History

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson

Reflecting on Jefferson's complicated legacy.

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Credit: Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia statesman, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and third president of the United States, was born on this day in 1743. Jefferson was a brilliant theorist and politician who, to say the very least, had an outsized impact on the course of American history. Yet Jefferson was also a deeply flawed individual, a man who could champion the idea that "all men are created equal" while at the same time owning numerous slaves. To mark Jefferson's birthday today, and to reflect on his complicated legacy, here's an excerpt from my take on "The Trouble With Thomas Jefferson," an essay which first appeared in Reason's January 2009 issue:

Does the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves—probably including his own children—negate the wonderful things he wrote about inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence? To put it another way, why should anyone listen to what Master Jefferson (or other slaveholding Founders) had to say about liberty and equality?

It's important to remember that the idea of inalienable rights didn't start or stop in the year 1776. The historian Gordon S. Wood, in his superb 1991 book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, argues that "to focus, as we are apt to do, on what the Revolution did not accomplish—highlighting and lamenting its failure to abolish slavery and change fundamentally the lot of women—is to miss the great significance of what it did accomplish." In Wood's view, by destroying monarchical rule and replacing it with republicanism, the American revolutionaries "made possible the anti-slavery and women's rights movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking." They upended "their societies as well as their governments…only they did not know—they could scarcely have imagined—how much of their society they would change."

As evidence, consider two very different figures whose lives intersected with slavery in the 19th century: the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun. An escaped slave and self-taught author and orator, Douglass understood better than most just how potent the Declaration's promise of inalienable rights could be. "Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body?" Douglass would demand of his mostly white audiences. "There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him."

Calhoun, by contrast, believed the Declaration's assertion that "all men are created equal" was "the most dangerous of all political error." As he put it in an 1848 speech, "For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits." This false notion of equality, Calhoun continued, "had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson…which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the former, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the latter."

Think about what Calhoun is saying here. The idea that "all men are created equal" has slowly developed in the American consciousness, producing the "poisonous fruits" of the anti-slavery movement. Jefferson may or may not have intended such an outcome; he certainly did little actively to bring it about, though he did denounce slavery and its brutalizing impact on white society. But the libertarian ideas that inspired Jefferson, the ones coursing through the Declaration of Independence and later through the Constitution, nonetheless did bring it about. Douglass welcomed that result; Calhoun despised it.

Read the whole thing here.

NEXT: Happy Birthday: How Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence

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  1. Does the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves?probably including his own children?negate the wonderful things he wrote about inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence?

    Yes. The concept of liberty was codified in this country by slaveholders to enable their oppression, and must be discarded.

  2. Your birthday present: a ruined country.

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    1. Damn, you’re a busy girl! Do you have one of those machines over your bed that says, “Now Serving Number…”?

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  4. Gojira is entirely incorrect.

    Of course he was hypocritical. He is the epitome of do as I say, not as a I do. but his slave ownership does not negate a thing that he advocated. Freedom and the individual are the only things that matter at all.

    He is also very correct, incredibly smart, and subscribes to the absolutely correct ideals.

    What the race pimps and the Gojira’s of the world will never understand is that the system these men envisioned is the only one of its kind in history and has provided for the greater good and improved standards of living that no other country or economy could have ever envisioned prior to that time.
    Clinging to the errors of the past is a luddite passion that only the ignorant posses and the insane lament.

    The world has moved on and the descendants of former slaves live far better lives in the US than anywhere else on earth. Move on.

    1. lol Gojira was making a joke.

      1. I feel like a horses’ petute. Everyone is so damn sensitive these days.

        1. It’s not called Poe’s SUGGESTION, homes.

        2. it’s okay, though the discourse would be more entertaining if you double down on your opinion and attack everyone for insinuating you didn’t understand his position. We’re all sock-puppets anyway.

          1. Shut up, Tulpa!

              1. Fuck you both, Dunphy!

                1. If only we were all Herc’s sock puppets, what a glorious place this would be… [wipes away single manly tear]

                  1. THEN THERE WOULD BE MOAR CAPS!

        3. Why…so…serious?!?

    2. Gojira does, however, understand sarcasm.

    3. Fucking sarcasm, how does it work?

      1. What the timbo’s of the world will never understand is that the dry humor these men envisioned is the only one of its kind in history and has provided for the greater good and improved standards of living that no other joke or analogy could have ever envisioned prior to that time.

