Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder

July 22, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’m not sure what language to use in the title. I know that “slave” is now replaced by “enslaved person”, so I suppose I should have called Jefferson an “enslaver”. I’ll take my chances.  At any rate, Smithsonian Magazine has a long article on this issue from 2012 (11 pages printed out single spaced in 9-point type) on how Jefferson ran Monticello with a group of enslaved people (this is awkward to write; the article itself was written before “slave” went out of fashion).  Those held captive numbered around 100 and went as high as 140. Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves during his life.

Although the article is nine years old, it’s still worth reading, though it ignores the issue of Sally Hemings, one of the enslaved people who in fact produced children by Jefferson. The Monticello site takes up that issue quite frankly, and you can also read Jon Meacham’s highly praised 2012 biography of the man, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power. I read it about six years ago, and have little recollection of how it treated Jefferson as a slaveholder.

Click on the screenshot to read. And remember, this article was written well before Wokeness shrouded the land.

I won’t summarize such a long article, and the data may have been updated, but here are a few facts:

  • Jefferson’s slaves were, by and large, not paid, though some were. But they were not free to go, and he worked them hard.
  • Many of the boys began work at Jefferson’s nail factory at age 10, and were whipped (Jefferson knew this, but tended to keep away from the issue) even as children. Adults often did backbreaking work growing tobacco.
  • By and large, Jefferson was not an extraordinarily cruel slaveholder, but remember that he did hold humans against their will and even calculated the 4% “interest” he got on his slaves when they reproduced.
  • Jefferson had an opportunity to free his slaves during his lifetime (George Washington did so on his own death), but didn’t do it. When revolutionary war hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish hero who fought on the American side during the Revolution, died in 1817, he left a huge amount of money to Jefferson (nearly $20,000, a huge amount in those days) with the express purpose that the money be used to free Jefferson’s slaves and buy them farming equipment and land. If Jefferson accepted the money, he had a legal obligation to abide by the terms of the will. He refused the bequest.

Most important, Jefferson lived in an era when it was NOT the Zeitgeist for everyone to think that slavery was okay. It was normal in Virginia, but remember that Jefferson wrote, in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, a denunciaton of slavery, at least according to Wiencek:

In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”

It is not as if the normal thing to do in America was to accept the existence of slavery.

There were plenty of people in Jefferson’s era, though perhaps not in his Southern environs, who saw slavery as a moral evil. Jefferson did not, though he clearly was conflicted. But in the end, he kept human chattel that he regarded as a bank account that gave interest.

What do we do with such a man? Should we put up statues to him, as they did at my alma mater, The College of William and Mary? (And of course there’s the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.) After all, the statues are there to honor his positive accomplishments, and one can make a case that Jefferson did more good than bad in his life (these are my criteria for honoring someone). But after reading this piece, and assuming that the facts are reported correctly, I have to think twice.

Please feel free to weigh in below.


76 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder

  1. Interesting article, thank you for sharing. I recently watched the lovely four part Netflix special, High on the Hog (would recommend). It had an episode looking at the chef of Jefferson, the brother of Sally. Jefferson took him to Paris to be trained in French cuisine – which seems like a nice thing to do. But later, when James Hemmings wished to be freed, Jefferson demanded he train his replacement first. So he did, and trained and left his younger brother.

    I don’t think Jefferson was a uniquely cruel or awful person – I think he was an entitled, wealthy man of his era. It’s all well and good to call out the slave trade, but when it came to his kitchen he wanted what he wanted.

    1. The Monticello website is full of interesting things:

      he manumission agreement drawn up by Jefferson as he prepared to leave the office of Secretary of State at the end of 1793 and retire to Monticello. The agreement reads:

      Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this 15th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.15


  2. Slavery had been accepted throughout history and geographies. (Orlando Patterson’s “Slavery and Social Death” is a great synoptic study of slavery. BTW, parts of the world, such as North Africa and Middle East, I understand continue the practice in muted fashion.)

    Anyway, if many Americans held slavery was immoral, it then becomes clear that people such as Jefferson should be condemned.

    But given that many saw slavery as evil even, Isn’t it then difficult to maintain that slavery was part of America’s foundational DNA? Does the trajectory of abortion’s legality, in its various trimesters, provide a template for the discussion of slavery?

    1. Does the trajectory of abortion’s legality, in its various trimesters, provide a template for the discussion of slavery?

      I’m trying to follow this one, but isn’t the trajectory of abortion’s legality something like:
      Not not legal, sort-of legal, less-legal, illegal, legal, less-legal, less-legal?

    2. On abortion, and if you mean a woman being forced to carry another at her own expense, with nothing but negativity in return, yes, there is such a template.

  3. What do we do with such a man?

    Teach his history accurately?

    Personally I think we still, even after decades if not centuries of knowing this isn’t true, have a psychological bias in seeing people as categorically good or bad. Examples of good people doing horrible things or horrible people doing good things bother us. They don’t fit what we want to be true. This bias is IMO bad for society in that it could skew everything from jury rulings to primary school teacher behavior. And I don’t see any way to fight it other than to shove obvious, real, important examples of people like Jefferson in people’s faces. You teach kids about the Jeffersons so that when they grow up, they don’t ignore their suspicions about the Jerry Sanduskys.

