Another Side of Thomas Jefferson: He Was the Icon Who Drafted the Declaration of Independence ... the Man Who Most Ardently Championed the Fight for Individual Rights at a Time When Such Notions Were Singed with Controversy. and Yet

By Shafer, Gregory | The Humanist, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Another Side of Thomas Jefferson: He Was the Icon Who Drafted the Declaration of Independence ... the Man Who Most Ardently Championed the Fight for Individual Rights at a Time When Such Notions Were Singed with Controversy. and Yet


Shafer, Gregory, The Humanist


As we recall the words and deeds of the man perhaps most associated with American freedoms, we mustn't be ignorant of his unremitting campaign for the proliferation of slavery, his support of French oppression in Haiti, and his continuous subjugation of Native Americans. Indeed, while other national leaders of the time were emancipating their slaves and responding to the irrepressible thrusts of egalitarian rhetoric, Thomas Jefferson was expanding his slave population and erecting special walls that secluded them from his majestic Monticello in Virginia. In 1822--four years before his death--Jefferson's collection of slaves had risen to 267. Four years later, when he lay moribund, he found it proper only to free three, leaving the rest to languish in a nation that would grapple with the issue of forced servitude for another four decades.

David Walker, a prominent black Bostonian, was perhaps reacting to Jefferson's life of unabashed hypocrisy when in 1829 he warned African Americans that they should remember the third president as their greatest enemy. "Mr. Jefferson's remarks respecting us," Walker suggested, "have sunk deep into the hearts of millions of whites and will never be removed this side of eternity." In the end, what else could a former slave say about a man who championed freedom while proclaiming that "the amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of the excellence in the human character, can innocently consent."

Today, one cannot gaze upon the eloquent words or heroic deeds of Thomas Jefferson without also considering the more disquieting side of the man who has come to personify democracy, equality, and inalienable rights. Jefferson's legacy, his unflinching demand that government serve all the people, is forever tempered by his curious neglect and even disdain for those who didn't fit his lofty ideas for democracy. In many ways, then, Jefferson's life offers us a clear window into the experience of a great and ambitious man with profound weaknesses. This year, as we consider him during the bicentennial anniversary of his concept of a wall separating church and state, perhaps we would do well to supplant our traditional deification with a judicious and realistic portrait of the man who lived to plant the seeds of freedom for his own social class while wrenching the roots away from others.

It isn't possible to extricate venerated menn or women from the context in which they lived, and this is especially true of Thomas Jefferson. In a period when freedom was on the mind and lips of many, he was the quintessential progressive--the catalyst for revolutionary change in a time of tumult. In describing this ebullient young statesman, historian Gilbert Chinard, in Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism, has suggested that Jefferson was the essence of enlightened thought, the consummate student of progressive thinkers in the path of John Locke and Viscount Bolingbroke (Henry St. John).

When Jefferson joined other colonial representatives in Philadelphia for the crafting of the Declaration of Independence, he carried with him the authority of a large state and the cachet of an intellectual who had studied Greek and Roman philosophers and listened to many of the day's great orators. To say that Jefferson was an Enlightenment intellectual is not only obvious but is helpful in understanding this complex man. Clearly he wasn't alone in his fervor to shape a new government and was hardly unique in his allusions to human rights advocates of the age. Jefferson had been raised on the eloquence of Patrick Henry and nurtured with learned instructors at the College of William and Mary. "The organized habit of criticism," which came to define the Age of Enlightenment, was firmly entrenched in Jefferson's psyche.

Indeed, reason and republicanism were bursting from various pockets of American thought. Throughout much of the land, radical ideas were flourishing, especially among the educated elite. …

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