the documents gave future politicians the “words” by which to eventually end slavery, “planted the seed of abolition”, like the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and [per Sean Wilentz] the Constitution resisting the notion of “men” as “property”.
Some take comfort even in Jefferson’s draft for the Declaration of Independence where he blames George III for foisting slavery on the Colonies! Which slavery he helped himself to.
They then take comfort that Lincoln indeed did finally  “emancipate” the slaves.
But this is disingenuous beyond belief.
The “emancipation” came over 75 years after founding, after the slave count climbed near 7 times to around an improbable 4 million, and after the Civil War, costing say 700k lives, and all this without defusing the problem, before near another century of “re-enslavement”: Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, segregation, lynching.
So this is a story firstly of obvious failure by the founders and all senior politicians in the new republic, especially in the early years, before the problem mushroomed.
And it’s a story today of ongoing self-delusion, dancing around the bleeding obvious, like the story of the Emperor With No Clothes.
This failure to be open and honest has implications:
a/ It clouds appreciation of what the nation has indeed done for the cause of modern liberal freedom, particularly in two world wars, then in squaring off against the Communist dictatorships, first the Soviet Union and now China;
and b/ tarnishes the US appeal today as an example, inspiring exemplar, of liberal democracy.
… with a recent conspicuous exception: Robert Parkinson  argues race was a key driver of achieving “common cause” in the war of independence.
First Parkinson notes that the complaining Colonists were actually not that badly off! They “were “the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest landowning, arguably most prosperous people in the western world.” [RP].“
So for the “Patriot leaders” developing a “common cause” to inspire and motivate the rebels against the “tyrannical” mother country – “the absolute Tyranny” of “the present King of Great Britain” – was not straightforward.
Parkinson “firmly rejects Whig ideology as the driving force of the Revolution”, rather that “the common cause “became as much about fear and outrage as the defense of inalienable rights” [RP] “, with the “fear” centred on the “proxy groups”, ie chiefly blacks and native Americans [“merciless Indian savages”].
The Hessian [“German”] mercenaries fighting for Britain were later largely excused through being white, and assimilable, as some were.
Parkinson: “To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.”.
So “The base [racist] sentiments they [the leaders] promoted for “political expediency” survived the fighting, and the “narrative” that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated “white” and “citizen”—“lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come.” [RP] “
Jefferson a popular past President…
In the US Jefferson has long been feted as one of the most important founding fathers, particularly for writing most of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, then serving two terms as President [1801-09] after serving under Presidents Washington [Sec’y of State] and Adams [VP].
His popularity was cemented by the Jefferson Memorial being erected during WW2, 1939-43, close by those for Washington and Lincoln in central Washington, at FDR’s instigation, inspired by a book on TJ by a friend.
He still remains very popular among past Presidents [like 3rd with 74% after G. Washington, 89% and A. Lincoln, 85%, in an early 2012 poll], despite his slavery associations denting his reputation in recent times, at least among those who care to look.
Thus he has attracted an accordingly vast historiography, perhaps crowned by 6 volumes from Dumas Malone, 1948–1981.
…. but the US was better off without him
But Jefferson is a paradox.
He was a bright well educated and informed man late 18th C man – hugely well read apparently – who rightly saw value in individual liberty, expressed through consensual republican government, free from oppressive and privileged monarchical aristocracy.
But despite a series of hands on roles [“…no other member of the founding generation served in public life so long and in so many different capacities as he, at almost every level of government …”, Gordon Wood] he was fixated by a Golden Age like vision of agrarian decentralisation, had little understanding of the workings of a modern industrialising economy, particularly as a politician implementing policy in government.
Also, above all he was an old fashioned racist, who subscribed to “scientific” racism which regarded blacks as inferior.
And he was a practicing racist who – notwithstanding some qualms – ran slaves all his adult life and facilitated significant growth of slavery on his watch, which 34 years after his death ripped the nation apart.
He straddled two worlds, looking ahead, but as an archaic conflicted racist.
All up there is a strong case that the US would have been better off without Thomas Jefferson, that if he had not existed the country may have fared better than it did.
This applies particularly both through his through his actions as politician, also writer and Virginia rancher, and even through his famous words in the 1776 Declaration of Independence,
Why his popularity? Because he features large in the American Light of Liberty myth, saying more about an insecure nation than the man.
But if the country mightn’t have missed him, or even been better off without him, why is he so popular?
In obvious defiance of his deeds Jefferson remains popular mainly because he along with George Washington is the backbone of the myth of the US as a Light of Liberty.
Thus: “Jefferson is not just a spokesman for democracy and equality. He personified the American Enlightenment and set forth the progressive promise of America’s future.” [Gordon Wood]
But why Jefferson?
Much of the reason is simply the Declaration of Independence? The few fine words. Because they ring pure and unsullied with hope and justice.
