“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—“(Jefferson). These words are arguably the most recognized words ever written in American history and are the backbone of our countries right to freedom. Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, is one of the few historical American leaders that need no introduction. Jefferson was born on April 13th, 1743 in Albemarle county, Virginia.
Jefferson was a man of many talents that included, but not limited to, law, politics, writing, architecture, and planting. The three achievements that Jefferson wanted to be remembered for, which were inscribed on his tombstone, are, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the introduction of the Virginia bill of religious liberty, and the founding of the University of Virginia. Jefferson not only founded the University of Virginia but “He conceived it, planned it, designed it, and supervised both its construction and the hiring of the faculty”(Borden).
Jefferson is considered one the greatest pioneers of America, but one issue that troubled him throughout his lifetime was slavery and his ownership of more than two hundred slaves. The question that puzzles most Americans is, how could the man who wrote, “All men are created equal” own slaves? This question has been asked over and over throughout the history of our great nation. This is the thing that contemporary Americans find most vexing about him.
In order to answer this question we first must explore the society and times that Jefferson grew up in and considered being the standard. In 18th – century Virginia, slavery was the fabric of society. Slavery was the backbone of Virginia’s economy and was common with plantation owners of this time. Although slavery was the norm in Jefferson’s lifetime, this cannot be used to justify his ownership of slaves. Jefferson spoke out tirelessly throughout his life against the institution of slavery, slave trading, and for the right of black people to be free.
Most people in today’s society would probably argue that he was a hypocrite for owning slaves and at the same time, denouncing slavery. We must place ourselves in Jefferson’s times and not judge on today’s standards. “Do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am justifying the wrongs we have committed on foreign people…On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity” (Jefferson).
The question on his ownership of slaves should be stated in more historical terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and friends owned slaves, who inherited a plantation that was dependant on slave labor, decide at an early age that the institution of slavery was morally wrong and declare that it should be abolished? When we examine this question in a more historical context, it could be argued that Jefferson went against his society and his own self-interest to denounce slavery and urge its abolition.
When the question of his ownership is explained this way, another question usually follows: If Jefferson knew holding slaves was wrong, why did he continue to enslave them. He did not release any of his slaves while he was living, although he gave five of them their freedom in his will. Jefferson’s decision to continue ownership of slaves is probably one that cannot be answered in our lifetime. One might argue that he needed the labor to keep up his plantation, others might say that the slaves did not want to leave because they were treated so well. Yet another view that might be taken, was Jefferson’s idea of emancipation.
Jefferson did not believe that if slaves were given their freedom and introduced into the community, that they would be able to assimilate themselves into eighteenth-century Virginia. “The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not lost me a second thought, if in that way a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be”(Jefferson). The answer to slavery for Jefferson was the emancipation of slaves. He thought that it would do more harm than good to abolish slavery with no plan for the slaves.
Jefferson conveyed this point when he wrote: …it will probably be asked, why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and this save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocation; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race (Jefferson).
Jefferson can not be accused of being a bigot for seriously doubting that a racially integrated society of white Europeans and black Africans was truly feasible. This observation by Jefferson was remarkable in that harsh prejudices between blacks and whites have occurred throughout history and still continue today. Jefferson’s plan for emancipation called for the gradual removal of slaves from America to the coast of Africa.
In a letter to Jared Sparks in 1824 Jefferson wrote: In the disposition of these unfortunate people, there are two rational objects to be distinctly kept in view. First. The establishment of a colony on the coast of Africa, which may introduce among the aborigines the arts of cultivated life, and the blessings of civilization and science. By doing this, we make to them some retribution for the long course of injuries we have been committing on their population.
And considering that these blessings will descend to the “nati natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis, we shall in the long run have rendered them perhaps more good than evil… The second object, and the most interesting to us, as coming home to our physical and moral characters, to our happiness and safety, is to provide an asylum to which we can, by degrees, send the whole of that population from among us, and establish them under our patronage and protection, as a separate, free and independent people, in some country and climate friendly to human life and happiness (Jefferson).
Jefferson did not just want to emancipate the slaves, he also proposed that the white Americans educate and train them to be a self-sufficient society which included providing them with the necessary materials to establish a colony on the coast of Africa in which they could life in harmony with themselves. His first attempt at emancipation was in 1769 before the Virginia Legislature, as he recalled in his autobiography: “I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success”(Jefferson).
