Does Thomas Jefferson deserve our adulation?

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” -

[RIGHT] – Thomas Jefferson [/RIGHT]

Let me begin by saying straight off that I have always liked Jefferson. How many people do you know who can receite the whole one-senetnce first paragraph of the Decelaration of Independence by heart (and I am not even an American, I am a Canadian).

But I have a lot of trouble with the inconsistencies. EVERY form of tyranny over the mind of man, sir? What about human ownership and brutlization of other humans because of the amount of melanin concentration in their skins? Admittedly not a form of tyranny over the minds, but a tyranny nontheless.

America has done quite a PR job on Thomas Jefferson. If you visit his memorial in Washington DC, you will see a quotation regarding blacks that reads something like this (the exact words do no come to mind but this is fairly close) “Nothing is so clearly written in the book of destiny that these people (i.e. Blacks) must someday be free.”

What we are NOT told at the Memorial is that this is part of a longer passage that says that the two races are also incapable of living in the same country and that freed blacks must be returned to Africa (THANKS FOR THE COTTON PICKING, WE’LL SEND YOU A t-SHIRT).

Jefferson is also on record as writing that blacks smell bad because they excrete more through the skin than the kidneys, unlike whites, and he has also said that a white woman who has a child by a black man should have the protection of the law removed from her (you wanna lynch her, Billy-Bob? Shucks, Mr. Jefferson sez its OK with him, I reckon!)

Any opinions on Jefferson? Is it time to knock him off his pedestal? And please, if you are going to make “judge people by the standards of their own times” arguments, save us all the valuable electrons and go read a book. I don’t expect people like Alexander the Great to have had a position on Internet porn, but for goodness’ sake, there were millions of decent, compasionate human beings who saw the evil of slavery in the 1700s and even earlier.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that DNA has now conclusively proven that he had three children with a slave girl, Sally Hemmings, young enough to be his daughter.

Sure there were some. Ben Franklin saw the evils of slavery. Just a few years after Pennsylvania made it illegal, and when he had no use for them any longer.

Jefferson saw the evils of slavery, I think, and considered himself what we might call an addict of sorts today. He saw it as an intractable problem for Virginia for the time, and probably wished the South had never gotten so dependent on it.

On matters of bad science (eg blacks excrete from their kidneys differently) he was the product of his time, and I think forgiveably so.

(Here’s what Cecil had to say about that.)

Jefferson, like many people, was a mixture of admirable and not-so-admirable qualities. I’d say he was great but flawed. In particular, he didn’t always live up to his high ideals, and his strength of character wasn’t as great as that of, oh, some of the other Founding Fathers[sup]TM[/sup], but he said and did enough great things (and was a fascinating enough person) that if you want to give him your qualified adulation, go right ahead.

One thing about Hemmings of note is that she was only 1/4 black. She was also his SIL. I am not sure if that makes things better or much worse but he could have been a terrible racist but convinced himself that she wasn’t a real black person (didn’t stop her from being his lover/slave though). Their children were therefore only 1/8th black and he didn’t do much to stop their slavery. The reason I bring that up is because it highlights his values and thought-processes. He didn’t see a problem with people with a small minority of black lineage being slaves. He either believed that people with any black blood were hopelessly tainted and destined for slavery or that his racial views and views on slavery weren’t as closely tied together as you might think.

I thought the DNA evidence proved that a male member of Jefferson’s family had children with Sally Hemings, but that in no way could it ever be proven that it was (or wasn’t) Jefferson himself.

He had personal faults, sure, but he is the man who set down for us our national creed: that all men are created equal, and that we are endowed with inalienable rights. We continually try (though we often fail, as he himself failed) to live up to the aspirations he set for us. But bless him for setting the bar.

And let us also not forget that Jefferson is the single most important figure in putting into practice the notions of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. Before Jefferson went to work, heresy was a capital offense in Virginia.

Jefferson bad! Hamilton good!

Ahem! I believe you have that backwards, sirrah.

“Great but flawed.” I can live with that. I don’t think I could stand a great, unflawed man.

My first answer was supposed to immediately follow “there were millions of decent, compasionate human beings who saw the evil of slavery in the 1700s and even earlier”:

“there were millions of decent, compasionate human beings who saw the evil of slavery in the 1700s and even earlier.”
“Sure there were some. Ben Franklin saw the evils of slavery”


Jefferson, it could also be well argued, gets too much credit for the Declaration of Independence. The ideas were mostly not original, and as they were, they were the expression of the whole congress. He just got picked to be the writer because he had a flare for words, and because Franklin didn’t want the job.

On the other hand, he was the guy who had the soaring vision. He was the ideas guy - not so good on details, but the guy who could paint a picture of republican nirvana that made people swoon - and perhaps he gets too little credit for that. Adams recognized Jefferson’s ability to fire peoples’ imaginations and was bitterly jealous of it.

This country would’ve looked a lot different if it had been Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, Adams shaping things with no Jefferson input. Who would’ve taken his place? Madison? He was on Jefferson’s side, but would not have been nearly as prominent without Jefferson’s mentoring. Sam Adams? When he didn’t have to pay taxes to England anymore he seemed placated.

And I will also say this for Jefferson - while the guy who wrote “all men are created equal, and are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” owned slaves, at least he recognized the cognitive dissonance there. He knew his own imperfections.

Considering them in terms of their ideas rather than their conduct – Jefferson bad, Hamilton good. Jefferson was an ideological agrarian, Hamilton an industrialist. Jefferson was a democrat, but also a decentralist; Hamilton was an elitist, but also a nationalist. Hamilton, not Jefferson, had the right ideas about what America’s future should be.

Had to be, maybe. Should be, never. He did actively oppose slavery, for which I’ll give him credit. But I’d much rather live in Jefferson’s ideal world, however impossible it became.

The fact that Jefferson couldn’t live up to the ideals he propounded any more than I can or you can does not mean that they are not excellent ideals. He was human, as are we all, with all of the nobility and baseness that comes with being human. We denigrate his ideals at our peril.

In Jefferson’s world, you would be (best-case scenario, assuming you’re a white Anglo-Saxon) a yeoman farmer. Fuck that shit!

I’ve long thought that Jefferson was the stereotypical ivory tower intellectual. He had lofty principles but seemed unable to apply them in his actual life. But I’ll cut him some slack - the mistakes he made in life been covered over by time and the high principles are still around.

For general discussion of issues relating to Hamilton vs. Jefferson, see Hamilton’s Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition, by Michael Lind.

Well, he doesn’t deserve our unthinking undulation, but then, who does? Other than me. Me you can unthinkingly adulate to your heart’s content.

The first sentence is engraved on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial. The second was omitted in the interest of brevity.

I could handle it. :smiley:

Hamilton was in favor of a king. Failing that, he wanted the chief executive to be in office for life.

He also sold us out to the Brits when the Jay treaty was being negotiated. He was the agent who was telling the British what America would cave on. It was tantamount to treason.

None of the founders could be seen as “the good one” or “the bad one” - especially not Jefferson nor Hamilton. Either one of them, in absolute power, would have led the young nation to ruin.