While the Constitution from about 10 years later, the working founding guidelines for the new country, was by contrast sullied, in accommodating the slave states.
So it reveals how insecure countries – in a self-deluding feel-good quasi-religious fashion – mould national heroes to their liking, oblivious to the facts.
Better off without him? Fine words gave false comfort?
Yes, he wrote a lot [he liked writing] and left some good words, famous as the principal author of heady words in the mid 1776 Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
His draft included these famous words on equality, and then words blaming George III for his role in facilitating / promoting slavery! The latter was omitted by the Committee, to Jefferson’s displeasure, though he was likely thinking more about the whites than blacks!
Yes he favored democracy, separation of Church and State [Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom], republicanism, and individual rights.
Notice he contributed nothing to writing the Constitution, in mid 1780s [ratified 1788], while away as “Minister to France”.
What of the famous “eloquent” words on equality in the Declaration of Independence?
Well first up they made no difference! Thus equality was to apply only to European sourced white people and racism would profoundly compromise the US for near two centuries after the founding, especially treatment of imported African slaves and also indigenous people.
But maybe his words even hurt his blessed land, made the matter worse? Maybe they gave the US a degree of false comfort, or at least the significant proportion who had some qualms about the new country’s relationship with slavery? That at least their intentions were right, their heart in the right place.
Others [cf Gordon Wood] cite more dewy eyed rhetoric from “the eve of his death in 1826”: “May the American experiment in democracy, he said, “be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”
But again the words are empty without action to match, and embarrassingly empty when paired with his “action” and American “action” during and beyond his lifetime.
Better off without him? Deeds. Little idea of sound economic policy.
a/ In Government [as Sec’y of State to G. Washington, then as VP to J. Adams] Jefferson never understood the vital role for strong central government in an effective liberal democracy, how democracy works in practice, to which John Adams and Alexander Hamilton [the Federalists] added far more, particularly regarding economics, eg the role of financial institutions, overseen by a national bank.
Likewise he never understood the role for commerce and industry in the new country, disliked companies and merchants, remained entranced instead with a fanciful, unrealistic / unworkable utopian notion of US as land of “yeoman farmers”.
The writings of Adam Smith – a true Enlightenment pioneer, the founder of modern market economics and as relevant today as he ever was – were available then.
So he “rejected as excessive the powers vested in the national government by the Federalists. “
He is rightly saluted for supporting Republicanism – not hard – and for wanting the Church out of the cabinet room,
He and James Madison also opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, fearing Federal power over the states and which protest “appalled” Washington.
b/ he showed irrational antagonism to Britain post-independence, blinded by his animus against the old country, is monarchical aristocracy, and did not appreciate the benefits of constructive ongoing trade.
And on the other hand remained keenly pro French.
1795 [out of office] he opposed the Jay Treaty with Britain, ““designed by Hamilton, aimed to reduce tensions and increase trade.”
c/ the Louisiana Purchase 1803, achieved during his first term as President, was pivotal in US territorial expansion, but it was an obvious transaction, taking advantage of the supremely deluded Napoleon, and anyone on duty then would have done it.
e/ Did his second term achieve much? His pointless trade embargo, the boycott of British goods, 1806-08, caused much economic harm at home, confirmed his failure to understand sound economic policy.
e/ His huge failure and blind spot was slavery, particularly in condoning it and not recognizing the grave danger the growing problem posed for the Union.
Better off without him? Especially re slavery.
Re Jefferson and slavery we need to understand his views, his words. And his actions.
His views on slavery are regarded as comparatively “liberal” for his times.
He saw slavery as regrettable, and even ventured [prophetically] that it would likely end badly one day.
But as a firm racist, like most then, a “white suprematist” – regarding blacks as an inferior race [“the real distinctions which nature has made;”] – he regretted slavery mainly for its impact on whites not blacks.
And blamed George III for sending them over!
Meanwhile, in practice he benefited as a slave owner, and second, he accommodated its growth in the newly independent US.
… his slaves: important assets.
Jefferson was an important slave owner. They were an important component of his assets, especially later to help fund his Monticello home and estate.
He was conscious of their value. Historian Henry Wienack notes that 1792 a letter from TJ to GW describes the revelation to TJ about how profitable were “negroes”, breeding them! Return of 4% pa. in another letter, to a friend in need, suggesting he “should have been invested in negroes.” He advises “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which.. bring a silent profit of 5-10%.. by the increase in their value.” “
Meanwhile, while in France, c 1789, he commenced a relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings , then aged about 16, fathered a number of children, though he never had the honesty to acknowledge this activity.
…. did not free them
His treatment of his own slaves was below par even by his times.
He ran a tough regime at Monticello, cf reports from Farm Book re whipping. Slave James Hubbard was flogged 1811, caught and returned after escaping.
Also he freed virtually none of his own slaves, even on his death. Instead 130 were sold to help pay debts.