    1. Yes, I agree. There is a lot of resistance from politicians and others whenever, there is any attempt to re-evaluate national heroes such as Jefferson, Churchill, and others but if we want a mature, properly educated population we need to get people to understand that real people don’t fit neatly into hero or villain categories. It is possible for people to do great and admirable things AND also do some bad stuff – particularly over the course of an entire lifetime. As you suggest, this has important lessons for how we view the leaders of today and the importance of keeping our critical faculties alert rather than simply pigeon-holing them into all good/all bad.

      However, this does not address the statue issue. In a class-room it is (theoretically at least) possible to teach a lesson about Jefferson that reflects on both his positive achievements and his slave owning, but statues almost by definition fall into the binary hero/villain approach to history. A statue of Jefferson celebrates his contribution to the rights of Man and the development of modern democracy and so it is problematic that the same person kept slaves and was instrumental in maintaining the system of slavery when he was certainly aware of the moral dubiousness (at the very least) of this.

      It is perhaps easier to accept a statue of a great man or woman that celebrates achievements that are quite separate from whatever skeletons they may have in the closet but in Jefferson’s case, where his achievements and his faults stand in direct opposition to each other I confess I am, like Jerry, conflicted.

  4. I remember reading that Jefferson and, I think, Monroe, early on in their careers, discussed the issue and seem to have concluded that while regrettable, it was the only way they could imagine being able to maintain their landowner life style, which lifestyle was necessary to there political careers. It is not hard to imagine, had they given up the sad practice, they would have fallen into poverty, been ignored, and died without having created a new nation.

    1. ” ….died without having created a new nation”

      Is it axiomatic that failure to create this would have been a bad thing to have happened? For example, slavery would almost certainly have been outlawed that much sooner in most of North America.

      For another somewhat more farfetched example, it is not out of the question that existence of a powerful nation which happened to have a large portion of its population on the west side of the Atlantic, would have given pause to the German initiators of the 1st world war, and also slowed down the apparent enthusiasm of some royals over there for sending millions to the slaughterhouse, thereby avoiding both it and the 2nd world war.

      The attitudes inculcated in primary school in USians of the wonderfulness of their nation coming into existence are not quite as complete elsewhere in the world, despite recognition of the many valuable things that U.S. has done at times internationally.

      1. I find the prospect slavery would have ended sooner had America never become independent to be highly unlikely. The American Revolution popularized egalitarian Enlightenment ideals that were largely unsupported beforehand. There’s a reason that the abolition movements in the US, Britain, and France largely came about as a result of the American Revolution and the revolutions it inspired in France and Haiti. The US was the first country to restrict slavery (in the northern states), and in turn the French were the first Europeans to abolish it after their revolution which was inspired by and involved many of the same participants as the American.

        There is obviously much propaganda in American history, but the American Revolution did have genuine significance in furthering egalitarian and Enlightenment ideals.

        1. I have no quarrel with your considerably more thorough reading of history and prognostications. It was phrased tentatively, and perhaps more in the spirit of jolting a few USians if necessary out of semi-myths from their childhoods. Also it is desirable to concentrate on actions more than flowery words one finds in the US constitution, in St. James bible, etc.

          I think the foibles and worse of ‘great’ leaders needs to be taught to children from early age.

          Basing alternative histories on various what-ifs is for fiction writers more than historians, of which I am neither.

  5. Benevolent slaveholder is an oxymoron. No such person exists. The main crime remains the owning of another person.

    1. I doubt actual slaves see it this way. It makes all the difference for the ones in someone else’s power, whether slaves, serfs, prisoners of war, prisoners for crime, employees or helpless people in a care home, whether the ones who have power over them are benevolent or not.

  6. It was only in Jefferson’s own lifetime that an anti-slavery movement arose, so I would say that, although it might have been going out of style, and Jefferson and some of his contemporaries believed that the institution was going to disappear naturally soon (it was viewed as declining, but it did not continue to do so because of the opening up of the deep South, and the cotton industry), it was certainly a part of not just American, or Western, but World culture. One other thing that is often ignored too is the hard life of many free laborers. While being own puts the slave in a class all by himself, and is to be reviled, young boys were often forced to work in terrible conditions up into the 20th century, and corporal punishment, including whipping was common in Jefferson’s day. (Flogging was abolished in the US Navy in 1850 by statute, over the objections of most naval officers.) In Britain criminals could be branded. Jefferson was a man of his times. What we “should do with” him, is remember why he has been held out as being special from all the other slaveholders around the world in his lifetime. Why should we cancel Jefferson when there are still slaveholders in the world today? Why is it only Westerners of the past that are to be vilified?

    1. Jefferson lived in Paris 1784-1789, and the French outlawed slavery (the first time – it didn’t stick) in 1794. He was friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, an emancipationist, and important figure in the French Revolution – the government which actually did the outlawing of slavery. So it seems pretty certain he would’ve been aware of emancipation sentiments, discussions about freeing slaves, and arguments being made by upper class educated, well-respected political leaders like himself in opposition to slavery. When Jefferson became president in 1801, it would’ve been seven years after seeing his good friend the Marquis become a key leader of his own nation and then promptly outlaw slavery. So he knew it could practically be done.

