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Jefferson: A Great Man, with a Few Flaws
Thomas Jefferson was the epitome of a Renaissance Man. He was a farmer, engineer, scientist, musician, writer, philosopher, and politician all before the age of 35. He will also forever be remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. However, as the Ken Burn's documentary Thomas Jefferson explains, much of what we remember and idolize Jefferson for must be taken with a grain of salt. He was an aristocrat who reveled in French high society, a slaveowner who posited that “all men are created equal”, and believed that blacks were inferior to whites. But while these things take away from his overall image, is this enough to condemn him as one of the great founders of the United States of America?
Despite these shortcomings, Thomas Jefferson should still be entitled to his historical renown and idolization. The simple fact is that much of United States history is reliant on the presence and influence of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was responsible for reading and interpreting the sentiments of Americans around the time of the revolution and craft one of the most important documents in U.S. history, The Declaration of Independence. Beyond that, the Declaration prompted a global movement of people to stand up for their rights and stand against their respective monarchical powers. Jefferson, though a quiet man, was outspoken about the future of the U.S. government and the amount of control it should have. Without Jefferson advocating a smaller government, the Constitution and the early American government may have ended up quite different.
There does exist a darker side to Jefferson, particularly his attitude toward race and slavery. He openly spoke about how the blacks were inferior to the whites and that they were only capable of manual labor. He also kept a large number of slaves throughout his life, despite speaking out against slavery and proposing several pieces of legislation against slavery. This is also troubling when taken alongside his famous line from the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”. Was he a hypocrite? Yes, but we cannot let that become his only lasting characteristic. Its unfortunate that a man of such forward thinking had to have such backwards opinions on slavery and race, but it cannot mask his accomplishments either.
Going forward, Thomas Jefferson should be remembered as a fantastic intellectual and politician that helped to shape the early history of America and assisted in the forming of one of the longest lasting governments in history. However, it is important to remember that, as an individual, Jefferson had backward thoughts on race and slavery that are unacceptable and should not be praised by any means. It is important that when studying and researching him as a man, and as a symbol, that all aspects of his life be carefully examined and none held to a higher degree than any of the others. One must take Jefferson for all that he is, and not judge solely on his faults, or his accomplishments.