Jefferson fell behind G Washington. Thus as HW notes: “In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will.”
In a similar vein Jefferson rejected the gesture of his Polish friend from the Revolutionary War, Thaddeus Kosciuszko [arrived Colonies 1776], who on his death in 1817 “left a substantial fortune to Jefferson.. to free Jefferson’s slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own.” Jefferson ignored it.
As Dr. Samuel Johnson noted, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”
… racist views.
Jefferson had clear racist views of blacks, regarded blacks as racially inferior, “like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people”. [Ambrose].
Hence he was firmly opposed to black and white living together, had “great aversion” to miscegenation, could not remotely envisage a multiracial society.
… in practice: opposed emancipation.
So in practice he was strongly opposed to emancipation of blacks, because they could live alongside whites, and also because he feared slave rebellion.
He expressed unhappiness with slavery, recognised its moral failure, so had some sympathy for enslaved blacks, but he would only tolerate emancipation [eg raised in 1779] if it meant freed blacks being relocated, like through “colonisation”, which was logistically impossible, given the sheer numbers.
… in practice: facilitated expansion of slavery.
He supported banning more imports of slaves, eg 1778 he helped achieve Virginia ban on imports, then 1807 as President he stopped US imports.
But not domestic trading, and the action only enhanced the value of the existing large slave population.
Across a long career rather than doing anything towards ending slavery inside the US, he facilitated expansion.
His support for slavery – or at least lack of opposition – seemed to grow later, beyond say 1784, especially as the slave numbers grew, alongside the cotton boom and the territorial expansion (especially the 1804 Louisiana Purchase) which helped the US feed the cotton boom.
As numbers grew emancipation became even more unrealistic, fears of slave rebellion grew [fed by the successful rebellion in Haiti], and also the risk of upsetting the Union increased.
Then as late as 1820 he supported slavery’s extension to Missouri. He said, “We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other”.
So in essence he was part of a team which handballed the problem on, with disastrous consequences 40-50 years later.
Tolerated violence on French Revolution
Re 1787 Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts [against the Government], Jefferson famously wrote, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
In France during the Revolution Jefferson tolerated the violence in the name of freedom, eg in his well-known January 1793 “Adam and Eve” letter to William Short, following the September 1792 massacres.
Projects: Monticello, Uni of Virginia.
Meanwhile he savoured his indulgent opulent lifestyle, centred on Monticello, after earlier having luxuriated for about 5 years [early 1785-1789, 32-37] in Paris.
He pursued what seems an indulgent obsession building his Dream Home at Monticello [33 rooms and still going], the architecture borrowing from the beloved antiquity of Classical Greece and Rome, and funded importantly by slaves [his family’s plus his wife’s], and a lot of debt.
So he “.. used slaves as collateral for a very large loan he had taken out in 1796 from a Dutch banking house in order to rebuild Monticello..” [HW].
His later “pet project” University of Virginia was just to accommodate spoiled children of slave running planters.
For someone so involved in politics he was a shy, reserved man, shunned public speaking, so the only speeches in two Presidential terms were his two Inaugural Addresses.
The man: too bright for his own good? And not a nice man.
Yes he was “bright”, educated, a voracious appetite for knowledge.
He liked to write, was not a natural speaker, a work the tables man. In government too.
And was self-confident.
But ultimately he was insecure? “Inauthentic”.
Like thought he was good at chess, till he got beat in Paris, and gave it up.
Like he never saw through the reality of him supremely embodying hypocritic inconsistency.
This applied on the macro stage, in Washington.
And it applied especially on the micro, back at Monticello, his archaic racist attitudes extending to his relationship with mulatto Sally Hemmings, by whom he fathered 6 children, not one but 6.
Thus he never treated her as the de facto wife she was, or the consequent children as his.
1/ Hemmings, mulatto half sister to Jefferson’s late wife, Martha Wayles, arrived at Jefferson’s Paris household 1787, later had 6 children by him after returning from Paris, born 1795-1808, of which 4 survived to adulthood.
2/ “Notes on the State of Virginia” [1781, publ. 1785]: “the blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind…
They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. .. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”
3/ Common Cause: Creating Race and Class in the American Revolution, Robert G. Parkinson, 2016
LIFE – summary
Born 1743, well off family, well educated, trained law and practised.
1768 Into Virginia politics.
1775 [June] – Sep 1776, at Continental Congress, committee [with B Franklin and J Adams]. Asked by JA to prepare first draft Decln of Ind.
1779 [June] – June 1781 Governor of Virginia.
1782-84 Delegate at Continental Congress [Congress of the Confederation].
1785 [May] – Sep. 1789, Minister in France, Paris.
1790 [March]- Dec 1793 Secretary of State under President G. Washington.
1797 [March] – March 1801, VP under John Adams