      On the one hand, as you say, this may support the notion that the reason he didn’t fight to end it (even while opposing it ‘in print’) is that he really believed his society would abandon the institution soon “naturally.”

      On the other hand, it undermines any excuse that he was just behaving the way people of his time did. He knew emancipationists both in the U.S. and abroad. It’s beyond reasonable doubt (IMO) that he would’ve talked with them, discussed these issues in his social circle, and so on. There’s no excuse in ignorance to be had here.

      1. One swallow does not make a Summer. France’s abolition (and they undid it in 1802), does not mean that everyone agreed or suddenly felt different about slavery. Britain didn’t end slavery until 1833; Brazil until 1888. It’s not question of ignorance. As the article points out, he was well aware of manumission. It’s question of whether he should be treated as an historical pariah for owning slaves. I don’t think so.

        1. Of course not everyone agreed. That’s a straw man response. My point was that the “he was a man of his times” excuse doesn’t wash with Jefferson. Lafayette was a man of his times too, right? And they knew each other. So well in fact that upon hearing Jefferson was coming to Paris, and being away, Lafayette told him to consider his (Lafayette’s) estate to be a second home for Jefferson, and insisted he go visit with his (L’s) wife. They lived in the same circle/group of peers in Paris. Were friends.for years before and after that. Lafayette was in fact far richer than Jefferson, thus having far more to lose from rocking the cultural boat. And during the French Revolution, Jefferson and Lafayette worked together on France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.”

          Any difference of opinion between Lafayette and Jefferson on slavery can’t be chalked up to ‘the times’. They shared the same time. It can’t be chalked up to culture, they shared the same social circles, the same friends. It comes down to choice of what to believe, what to support.

          Now if you want to say “man of his times” washes with Joe regular Brazilian, that’s fine, I’ll accept it. But really, not so much with TJ.

          I guess a modern analogy is that you seem to want to believe TJ was like a Nixon or Ford grappling with gay rights in the 1970s. But if you really look at the timeline, he’s more like Obama having to confront the issue in 2015, three years after is Veep Biden (Lafayette) went and publicly supported it. Only unlike Obama, Jefferson failed to use the opportunity to do something he had literally written about wanting to happen..

          1. Fine. So now think of the response of Lafayette to Jefferson. Lafayette was a firm abolitionist; Jefferson a slaveowner. So did Lafayette treat Jefferson as a pariah, refuse to be his friend, refuse to have any dealings with him? You know the answer – he did nothing of the sort. He maintained his friendship with Jefferson, and with other slaveowners, in full knowledge that they were slaveowners.

            So WHY didn’t Lafayette treat Jefferson as a pariah? To me the answer seems obvious: that even though Lafayette thought holding slaves was wrong, he didn’t see it AS wrong as we do today. If we knew someone today who did what Jefferson did, we would ostracize him. Lafayette did not. He stayed friends with Jefferson for more than 40 years.

            So it’s not as simple as saying “Jefferson mixed with abolitionists, even flirted briefly with abolitionism himself, he had the opportunity to be an abolitionist, but wasn’t, so we should damn him.” The question isn’t just whether there were people in his circle who thought slavery was wrong at the time: the question is also HOW wrong they thought it to be, and how wrong they thought someone was who practiced it. The clear answer is: not very, or at least, nothing like as wrong as we do. Judging Jefferson’s actions by the standard of his

            And in that respect, it is wrong to damn Jefferson – because even from the perspective of those who disagreed with him on slavery, he was committing a venial fault, a pardonable one, not a damnable one.

            1. Well I am not sure that damning him is what anyone here is proposing. Eric has already argued that the binary hero/villain approach to historical figures is unrealistic. Jefferson has hitherto been venerated as a hero for the rights of man. His achievement as the chief architect of the DoI remains undisputed but it is surely right to point out that his stance as a slave owner makes his position in history considerably more complicated and nuanced than it has traditionally been presented as. Whether or not in the 18th century slavery was seen as being as bad as we see it nowadays is open to question but there is little doubt that Jefferson (a man who clearly gave a lot of thought to the rights of man) recognised that it was not morally justifiable.

      2. France banned slavery during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. I am not an expert but I imagine this did not put the ban in the best light. Lafayette helped the French Revolution in the beginning but was one of many who became a traitor in Robespierre’s eyes and was lucky to arrested by the Austrians and avoid the guillotine.

        I am sure you know better but your post could be read as endorsement for the French Revolution.

  7. Don’t forget the facts of his enslaving … but don’t cancel the Foundation Principle that he wrote into the Declaration of Independence.

    Wokes/SJWs always attack and seek to guillotine “the person” and mask the ‘consequence’ of obliterating the crucial underlying principles (to be replaced by collectivist tropes.)

    My issue with Jefferson is this: he had a better formulation for it than the one he wrote (and Franklin/Adams approved) namely the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason a few months prior. Jefferson went with the weaker one. As follows:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
    Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

    “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
    George Mason, The Virginia Declaration of Rights

    Mason’s has these vastly better values:
    1) creation/endowment does not credit god;
    2) explicit inclusion of “property” as an absolute;
    3) specific prohibition of future generations from destroying the foundational rights.

