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Thomas Jefferson- Contradictory Genius

Updated on February 8, 2014


While reading Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power”, I was struck by the jumble of contradictions that made up this titan from the Founding Fathers generation. Unfortunately, several of these inconsistencies in Mr. Jefferson’s character do not cast him in the most favorable light, despite Meacham’s strenuous efforts to the contrary. The Muse of Monticello is justly celebrated as a true Renaissance Man (JFK’s famous quip to a group of Nobel Prize winners at the White House for lunch is truly apropos- “There has not been this much talent and intellectual prowess in this room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”) He also wrote one of the most famous and important documents not only in U.S. but World History- the Declaration of Independence. In addition, Jefferson played a vital role in the American Revolution and early Republic as a representative to the Continental Congress, ambassador to France, first Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice-President for John Adams, before becoming president in 1801.

His two-term presidency was among the most productive in our annals, as he cut government spending (what a concept!) while the economy grew, and orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country. The Purchase in 1803 provided an excellent example of how Jefferson see-sawed between principle and practicality. During the Washington and Adams years, he believed Constitutional bounds were being overstepped and the nation headed down the road toward monarchy. Now as president, he had the opportunity to greatly increase the territory of the U.S., but would need to stretch the limits of authority, which he so strenuously accused his predecessors of doing. The sacred document was silent on whether the government could buy land, but Jefferson prudently decided the benefit to the nation outweighed any constitutional scruples. Anyway, purchasing territory could be squeezed into the treaty-making power the president possesses or the elastic clause, allowing the government to act in response to conditions unforeseen in 1787.

In his book, Meacham excellently details Jefferson’s leadership style, developed through his long career. Not liking personal confrontation, he often acted behind the scenes, using intermediaries to promote his agenda. This strategy proved mostly effective, but sadly, on occasion, led him to encourage personal attacks on Washington and Adams, in particular, that reflect poorly on his character. Mr. Jefferson pay rolled writers who viciously savaged our first two presidents, which he justified on the grounds of saving the true meaning of the Revolution. Universally regarded as kind and affable, and for the most part a mature statesman, this conduct was inexcusable. Meacham attributes it to Jefferson’s fervent, if almost fanatical, fear of tyranny. Differences of opinion are the lifeblood of a democracy, something which he fought for his entire life, but in this instance, his misplaced apprehensions caused him to lose perspective. These were men he had stood side by side with to create the United States, and one (Adams) who had become a close personal friend in the process. The slanders severed the friendship between Jefferson and Adams for many years, before they had a reconciliation in old age.

This unethical behavior also rebounded on Jefferson, when one of his paid scribes turned on him, and revealed his dark secret to the world- the relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. There are many different levels of personal and universal morality involved in this part of Jefferson’s life, most of which do not benefit his legacy. It is very understandable for him to take up with a woman who very probably looked a lot like his deceased wife (they were half-sisters), though one can question the propriety of being 30 years older than her, and the fact she was a year younger than his only surviving daughter, Patsy. It was very common for slave owners in the South to have two families, a white one and mixed race. A situation never discussed in polite society, which is why there is no mention of it in any of Patsy’s letters, though it must have been very uncomfortable for her, to say the least. Meacham also mentions that no one ever witnessed Jefferson showing affection to Sally’s children or grandchildren by him, part of the public act no doubt. We do not know, however, what he did in private, so judgment must be withheld on that aspect of his life.

The main problem here is that only one plantation owner, Thomas Jefferson, wrote the Declaration of Independence with its shackle-breaking- “All men are created equal.” Yet, he could not bring himself to act on his own words. Meacham notes that Jefferson detested slavery, and tried to battle against it early in his career. Running into opposition among his fellow slaveholders, he gave up emancipation and colonization (even if freed, Jefferson did not believe whites and blacks could co-exist) as a lost political cause. Not a very convincing argument for one of the heroes of the American Revolution. Other men of that era, most notably George Washington, saw the inherent hypocrisy of fighting for their own freedom, while denying it to others. Washington made provision for the emancipation of his slaves upon wife Martha’s death.

The only slaves Jefferson freed were Sally’s children and her brother, which she compelled him to do. Sally had traveled to France when Jefferson served there as ambassador. Her brother came as well to learn the country’s cooking style as Jefferson loved French food. That nation having outlawed slavery, they could have refused to return to the U.S., thus securing their freedom under French law. Sally only agreed to come back if Jefferson promised to free her children and brother when they turned 21. Jefferson kept his promise, but seemingly did it just for his personal benefit, as the hundreds of other slaves he owned remained in bondage. Sally herself was never officially freed, but left Monticello and lived quietly in nearby Charlottesville as a free women after Jefferson’s death in 1826. One can only wish that Thomas Jefferson might have emancipated all his slaves because it was the right thing to do. That he was unable does not deny him a place in the American pantheon, but perhaps a somewhat tarnished pedestal.


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