Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery

By Finkelman, Paul | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery


Finkelman, Paul, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Thomas Jefferson is certainly the most popular saint of American civil religion. His closest rival is Abraham Lincoln.(1) But Lincoln was merely our greatest president. He burst on the scene like a comet, saved the Union, ended slavery, and then was martyred. Jefferson was ever so much more: coauthor of the Declaration of Independence, president, father of the University of Virginia, philosopher, cofounder of the nation's oldest political party, patron of the Lewis and Clark expedition, scientist, naturalist, spiritual godfather of religious liberty in Virginia, and the architect and owner of that great house full of furniture, art, scientific instruments, natural curiosities, gadgets, and other treasures that continue to fascinate Americans.(2) The virtual deification of Jefferson is ingrained in the general public, sustained by popular biographers and scholars, supported by the mass media, and bolstered by recent presidents-a Democrat, William Jefferson Clinton, who began his trek to the White House at Monticello, and a Republican, Ronald Reagan, who urged Americans to "pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson's life and wear it in our soul forever."(3) Both conservatives and liberals look to Jefferson as an icon and a role model.(4)

Jefferson's image in America would be almost perfect,(5) were it not for slavery. But, alas, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his adulthood and freed only a handful during his life and in his will.(6) After the Revolution he did nothing to help America solve what was clearly its most serious social and political problem. In the words of David Brion Davis, "After his return to America" in late 1789, "the most remarkable thing about Jefferson's stand on slavery is his immense silence."(7) He failed ever to come to terms with the institution on either a personal or political level.

JEFFERSON, CRITICAL HISTORIOGRAPHY, AND THE PROBLEM OF PRESENTISM

Because of Jefferson's status as an icon, it is difficult to scrutinize any aspect of his career or personal life without appearing to assault the very core of American society. As Gordon S. Wood has perceptively observed, "Most Americans think of Jefferson much as our first professional biographer James Parton did. 'If Jefferson was wrong,' wrote Parton in 1874, 'America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.'"(8) The historian who questions Jefferson, it would seem, implicitly questions America.

Wood also notes that "[d]uring the past three decades or so many people, including some historians, have concluded that something was seriously wrong with America. And if something is wrong with America, then something has to be wrong with Jefferson."(9) His argument implies that those who find something wrong with Jefferson may be doing so because they find something wrong with modern America.

Wood offers a sophisticated analysis of the importance of Jefferson to the way Americans understand their own past. It is a small step to a less subtle conclusion that those historians who criticize Jefferson do so not because he merits the criticism, but rather because such criticism bolsters their presentist political agendas. Thus, Douglas L. Wilson, in a gushing appraisal of Jefferson in the Atlantic Monthly, rails against "presentism" and its application to Jefferson. He complains that people who view Jefferson harshly are unfairly applying modern sensibilities to an eighteenth-century man.(10)

Leonard W. Levy encountered such a response when he published his now classic work, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Levy showed that Jefferson as a politician was unable to live up to his reputation, largely created by his biographers, as a great civil libertarian. The book was unfairly and inaccurately attacked by Jefferson's biographers, who could not accept any criticism of their hero. Reviewers condemned Levy for testing Jefferson "against the standards of the ACLU" and for complaining that Jefferson did not fit with the "prevailing standards" of the 1960s. …

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