    A Constitution built on Mason’s words would have prevented claims of religious founding, assured government could not confiscate citizens’ money/property, and would have denied the gradual valorization of ‘democratic socialism.’

    NOTE: Jefferson’s original draft did not invoke God. Someone else convinced(?) him to credit God.

    “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; That all men are created equal and independent, That from that equal creation they derive rights Inherent and inalienable, among which are the Preservation of life and liberty, and The pursuit of happiness.”
    Thomas Jefferson, Draft for the Declaration

    1. Even Jefferson’s version puts a dagger into the practice of slavery (“All men are created equal…”), yet Jefferson did not follow his own precept. He is a very disappointing hypocrite, and would be so in any age.

    2. “A Constitution built on Mason’s words would have prevented claims of religious founding . . . “

      I seriously doubt it. Though I personally do prefer Mason’s formulation, I don’t think it would have made any noticeable difference in preventing claims that the US was founded as a Christian Nation.

  8. The most cynical view of Thomas Jefferson I’ve heard was voiced by Brad Pitt’s character, Jackie Cogan, in the closing scene of the vastly underappreciated film Killing Them Softly, an adaptation of the George V. Higgins noir novel Cogan’s Trade, reset against the backdrop of the 2008 economic crisis and presidential election:

          1. Women were included in “men” in the Declaration of Independence, yes. The phrase was referring to equality in terms of rights, not equality per say. Society had not yet caught up to the sentiment, but Jefferson’s view was that women were equal in the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but not necessarily politically. He felt similarly about African slaves.

  9. When I first visited Monticello, around 1997, I was most impressed by the “slave tour”, which provided a good overview of Jefferson’s use of enslaved labor. I subsequently purchased an read the book “The Wolf by the Ears”, which I thought was an excellent exploration of his connections with slavery (Including Sally Hemings) and how they influenced his thinking regarding democracy and governance. And personally, while I think there is absolutely no place for confederate on public property, I have no problem with ones of Jefferson, Washington et al. After all, they were instrumental in creating the (admittedly flawed) nation we live in, while the confederates did all they could to destroy it.

    1. “Pipes” is phallic, and “plumber” is triggering for people who have suffered from lead poisoning. Also you don’t want to use “fixes” or invoke any title that implies expertise based on merit or experience. How about “fluid conduit facilitator”?

  10. Jefferson is one of my heroes and remains so, despite learning about Sally Hemings, etc. I don’t expect perfection, so am not destroyed to learn of faults. I can’t point to any authority, but believe he freed his slaves in his Will and in a letter once said on the subject of slavery that he shudders when remembering that god is just, meaning that he would pay in the hereafter for his maintenance of slavery in life.
    I further think that the Civil War should be the cutoff for U.S. tolerance of racism and slavery. Building/naming monuments to Confederates after that War, especially using public funds/exemptions is vile. Post-War “heroes” with racist attitudes (e.g., Woodrow Wilson), should be taught but not memorialized. Don’t name your school or put up a statue until 100 years have passed (the definition of “antique”) so you can be sure of what you are memorializing. Everything pre-War (antebellum) can be given a pass, so long as all schools are made to taught the facts, good-bad-ugly.
    I’ll just put out here that I think schools started to go bad when the school boards became elective offices (politicized). Only allowing people who think like you to choose subjects and textbooks leads to suppression and subversion of facts and science. The original purpose of the U.S. Department of Education was to ensure that all children received a minimum of facts/science education – don’t know what its purpose is now since I hear that civics and foreign languages are no longer taught. We are circling the drain.

    1. The website of the group that runs Jefferson’s home (Monticello) has a Q&A on Jefferson as a slaveholder. Among other things it notes:
      “Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life. 400 people were enslaved at Monticello; the other 200 people were held in bondage on Jefferson’s other properties. At any given time, around 130 people were enslaved at Monticello.”

      “People at Monticello were physically beaten. Several overseers had a reputation for cruelty and violence: Gabriel Lilly, William Page, and William McGeehee. There are no documents of Thomas Jefferson personally beating a slave, but such actions were uncommon for slaveholders. Most slaveholders would consider such physical labor beneath them, and hired overseers to perform the actual administration of violence. Thomas Jefferson did order physical punishment.”

      “Jefferson did buy and sell human beings. He purchased slaves occasionally, because of labor needs or to unite spouses. Despite his expressed ‘scruples’ against selling slaves except ‘for delinquency, or on their own request,’ he sold more than 110 in his lifetime, mainly for financial reasons.”

      “Thomas Jefferson freed two people during his life. He freed five people in his will. He allowed two or three people to escape without pursuit, and recommended informal freedom for two others. In total, of the more than six hundred people Jefferson enslaved, he freed only ten people – all members of the same family.”


      Jefferson should be no one’s hero. Other slaveholders at his time did free their slaves. His hypocrisy is truly mind blowing.

      1. Yes, it is Jefferson’s blatant hypocrisy that makes it difficult for me to grant the man any admiration. Also his extravagant lifestyle, all at the expense of his slaves.

