Defending Jefferson's character, ideals
I HAVE watched with sadness over the years as competing perceptions of Thomas Jef- ferson have served to divide our community along racial lines. In contrast, I see Jefferson as a symbol in whom all can take pride - a man with human faults, who nevertheless stood above his contemporaries in the struggle for human freedom and the dignity of all peoples.
Like Lincoln and many of our other heroes, Jefferson made statements during his life that were both wrong and insensitive. We can dwell upon passages in his Notes on the State of Virginia and find them as embarrassing as the flat-earth thinking of earlier intellectuals. But even then he was at worst a reluctant racist, repeatedly asserting that "no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation" of his "suspicion" that the differences he perceived might be founded on race. Far more importantly, Jefferson realized that a difference in talent "is no measure of their rights. Far more importantly, Jefferson realized that a difference in talent or training is no measure of rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others."
Jefferson's Notes was an impassioned plea for the end of slavery: "[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever ... The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."
Jefferson helped Benjamin Banneker, a black mathematician, obtain a position as a government surveyor to help lay out the District of Columbia. He praised Banneker's genius to European intellectuals, and wrote to Banneker: "Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence ..."
As a new member of the Virginia legislature, Jefferson prevailed upon a more senior colleague to champion a bill to outlaw the importation of slaves, and watched in horror as his friend "was denounced as an enemy of his country and was treated with the grossest indecorum." When Jefferson denounced slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Georgia and South Carolina refused to sign if the words were not removed. Jefferson presumably acquiesced in the belief that it was better to free the colonies from Great Britain, deferring the struggle against slavery until later, rather than risk the enslavement of all Americans to British tyranny.
In 1784, Jefferson proposed to Congress that, after 1800, "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" in any of the new Western states, "otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been convicted to have been personally guilty." He lost by a single vote. Eight decades would pass before similar language in the Thirteenth Amendment would bring a legal end to slavery in America.
Ten days before his death, Jefferson wrote of "the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."
We are repeatedly told that Jefferson was a hypocrite - that while championing the struggle against slavery, Jefferson lived on the labor of slaves and did not even free them upon his death. Both charges are true - and easy to explain (which is not the same thing as saying Jefferson's behavior was morally justified). Historian Joseph Ellis has observed that Jefferson could have passed a polygraph test on his belief that his own slaves were better off at Monticello that they would be if turned loose to fend for themselves in 19th century Virginia. This is not to suggest that Jefferson was correct, or that it was properly his decision to make. But as we pass moral judgment on events of long ago, it is also not irrelevant.
It is often observed that politics is "the art of the possible." Historian John Chester Miller wrote in The Wolf By the Ears, "From the beginning of his career it was impressed upon Jefferson that he must choose between the preservation of his political 'usefulness' and active opposition to slavery." He was powerless to end slavery, and had he fought harder we might have lost all of the tremendous benefits we enjoy today from his years of public service - including our religious freedom and this fine University.
Jefferson died more than $100,000 in debt. There is abundant evidence he wanted to free his slaves, but being by law "property," they were subject to the legal claims of his creditors.
Thomas Jefferson was imperfect and does not deserve our respect as a slave owner. But one of the things which set him apart from so many of his contemporaries was that he understood that the enslavement of human beings was evil.
The great historian Henry Steele Commager wrote that no one "contributed more to the struggle against slavery in his own state, and perhaps even in the nation, than Jefferson." The labors of his slaves allowed Jefferson to gain an education and to help lead America to independence and freedom. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work or study at the University he conceived and cherished - whatever our race, gender, color, religion or other differences - should find common bond in the knowledge that our founder was generations ahead of his time in the struggle for human freedom and in the knowledge that all people are deserving of respect and dignity.
(Robert F. Turner is co-founder and associate director of the University's Center for National Security Law.)