Thomas Jefferson's life of promoting liberty—underpinned by slavery

Most Blessed of the Patriarchsby Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 400p $27.95

Americans like the big picture of their heroes—the big, simple picture. This especially applies to presidents. George Washington, the father of his country, was a little boy who could not tell a lie and grew up to be a great soldier whose men loved him and whose ragtag army defeated the British. Abraham Lincoln, the youth who chopped wood, walked miles to school every day and studied many hours by firelight, grew up to be the great soul who freed the slaves and saved the Union.


As a child, I read and reread picture book lives of Washington and Lincoln. There was no picture book life of Thomas Jefferson. He was far too complicated for the big, simple picture. Jefferson may have written America’s great indelible document, but Jefferson the man never really stirred the American imagination. Jefferson was actually something that Americans never particularly understood or trusted—he was an intellectual, indeed, a polymath. With Benjamin Franklin (though less lovable, less wise and without the humor), Jefferson was one of the new nation’s rare Renaissance men. He may not have had great courage or a great soul, but he had a great mind that allowed him to envision great ideas. He considered the Declaration of Independence to be an “expression of the American mind,” a document in which citizens of the new nation would hear themselves speak. The Declaration was actually an expression of Jefferson’s mind—tying together all the colonists’ grievances. As the father of the American Enlightenment, Jefferson believed in the idea of inevitable human progress. He saw the outcome of America’s republican revolution as essentially so perfect that reform would inevitably follow in its wake. This vision of American exceptionalism became Jefferson’s religion—for ill as well as good.

According to the authors of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination—more a picture of Jefferson’s ideas than of his actions—Jefferson hoped that “echoes of the people’s voice would resound across the generations, keeping the Spirit of ’76 alive.” While the echoes of 1776 certainly have resounded across the generations and even around the world, Jefferson’s idea of inevitable, almost unavoidable, progress allowed him to indefinitely postpone dealing with slavery, the seemingly indelible “stain” on America’s perfection.

Besides having a great mind, Jefferson had a great ego—also for good and ill. His ego would not permit him to have an unworthy thought, but his sense of superiority allowed him to rationalize unworthy deeds. Because he had a vision of himself as an honorable person, his ego served the new nation for good. No other member of the founding generation served in public life for so long and in so many different roles: as a member of the Continental Congress, as governor of Virginia, as a diplomat in Paris, as secretary of state under George Washington, as vice president under John Adams and as the third president of the United States. As leader of the first great political party, his enemies were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. Republicans called Federalists “the English party” and Federalists called Republicans “French puppets.” Jefferson’s inaugural address stated: “Let us…unite with one heart and one mind…. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things...we are all republicans: we are all federalists….”

Jefferson spoke of national unity, but everything about the man spoke of duality and paradox. He had two “countries,” free America and slave-holding Virginia; America was the country of his head and Virginia the country of his heart. He had two cultures: republicanism, whose political ideal was the New England town meeting, and Enlightenment France, whose art, cuisine and conversation he sought to mirror at Monticello. His political instincts were those of a modern liberal-progressive—his 1779 bill for universal public education, for example. He believed in the rule of science and reason, and the separation of church and state. His 1786 Virginia Legislature bill for religious freedom was a model for the First Amendment. Although a revolutionary, Jefferson was also a pacifist, who hated war and conflict. Believing that peace should be the ultimate goal of statecraft, he wore no sword at his inauguration and hated duels. (Hamilton called Jefferson’s hatred of conflict “womanly.”) Anticapitalist and pro-agrarian/artisan, Jefferson was “green”—writing to James Madison that no living generation of any era had total ownership over the land, merely the right to use it in a way that did not negatively affect future generations.

Struck by the poverty of European peasants, who seemed worse off than the enslaved workers of Monticello, Jefferson pursued the socialist idea of redistribution of property. “Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor,” he wrote in a letter to James Madison in 1786, “it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” In a slightly eccentric fashion, he was pro-immigration, seeking to import Italian workers as artisans and musicians because, as a music lover, he longed for a private orchestra. Two years later, he sought to settle imported Germans at Monticello: “I shall endeavor to import as many Germans as I have grown slaves. I will settle them and my slaves, on farms of 50. Acres each, intermingled.” He hoped the Germans would teach his slaves to become “good citizens.” Only slavery itself, which contradicted all the tenets of enlightened 18th-century republicanism, made a mockery of Jefferson’s faith in the new progressive order.

Torn between being a republican statesman and a plantation patriarch, Jefferson was anti-slavery in prose, even in his original draft of the Declaration, and pro-slavery in practice—on the one hand for posterity’s opinion, and on the other to support his way of life. Reflecting this duality, Jefferson had two families: one legal and white, the other illegal and enslaved. He had promised his legal wife on her deathbed that he would never remarry; but two years later in Paris, as the French revolution exploded about their heads, 41-year-old Jefferson made the 16-year-old slave Sally Hemings, the same age as his eldest daughter, his “substitute for a wife,” to use the words of one of Jefferson’s friends.The union produced at least six children, none of whom were officially recognized by their father, though he did permit at least two who looked white to escape into the white world. He possibly told himself that his relationship with Sally was not breaking a promise because it could never be legal—although, as an exemplary father and grandfather, the concept of “family” was his social ideal.

How did Jefferson’s very protective daughters and grandchildren explain the marked resemblance of Sally Hemings’s six children to Jefferson? They explained it by saying that they were the children of Jefferson’s black sheep nephew, one Peter Carr. Although plantation relationships like this were common and often recognized, Jefferson’s refusal to recognize Sally Hemings in any way becomes rather despicable, given his self-image as a man of honor.