      2. “There are no documents of Thomas Jefferson personally beating a slave, but such actions were uncommon for slaveholders. Most slaveholders would consider such physical labor beneath them , , , ,”

        I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever heard of beating another human described as “physical labor.” It would at the very least be an inconvenience, interrupting one’s violin playing, eh? I wonder if Jefferson ever picked up any trash he dropped inside Monticello, even a chicken bone at table. I gather that that was beneath him. I guess he couldn’t be bothered to do a bit of manual labor on his land, even weeding in the garden at a leisurely pace for four hours in the a.m. before it got hot, once per year, much as the Primitive Baptists wash one another’s feet as an exercise in humility.

        Composer and choral director Randall Thompson set music to Jefferson’s words, entitling the composition “Testament of Freedom”:

        “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty;
        At the same time, the hand of force may destroy
        But cannot disjoin them . . . .

        Liberty and Life! Liberty and Life! Liberty! Liberty!”

        I sang that in the university glee club (back in The Ancient Days when it was not totally uncool to be in the glee club) and was quite moved by the combination of words, melody and harmony. But I always wondered to whom did, and did not, those words apply. Cognitive dissonance, to say the least.

      3. “Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life.”
        If true, this is indeed disturbing. It is one thing to inherit or purchase persons already enslaved, but if he was actually capturing previously free persons and enslaving them, that is new to me.

        But on the original subject, it reminds me of the fossil fuel issue today. I engage in the practice of industrial agriculture, which these days means fossil fuel powered machines for every stage of the process, from sowing to harvest to storage and transport to customers.
        I might seem to be somewhat more conservative on some issues than most here, but I hate pollution. We could play the game of how the many acres of forest and tallgrass prairie we preserve might offset our use of fossil fuels. But really, any pollution is just morally unacceptable to me.
        But there are no viable options to do otherwise, while still engaging in commercial agriculture. My parents grew up doing pretty much the same sorts of things we do now, but it was much less efficient, more labor intensive, and on a smaller scale.
        If I declared today that we will no longer use Internal Combustion machinery to produce and distribute our products, we would immediately lose our ability to make any profits at all, and would probably see the land sold off and subdivided into lots of resorts and luxury developments.
        Besides my losing our family land and means of making a living, Fossil fuel use on what was our land would increase tremendously, meadows and forests and marshes would be bulldozed, and our customers would still need the same products, so they would purchase them elsewhere.

        Jefferson and his contemporaries differed with others sitting in Paris cafes coming up with new utopian ways to live incorporating the new ideas of the age of reason, as well as what they thought were the best ideas of classical governments.
        Our guys took the big wish list, and distilled it down into what had to be done immediately, and what other steps toward realizing their view of liberty were going to take more time to enact.
        The groups that just immediately tried to implement the full wish list were unlikely to meet with much success.

        1. I meant to say that my family did without tractors or electricity until 1950. Their agriculture was human or animal powered. They used coal and wood for heat, and mostly kerosene for light, so even then they were not really fossil fuel free.
          In Jefferson’s time, large scale agriculture, and the exports it allowed, were the primary engine for the US economy. It does not seem reasonable to expect the signers of the Declaration to break from and go to war with England, and simultaneously abolish what was at the time the main source of their wealth. Even if they had managed to route England, they would then be a new nation without measurable exports or wealth.

          The primary issue here is that Jefferson was an important member of a group whose ideas and discourse actually led to the abolition of slavery in most of the world. Beyond that, he actually had to live in the late 18th century and face the stresses of the time. Anyone who has read the discourse those men had at the time should appreciate the complexity of the problems they faced, and what it took to make the decisions they did. Very few of us would have lived up to the challenges they overcame. The people driving this criticism are people who have lived incredibly safe and easy lives, conditions only possible because of the sacrifices of those they condemn.

          With any luck, there is a person right now who is going to give us the innovation that will lead to true independence from fossil fuels. Should that independence not be attained in that person’s lifetime, should we condemn him or her for driving that Volvo to work every day, or working in a lab powered by a gas generating plant?

  11. The article cited by Henry Wiencek is a summary of his full-length book, “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.” I read the book and found it quite convincing in his unflattering portrayal of Jefferson.

  12. I think in the end Jefferson got more than he deserves but that does not mean take any of it away. He is up there with Washington on Mt. Rushmore but did he do anywhere near what Washington did. The comparisons don’t work. When Washington died he was not speaking to Jefferson or Madison, both fellow founders and Virginians. Washington had a different idea of government and how to perform in it. He found the Jefferson/Madison methods disgusting. I cannot disagree with Washington. All of these guys were slaveholders and they all died still owning many. I think Washington would say that Jefferson and Madison had it easy and they knew nothing of the fight for Independence up close and personal. Washington believed in service and country first. The others did not and it showed in their own performance as presidents and office holders.

    Jefferson was not a good farmer/planter and was highly in debt when he died. He could not come close to freeing his slaves because he no longer owned any of them. All were sold (auctioned) after his death including his land and his daughters were left with nothing. In the end, Jefferson was the better politician of the three so his standing remained high for a long time. Maybe now that time is coming to an end.