    4. “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticize others?after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?” ? “Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behavior?you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy. You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

      1. Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exclaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours?but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

        “Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

        “Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

        “Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves?they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

        “So they were morally superior to the Victorians?” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

        “?even though?in fact, because?they had no morals at all.”

        1. Replace morality with philosophy, and this passage captures the modern progressive movement. Their forebears at least had the honesty to couch it in terms of improving the human stock, hence embracing eugenics and cavalier social engineering. The original progressives had a philosophy of perfecting humanity. Their ideological descendants, not so much. Modern progressives are ad hoc in their philosophies: whatever’s expedient for attaining and enlarging their power, whatever it takes to wring more money out of the productive classes and more votes out of their dependents. And alleging hypocrisy is how they tackle people and movements with actual philosophical substance behind their views. So Jefferson is unpersoned and dust-binned because his thoughts on liberty did not gel with his personal customs.

          1. I dont think anything needs replacing at all.

    5. What the race pimps and the Gojira’s of the world will never understand is that the system these men envisioned is the only one of its kind in history and has provided for the greater good and improved standards of living that no other country or economy could have ever envisioned prior to that time.

      Color me skeptical, but markets and corporations weren’t uniquely American inventions, and I’m not really clear on what would have prevented Edison from inventing the phonograph or Ford from introducing the Model T had they been subjects of the Queen rather than citizens of a republic.

      1. Do you think that Henry Ford would have been allowed to employ the assembly line (which puts artisans/craftsmen/guilds out of work and replaces them with less-skilled/less-expensive labor) under Crown Rule? Doubtful.

  5. You know who else had a “complicated legacy” and was born in April?

    1. Eddie Murphy?

      1. My mother?

    2. Robert Downey Jr.?

    3. My new daughter?

  6. I fail to understand how Jefferson’s “legacy” includes his personal slaveholding. The legacy is what you leave for future generations.

    Now, he and the other Founders did indeed codify/permit slavery, and that is part of their collective legacy. A legacy that was largely redeemed in a vicious Civil War fought by their descendants.

    Considering his personal slaveholding as part of his legacy is to buy into the project of trashing the founding of this country and its notions of limited government, etc.

    1. Because HERPADERPSLAVES!!!

      Jeebus, RC, have you been paying attention at all?

    2. What about the children that resulted from the slaves he raped? Is it fair to count them as part of his legacy?

      1. Better if they had been aborted, I guess.

      2. I’d say the consideration of all aspects of an object will always lead to a fuller grasp i.e., a more complete understanding of the said object. Omissions are like — speaking of and depicting one as having only one arm when in reality they possessed two.

        The question truly is do we want that fuller understanding? I’d say for progressives and libertarians alike (and everyone in-between) — depending on the object of consideration — that fuller understanding is consciously rejected in instances of our choosing; some do this more, some do this less. Think of your own sins, or the sins of your father, or the sins of someone dear, do we always deem to give equal weight to all of their qualities? Sometimes we choose to only focus on the visage beneath the bright light; we can be averse to considering the cold, shadow that each object casts. To refuse contemplation of the shadow is to refuse the fuller understanding of an objects substance.

    3. Even at the time of the founding you had Franklin and John Jay expressing the opinion that slavery was unacceptable, with Franklin even co-founding the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in 1774.

      So the founders were in fact not of one mind about this,

      1. What, merely “promoting” abolition? Not *fighting* for it? Hypocrite!

      2. Yeah, slavery was a divisive issue in the 1770s and 1780s. Franklin, Jay, Adams and Hamilton, among others, were opposed to slavery.

        1. And Washington seems to be the figure who had the most realistic understanding of the position the newly-awakened country was actually in when he lamented that he wished “that the dispute had been left to posterity to determine: but the crisis has arrived when we must assert our rights or submit to every imposition that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.”

          He knew that they had bigger fish, at the moment, to fry.

          1. Nothing is bigger than eliminating slavery eliminating racism eliminating homophobia requiring trans-friendly bathrooms. It’s the biggest cause there ever was or will be.

          2. Another interesting aspect of the controversy is that many people thought slavery would taper off, if not die out, naturally, anyway. Tobacco as a cash crop was unsustainable because it depleted the soil. That changed in the 1790s with the invention of the cotton gin and the water press, at which point the cotton industry exploded, and the limiting factor shifted from the cumbersome ginning process to harvesting.

            1. I probably would have lost that bet 200 years ago. The problem is that slavery became a cultural as well as economic issue. The antebellum Southerners seemed determined to hang onto slavery as part of their cultural identity even as the economic benefit was fading.