Jefferson had generous instincts; but, being very human, was selfish to the core. In a letter to the anti-slavery activist Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1803, he wrote of all mankind as “one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids” (except, of course, for slaves). In Notes on Virginia, Jefferson stated that if God were just, he would surely judge America for slavery, essentially saying that slaves had as much right to seek their freedom as colonists did, yet Jefferson’s administration denied recognition to the new Haitian republic and limited trade. Although slavery was antithetical to the rights of man, Jefferson could not envision a multiracial society without conflict. His idea was to emancipate and expatriate all slaves. Meanwhile, striking a balance between humanity and self-interest, Jefferson focused on ameliorating slavery rather than abolishing it. Whipping was extremely rare at Monticello, for example; and house slaves (but not field slaves) received wages (especially the Hemingses), as did Monticello artisans (the boys who worked in Jefferson’s nail factory, for instance).

According to the authors, “Monticello was a kind of self-portrait.” It was at Monticello that Jefferson saw himself as “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs.” (In a letter to Abigail Schuyler Church in November 1793, Jefferson described his happiness in Virginia, while surrounded by his family at his beloved Monticello, as “blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.”) To his contemporaries and doubtless to himself, it was an ideal life—blessed, not embarrassed,by its duality. Living beyond his means, and constantly remodeling, Jefferson was squire of all he surveyed. His lifestyle, as well as his decision to build his home on a mountaintop, showed him to be a man above worldly concerns. This was true even in dress. He never followed fashions of the day, mixing different eras of male clothing, but always in the finest materials. Jefferson knew how to live—surrounding himself with family, friends, interesting people and beautiful but not necessarily luxurious objects. Dazzled by France, he brought France back to Virginia in food, pictures and manners. According to one visitor in 1822, he “shrugs his shoulders when talking, has much of the Frenchman, is rapid, varying, volatile, eloquent, amusing.”

A great host, a connoisseur of art, literature, music, wine and furniture, he also made time to pore over his books, to study Greek, Latin, French, mathematics, architecture and law, to keep journals, write letters and play his violin. One of Jefferson’s appealing qualities was his love of all music, which he called “the favorite passion of my soul.” Constantly singing in a “fine clear voice,” he even paid some of his younger Hemings children to capture mockingbirds to be trained not only to imitate other birds but to sing specific American tunes. The Hemings boys were trained to be musicians as well as carpenters. Jefferson, of course, ignored the various rude songs and verses that circulated about him and Sally Hemings circa 1802. He arranged his private life to suit himself absolutely.

One of the book’s pleasures is the revelation of Jefferson’s attractive personality. A man who very much wanted people to like him, not from insecurity but from his ego’s sense of self-worth, he once wrote to his grandchild, “It is a charming thing to be loved by everybody.” His ego needed love. So, outside of politics, he aspired to be consistently lovable. Jefferson’s personality shone at Monticello. His “charm of manner and conversation that passes all description” was proverbial. The constant stream of visitors would “be met by the tall, and animated, and stately figure of the patriot himself, his countenance beaming with intelligence and benignity, and his outstretched hand, with its strong and cordial pressure, confirming the courteous welcome of his lips.” Jefferson’s courtesy even extended to slaves. A grandson tells this story: Out riding with his grandfather as a boy, “we met with a negro who bowed to us; he returned his bow. I did not; turning to me he asked, ‘do you permit a negro to be more of a gentleman than yourself?”

Jefferson, who had traveled widely on behalf of his new nation, found Monticello a special haven in retirement and old age. Attacked throughout his career for what was seen as a lack of religious faith, in old age Jefferson embarked on a genuine spiritual quest. Calling himself a “primitive Christian” and rejecting the concept of Christ as a divinity who performed miracles and raised the dead, Jefferson considered Jesus the man to be the greatest of moral philosophers. Poring carefully over the Christian Gospels and drawing inspiration from Jesus’ life and teaching, in 1819 and 1820 Jefferson completed an essentially secret work on the “life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” known as The Jefferson Bible.

Although he continued to reject organized religion, stipulating that the University of Virginia would have no professor of theology, Jefferson was not an atheist. “When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts, general or particular,” he said in a letter to John Adams, “it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” Writing in a letter in 1822, however, he essentially hoped, that “there was not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Still, Jefferson hoped that Americans would also recover “the primitive and genuine doctrines” of Jesus, “the most venerated reformer of human errors,” adding, “For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.”

“Living or dying, the end of slavery will ever be my most fervent prayer,” Jefferson wrote in old age. If Jefferson’s actions in his prime had matched his words in old age he would truly have been the father of his country. But Jefferson betrayed his own dream of American exceptionalism by helping to create (through inertia or self-interest) an “empire of slavery” instead of the glorious republican ideal of universal freedom, throughout his beloved Virginia and the entire South. Both Jefferson’s first memory and his last moments involved slaves. His first memory in life was of being handed on a pillow up to a slave on horseback to be carried to another plantation; while on his deathbed, the last words he spoke, to be lifted higher on his pillow, were intelligible only to his enslaved manservant, Sally Hemings’s nephew. It might be said that Jefferson’s entire life was cushioned by slavery. Jefferson himself personified the eternal American dilemma: the conflict between the promise (of which Jefferson was a creator) and the practice.

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