    1. I remember reading (from the research of a professor) a copy of an ad placed by George (and Martha?) Washington in a Philadelphia (?) paper seeking information about an “ungrateful” runaway female slave.

  13. This connects with the question of what to do about *anyone* with significant flaws in their records, according to our view today.

    Bill Cosby comes to mind. What do we say about his work? That things that were profound or moving or funny are no longer so? Am I allowed to watch an old comedy routine of his? Can I find it funny?

    No easy answers, IMO, except that the “one strike and you’re out” cancelling seems excessive.

    1. I do not see how a look at Bill Cosby comes into play here at all. He was a serial rapist. He drugged young women and then screwed them. Everything else he did in his life amounts to nothing compared to that. One strike my butt. This is not baseball.

    2. One strike for Bill? Try years and years of serial abuse and rape of women. How can you lump all of these separate offenses into “one strike”?

  14. What do we do? How about stop wringing our hands over crap that happened 220+ years ago and focus instead on the reality that slavery exists now, the present day, 2021. Yes, people are still slaves, yes, I refuse the woke rebranding as it does fuck all to help actual people who are actually enslaved, and these people, not people who died generations ago, are the ones who ought to be our focus. Let’s please do something to free the slaves across Africa, the Middle East, and China, and of course the sex slaves, aka, trafficked women and children, all over the world, including here in the US. Jefferson is dead, buried, rotted, and nothing but a historical memory, what his legacy or his works or his statutes means is up to the individual and I couldn’t give a dusty academic fart in an old library about it when compared to the suffering and misery for untold numbers of suffering people living and dying right now. I’ve seen estimates that between 28-40 million people are enslaved in various countries around the world, and not one single year-down of any statue anywhere has eased their misery. Let’s find something that does. That’s what I think we do.

    Of course I’m using “we” in this context to mean the woke who think that hashtags, bumper stickers, and blm flags can change the world. If only that were true, then China would have kicked out of Tibet and Leonard Peltier would be free. I do have some sympathy for the feelings that motivate the childish activities of the woke, but their focus is fuzzy as hell and they really seem unable to recognize real issues for all the circular reasoning and moral policing they do. They could take all that energy and really attempt to fix a problem or two, assuming they could see what the real problem was. That would be better than sitting here in a hopeless miasma like I do now.

  15. Hi Jerry, long time reader but first time commenter. I had to weigh in because this is a subject I actually know something about.

    Jefferson is a fascinating character and definitely a very flawed man. But Henry Weincek’s (the author of this article) work is considered very questionable and unreliable by historians. Look at what Annette Gordon-Reed, the historian who brought Sally Hemings to scholarly attention back in the 90s, had to say about him here:

    Cinder Stanton, one of the leading scholars of Jefferson and slavery, has been similarly scathing:

    There is absolutely no question that Jefferson was a flawed man who was complicit and participated in the evil institution of slavery, and that it is disappointing for someone who was otherwise so forward-thinking and brilliant. But Weincek’s work is highly, highly questionable.

    Personally, though I am aware of Jefferson’s immense flaws and participation in an immoral activity like slavery, it is difficult for me to overlook the importance he had in advocating Enlightenment ideals and bringing about the first secular nation in world history, as well as his work in writing the Declaration of Independence, a document that inspired egalitarian movements the world over including that of the abolition of slavery. Jefferson was a flawed man, but if anyone was a hero, he was.

    1. Indeed, Wiencek’s book has been challenged on aspects of his scholarship and the originality of his thesis. But, all these attacks have failed to rebut the basic thesis: Jefferson was not a particularly “good” slaveholder and did very little to mitigate or end the institution of slavery. As I noted in my reply to comment #11, the organization that runs Monticello makes it crystal clear as to what kind of slaveholder Jefferson was.

      Obviously, we differ on what makes a hero. In Jefferson’s case, I give more weight to his actions than his words.

      1. I already agreed that Jefferson was a flawed man who participated in the deplorable act of slavery. That is not in dispute by anyone, I don’t think.

        But I think what is missed a lot as well is that Jefferson did not just talk about these things. Many of his actions did indeed genuinely further the goals of liberty and equality. Simply writing the Declaration of Independence and including the words “all men are created equal” did so. Those words were cited by slaves arguing for freedom immediately upon the document’s adoption. Even more so had Jefferson’s original words criticizing slavery been kept in the Declaration. Though they were cut, Jefferson took care to preserve the words for future generations. I’d also argue Jefferson campaigned against slavery more than most others of his time.

        And even leaving aside the whole slavery aspect, Jefferson’s advocacy of separation of church and state, religious freedom, and for smallpox vaccination likely saved thousands if not millions of lives. Slavery is absolutely one aspect of Jefferson’s life that must be considered in looking at the man, but it is not all and these other actions were likewise significant in their positive impact.

        1. I disagree that Jefferson was a campaigner against slavery. In reality, he did virtually nothingIn our discussion of Jefferson and slavery, attacking Wiencek should not dissuade us from looking at the kind of person Jefferson was in regard to slavery. Paul Finkelman is a scholar that has produced a massive outpouring of books and articles on slavery and its relationship to the U.S. legal system. In April 1994, he wrote a 38 page article for the Virginia Magazine of History, entitled “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On.” In this article, he discusses in great detail how many scholars have given Jefferson a pass in regard to slavery. If you can get a hold of it, I recommend highly that it be read.