Jefferson was also instrumental in ending of slave trading. In 1776, Jefferson proposed a bill to end slave trading. In 1778 Virginia adopted it as law. In a biography written about Jefferson, it stated that, “The may session of the 1778 also, notwithstanding the exigencies of the war, was distinguished by a civil transaction which in intimately connected with the reputation of Mr. Jefferson and the honor of our country, namely the abolition of slave trade “(Coates).
This bill proposed stern penalties for the introduction of any slaves into Virginia and provided for the immediate release of any that were brought in illegally. Virginia led by example and was followed by Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. “In 1794 congress of the United States interdicted the trade from all ports of the union under severe penalties” (Coates). It is also not well known that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence he denounced slavery and the slave trade.
He has waged cruel was against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This practical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.
And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another (Jefferson). Most people did not know that this passage existed because the Continental Congress edited it out. This hurt Jefferson very much.
The passage also answers the question of whether Jefferson meant to include blacks in the language of the declaration. Another issue that has threatened Jefferson’s character is that of his alleged affair with Sally Hemmings. Jefferson has been accused of fathering one or more of her children. The first public accusation of this was in 1818 by James T. Callendar. Although nothing was made of it, Callendar wrote in the Richmond Recorder, “It is well know that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves.
Her name is SALLY”(Callendar). These allegations have continued long after Jefferson passed away. Most of these allegations were brought about from the descendants of Sally Hemmings. Recent DNA tests have once again brought these allegations to the attention of contemporary Americans. The DNA tests provided [“strong evidence” suggesting that Thomas Jefferson was the “likely biological father”of at least one of the male children (Eston Hemmings)] (Coates). By just reading the headlines, one might be lead to believe that the allegations have been proven true.
The blood samples were taken from descendants of Tom Woodson and Easton Hemmings, Sally Hemmings oldest and youngest sons respectively. A sample was also taken from descendants of Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson. The DNA from each sample was compared and the results showed that the DNA from Easton Hemmings and Field Jefferson were a match and the DNA from Woodson did not match either of the other two. This is significant because it had been alleged, through oral family history, that Thomas Jefferson fathered Tom Woodson.
It proves that Sally Hemmings was not truthful in her accounts to her sons that Jefferson was there father. One explanation for the match in the DNA is that Easton Hemming’s father was a male relative of Jefferson. An article in the Washington Post discounts this theory. “No other Jefferson males were know to have spent substantial time at the estate”(Coates). The point made was that they didn’t spend “substantial time” at Monticello, but proves that they did spend some time there.
Upon a close review of the DNA evidence, one thing that comes to the forefront, the DNA tests do not prove, without a reasonable doubt, that Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemmings children. “Even the DNA evidence, while definitely scientific, is not at all conclusive, since it does not specifically identify only Thomas Jefferson as the possible father” (Coates). Natalie Bober, an award winning author, stated,” I think we must consider who Thomas Jefferson was.
The idea that Thomas Jefferson could have had a young mulatto mistress in a house overflowing with young children whom he adored is inconsistent with everything we know about the real Thomas Jefferson”(Bober). Thomas Jefferson was a magnificent man and a great statesman. His masterpiece, the Declaration of Independence, was the single most important episode in the development of the American ideal of equality and freedom. Although Jefferson was a slave owner, he denounced the institution of slavery and proposed the concept of emancipation.
He led the way for the abolishment of slave trading. Many people call him a hypocrite; I call him a hero to America. His Declaration of Independence laid down the framework for the abolishment of slavery. In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which ultimately ended slavery, [He declared that not only the essential meaning of the Civil War, but also the national purpose itself was epitomized in Jefferson’s phrase, “all men are created equal”] (Will). In conclusion, Jefferson’s name has always been synonymous with that of slave owner.
Jefferson struggled with this his whole life. On the other hand, he was indirectly instrumental in the abolition of slavery. “Jefferson had taken what was merely a national struggle, the American struggle for independence and cast it in rhetoric that made it a human struggle. And by doing so, he sowed the seeds of the end of the peculiar institution of slavery” (Will). Thomas Jefferson should be remembered as the founding father that arguably did more for our great country than any other man or women of his time.