    4. Considering his personal slaveholding as part of his legacy is to buy into the project of trashing the founding of this country and its notions of limited government, etc.

      So that’s what Damon Root is doing, huh?

  7. Jefferson is a fascinating figure. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the words he left behind have done more than almost anyone in history to inspire men and women to strive for a better and more free world. At the same time, he was a petty, vindictive man who tolerated not dissent, a demagogue of the first order who had complete control over the entire federal government except the Supreme Court during his tenure.

    1. He mostly strikes me as being a rather superficial man who was largely caught up in the political fads of the day and had a taste for stirring up shit just to smell it. Let’s remember he was also a supporter of the French Revolution, which didn’t end so well.

      I’ve always had the feeling if Jefferson had been born 40 years later, the US would have been the world’s first communist country.

  8. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to judge a person, not their ideas. That’s why anyone who criticizes Hillary hates women, anyone who criticizes Obama is racist, and anyone who quotes TJ supports slavery. Duh.

    1. I’d definitely enslave myself for a lifetime supply of cheese from TJ’s.

  9. If only he’d stuck with “life, liberty, and property.”

    1. ^this, although I’m sure our current representatives in DC still wouldn’t care

  10. I will say I much prefer Jefferson’s memorial than Lincoln’s. Jefferson stands tall and dignified while Lincoln is seated like a monarch on a throne.

    Always found that a curiously anti-republican symbol.

    1. Monarchy has it’s advantages. Consider that rather than being governed by a descendant of Washington’s, you’re being governed by Obama.

    2. I agree in principle, but man, there is just something completely amazing about the scale and open space in the Lincoln memorial that is lacking in Tommy J’s.

  11. Top bad no one reads any of the drafts of his work, or his other writings.

  12. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally is thought to have started when they were together in France, so I don’t think she was technically a slave.

  13. “Calhoun, by contrast, believed the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal” was “the most dangerous of all political error.” As he put it in an 1848 speech, “For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits.” This false notion of equality, Calhoun continued, “had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson?”

    At least Calhoun had a point here, equality is a false notion.

    “Jefferson may or may not have intended such an outcome; he certainly did little actively to bring it about, though he did denounce slavery and its brutalizing impact on white society.”

    Did little? Jefferson did quite a bit to end slavery: He went silent on it late in his life when he thought it was presently futile (though he privately advocated anti-slavery Virginians to remain in the state to end it eventually) but he introduced a law prohibiting the importing more slaves from Africa and proposed banning it in the Northwest. To be fair, I believe he also entertained the idea of diffusion which sounds contradictory to the ban.

  14. This is what fundamentally divides American lefty radicals from others.

    Was slavery a *betrayal* of the principles of the American Founding, or a *fulfillment* of it?

    Calhoun, in order to defend slavery as a good thing, had to attack the Founders’ principles. This is a key piece of evidence that founding principles were antagonistic to slavery – otherwise Calhoun wouldn’t have had to surrender the high ground to his adversaries.

    The slaveowning Founders behaved as if they knew there was an inconsistency between what they said and what they did. Sometimes this actually led them to mitigate the condition of the slave, to make emancipation easier, and in the Northern states, to abolish slavery altogether.

    Another slaveowning Founder, George Mason, wrote stuff which was sufficiently critical of slavery that his grandson James, a proslavery US Senator in the 1850s, didn’t want George’s antislavery remarks published.

    Benjamin Franklin, at the end of his life, was part of an antislavery petition campaign, and he wrote a satirical article comparing American slavers to the slavers of the Algerine pirate-state.

    1. There was a major cultural shift regarding slavery during the time of the Founders versus the Jacksonian era. Many slaveholders during the time of the Revolution recognized the inconsistencies between their philosophy and their actions, and even Jefferson (who, unlike Washington and others, did not emancipate his slaves on his death) openly recognized the evils of the practice. Many were beholden to the practice because they were deeply in debt, but it was not uncommon even for plantation owners to favor gradual emancipation and/or shipping former slaves to Liberia.

      Attitudes changed with the rise of cotton, which led to an increased demand for slaves, which led to many trying to justify or defend the practice, rather than treat it as a necessary and temporary evil.

  15. Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson

    CANT. NOT NOW. TOO BUSY SCABBLING

  16. Oh, and if you rearrange the letters in “Thomas Jefferson,” you get “Fan Freshest Mojo.”

    It bears thinking about, doesn’t it?

  17. “Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson”

    Now *there’s* a guy who could legally compel people to make him a cake.

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