          He notes the following:


          “Of all our major American leaders, only Jefferson is carved in marble, larger than life, and either perfect or a shattered statue. Jefferson’s biographers have set this standard. Because they know that slavery is wrong, they have tried to shape Jefferson into their image of a properly liberal opponent of slavery. They wish to make a lifelong slave owner, a man who sold numerous slaves to support his extravagant life-style, into a proto-abolitionist so that Jefferson will fit into their presentist conceptions of what Jefferson believed and felt.” (p. 201)

          “Jefferson’s “hatred” of slavery was a peculiarly cramped kind of hatred. It was not so much slavery he hated as what it did to his society. This ‘hatred’ took three forms. First, he hated what slavery did to whites. Second, he hated slavery because he feared it would lead to a rebellion that would destroy his society. Third, he hated slavery because it brought Africans to America and kept them there. None of these feelings motivated him to do anything about the institution.” (p. 203)

          “His greatest failing lay in his inability to join the best of his generation in fighting slavery and in his working instead to prevent any significant change in America’s racial status quo.” (p.228)

          Many historians have fallen in love with Jefferson. They find it difficult to reconcile the apostle of liberty with being also an arch racist. Finkelman and Wiencek have destroyed the image of the marble man. For some people, the cognitive jarring is hard to accept. I realize that it is a matter of opinion, but for me the “good’ things he did does not outweigh his role as hypocrite whose only actions against slavery were words.

          1. I’ve read Finkelman extensively. While much of what he says is true, I think he exaggerates. Jefferson was responsible for some of the earliest laws restricting slavery. I find John Boles’ emphasis on Jefferson’s fight against slavery more convincing.

            Of note, Finkelman actually is one of the historians who has been critical of Weincek, which really says something to me.

            Either way, my point was that the Declaration of Independence itself was an important statement against slavery and that Jefferson’s significance extends far beyond the issue of slavery. I have a major problem with underselling something like separation of church and state’s significance.

        2. “Simply writing the Declaration of Independence and including the words “all men are created equal” did so. Those words were cited by slaves arguing for freedom immediately upon the document’s adoption.”

          This is what makes him so hypocritical. I do not see how this hypocrisy can be defended, regardless of the details about how he treated his slaves. We all agree on enough of that to prove that he was a hypocrite who had the power to do something about his own slaves, but failed to act, even though he appears to know full well that his slaves deserved “liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. His rhetoric is not a mitigating factor, it makes his actions even worse, because they were done knowing that they were wrong.

          1. To me, if Jefferson can be called a hypocrite, that was actually a good thing. His work with the Declaration of Independence was foundational in bringing about a more egalitarian and democratic world.

            Of course, it would have been even better had he immediately freed his slaves. But I think the more likely scenarios with Jefferson, a man born into the Virginia plantation aristocracy, would have been him either being hypocritical in his advocacy of freedom and egalitarianism, or him not being an advocate of those principles at all and fully supporting the old ways of slavery, aristocracy, and monarchy, as most people of his social class at the time did. Given those choices, I find it hard to deny that the former option, the one that actually happened, was the one that changed the world for the better.

          2. Surely Jefferson’s hypocrisy was preferable to the attitudes of the majority of slave-owners, who were satisfied with slavery and publicly defended it.

            His statements in Declaration of Independence and elsewhere had a national effect that reverberated into the Civil War. This profound influence on an entire nation has to be weighed alongside his role in maintaining slavery on his own estate.

            Given that freeing his slaves would have likely meant financial ruin for Jefferson (Gordon-Reed shows that Kosciuszko’s Will was unreliable), I’m not surprised that like most people Jefferson put direct financial interest before his morals. Unlike most slaveholders he also produced the most influential and important anti-slavery statements of the era. Considering those circumstances, we can be grateful for his hypocrisy.

  16. I tend to think he was an important figure and we should celebrate what he did, but always, always continue to talk about the other side. He isn’t a demigod, he was an intelligent person in the right place at the right time.

  17. He was (is?) an American secular saint, so obviously no ill can be thought of him.
    Like saints of every other religion.

  18. Another negative piece about Jefferson is the narrative he wrote on the African American slaves. He most certainly considered them of less quality than whites. And yet, he sleep with one for many years. With more white blood they became of better quality. He freed some of his and Sally’s children because they were of whiter blood. As racist go, it does not get much deeper than this.

  19. I am still saving up for this one or hoping it shows up in a library to give the cancel crowd, and everyone else, something to think about.

    Rethinking Thomas Jeffersons Writings on Slavery (March 1, 2020)
    by M. Andrew Holowchak

    Holowchak has written several great books on Jefferson and I am eager to see what he has to say about this topic.

    1. Do you know if there have been apologies by any country for the much older slave trade to the Middle East?

      And I do wonder what African countries will do about recognizing their enslavement of each other’s tribes……..

  20. As an Australian I have finally found out a bit of information about the naming of our highest mountain. If it could actually be called a mountain, more like a big hill.
    A polish explorer Strzeleki named it for the Polish hero Kosciuszko because it resembled a mound named after said hero in Krakow Poland.

    I never knew any of this.

    On Kosciuszko’s will it seems as though there may have been some extra complexities that Jefferson felt too old to deal with as executor, according to Wikipedia so there may be more to that story too.

  21. Why are there Jefferson statutes, when there was probably some pilgrim who didn’t curse, didn’t cheat on his wife, was honest in his business dealings, didn’t own slaves, and gave to humanitarian causes in Colonial America? Maybe because Jefferson made a lasting contribution to the formation of the American Republic, maybe because he circulated revolutionary ideals that no one had dared to utter in a political manifesto which spurred a successful revolution and changed the course of world history?

    I can understand criticism of Jefferson if you are a reactionary and are essentially okay with slavery, Jefferson on top of being a hypocrite let egalitarianism out of the barn, but there is an equal hypocrisy in most of the critics of Jefferson, in that many of them would have been chattel property in one manner or another if the ideas of people like Jefferson had not triumphed in the historical process. If it weren’t for people like Jefferson, you would still have feudalism and slavery throughout the world. Jefferson was one of the first to take the principles of the Enlightenment and transform them from words to actions. Yes, its pretty clear that the institution of slavery is ultimately incompatible with the ideals of the Enlightenment, but who do you think is going to have the temerity in the early days to buck the status quo and make it stick except some aristocratic planter from Virginia?

  22. If you want to pronounce all the good things that Jefferson did that is fine. He did many. That is why they have the monument right there in Washington and his mug up there on Mt. Rushmore. Any of us who studied the history knows most of this. But he was but one and only one among many involved in the run up to and completion of the revolution. The idea that it was he who made it possible is simply not true. To think that is way over the top. Jefferson never suited up for war, never carried a gun. In fact he had to run like hell during the war at one point to avoid the enemy. He was not involved in the creation of the government in 1787, he was out of the country then. If he had been here it is likely he may have been an anti-federalist (against the Constitution). You speak of him as if he were Washington. He was not even close. He could not even carry water for Washington. Washington made him his secretary of state and what he did mostly was to stab Washington in the back. If he was a hero, he was a damn strange one.

  23. He was a shocker.
    Racism compromised US for near two centuries after founding.
    … and the country’s mainstream historians cannot look the matter in the eye?
    … with a recent conspicuous exception: Robert Parkinson argues race was a key driver of achieving “common cause” in the war of independence.
    Jefferson a popular past President…
    …. but the US was better off without him
    Why his popularity?
    Because he features large in the Light of Liberty myth, saying more about an insecure nation than the man.
    Better off without him? Fine words gave false comfort?
    Better off without him? Deeds. Little idea of sound economic policy.
    Better off without him? Especially re slavery.
    … his slaves: important assets.
    …. did not free them
    … racist views.
    … in practice: opposed emancipation.
    … in practice: facilitated expansion of slavery.
    …. BUT curious is how he apparently changed his mind. Time of the Declaration [1776] he seemed to understand ills of slavery?
    But 1780s into 1790s a “transformation”.
    Tolerated violence on French Revolution.
    Projects: Monticello, Univ. of Virginia.
    End of the day, all said and done: TJ was a “bright” man but a racist Old World Man, simply could not accept blacks as equals, let alone treating them as such, starting with emancipation.
    And not a nice man, cf treatment of his slaves.

  24. I would not be too harsh on Jefferson, we all know the Earth is stressed, to put it mildly, yet many, if not most, of us drive cars, fly in airplanes, eat meat, etc.

    Re Hemmings, I think he was particular in having just one slave lover. If we consider Laura Betzig’s take, one of the drivers of the institution of slavery (in general, not particularly the US) was the access it provided the slave owner to many nubile females.

  25. I find the moral lesson again and again from stories like these is no matter how much we believe we are rational and reasonable when it comes to ethics, that we are by and large products of what’s available in three society around us. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to condemn individuals for living in a time with standards different to ours because they were just as human as we are.

    That said, it’s easy to condemn slavery in hindsight because it’s universally so today. It’s hardly a controversial position to take. And in ways that we can be anti-slavery today, very few of us care enough to check. How many people are going to stop buying products from China, for example, to take on the problems with forced human labour there? Or make sure even their clothes aren’t made in sweatshops? Or check every piece of food they eat wasn’t party to exploitation somewhere along the way?

  26. People more often than not do not act on their theoretical ideals if it goes against their material or hedonistic interests or if it would lead to a loss of social prestige. That in itself is an important lesson to learn. Also, 23 year olds tend to be more radical in their views than 40 year olds.

  27. People more often than not do not act on their theoretical ideals if it goes against their material or hedonistic interests. I assume that most here are concerned about the rising CO2-levels in the atmosphere, yet traveling to far off places for pleasure and emitting tons and tons of CO2 in the process seems to be an acceptable thing to do for most. .

    The statues are part of history, a document of the times when they were erected, and they should stay (even the confederate ones), unless they are in the way of important infrastructure projects.

  28. “Persuasion, perseverance, and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others. The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also.” TJ

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