Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

President William Jefferson Clinton began his administration by invoking the memory of Thomas Jefferson. Not only did he launch his inaugural week at Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but he followed Jefferson’s route to the White House and cited him in his inaugural address. It is not surprising that Clinton should have tried to use Jefferson as a symbol of his desire for change. Jefferson was after all the presumed founder of the Democratic Party and has long been seen as a champion of liberal causes. But Jefferson does not belong just to the Democratic Party. Republican Governor William Weld of Massachusetts calls himself a Jeffersonian. And President Reagan repeatedly called upon Jefferson in order to justify his attempts to reduce the size of the federal government; indeed, he urged us all to “pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson’s life and wear it in our soul forever.”

And so it has gone almost from the beginning of our history. More than any other of our so-called “founding fathers” Jefferson has become a symbol, a touchstone, a measure of what we Americans are or where we are going. “Jeffersonian” is a word of general appeal. We are continually asking ourselves whether Jefferson still survives, or what is still living in the thought of Jefferson; and we quote him on every side of every major issue in our history. No figure in our history has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes. 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.”

As Merrill Peterson has shown us in his superb book published over thirty years ago, the image of Jefferson in American culture has always been “a sensitive reflector…of America’s troubled search for the image of itself.”1 And the symbolizing, the image-mongering, the identifying of Jefferson with America, has not changed a bit in the generation since Peterson’s book was published—even though the level of professional historical scholarship has never been higher. If anything, during these turbulent times the identification of Jefferson with America has become even greater—until at this moment in 1993 of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth all our present anguish and turmoil seem to be embodied in the life of this single man.

Anniversaries of great men and great events are times for commemoration if not for celebration, and they are also times for historical reassessment. But they can be tricky affairs, as we found out last year during the commemoration of the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America. It is not likely that Jefferson will become as politically incorrect this year as Columbus did last year, but he is getting there—as suggested by the book under review and the conference that spawned it, the first major historical and scholarly reassessment of this 250th anniversary. There is a likelihood that any present-day historical reassessment will prove Jefferson wrong at least on some issues. And, as Parton said, “if Jefferson was wrong, then America is wrong.”

This important scholarly reevaluation of Jefferson took place at a conference held in October 1992 at the institution he founded, the University of Virginia. The conference resulted six months later in the collection of fifteen essays entitled Jeffersonian Legacies, published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday on April 13, 1993. Probably never before has a scholarly press moved so quickly from a set of conference papers to a finished book. It is a measure of how important Jefferson is to the University of Virginia and its press and perhaps to the rest of us as well.2

The six-day conference, as Daniel P. Jordan, director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, declares in a foreword to the book, was designed to be “revisionist in spirit” and “innovative in format.” It brought together a wide variety of participants—academics from several disciplines and countries but also policy makers and members of the general public. Conspicuously absent, however, were the leading scholars with already established reputations as Jefferson experts, scholars such as Noel Cunningham, Jack McLaughlin, and Garrett Ward Sheldon, who were presumed to have already had their say. Even the role of the country’s preeminent Jefferson scholar, Merrill Peterson, was confined to a few brief remarks at the end of the conference. In order to promote fresh thinking about Jefferson and his legacy, the organizers of the conference sought to invite mostly people who were not considered part of the so-called “Jefferson establishment.”3 Even the present Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the chief organizer of the conference and editor of the volume, Peter S. Onuf, is different from the two preceding holders of the Jefferson chair, Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, in that he has not previously written anything directly about Jefferson.


The conference sought to explore critically Jefferson’s ideas and actions in relation to certain central issues of rights, education, democracy, and race and slavery. It aimed to measure Jefferson’s life and values against the principal concerns of the present, an aim underlined in a major evening address given by the civil rights activist Julian Bond. Most of the commissioned papers, which make up the published volume, were available in advance but were not presented publicly.4 Instead, most of the conference was devoted to a series of discussions by panels composed not simply of scholars but also of businessmen, lawyers, civil rights activists, journalists, public officials, and museum professionals, together with a good deal of lively audience participation. “The result,” as Jordan says, “was an intellectual free-for-all, with polemical discourse, reasoned debates, brilliant insights, wild digressions, and even some egregious misinformation.”

On no issue were the discussions more free-wheeling, more polemical, more wild, and sometimes more misinformed than on the issue of race and slavery. There is no doubt that the conference and the fifteen essays that make up the subsequent volume present many new and fresh insights on various aspects of Jefferson’s life and works, from his views on religion to his attitudes toward foreign policy. But the issue that most provoked and dominated the conference and the one that permeates the subsequent volume and gives it its pungency is the issue of race and slavery.

Fifty years ago in 1943 at the 200th anniversary of his birth Jefferson was seen as the solution to all of America’s problems. This year at the 250th anniversary of his birth he has actually become a part of America’s problems. It is not that America has lost faith in democracy or equality or in individual rights. Far from it: Jefferson’s reputation as the author of the Declaration of Independence and its promotion of rights and equality remains supreme. So too does his position as the leading spokesman in our past for the importance of education, for the separation of church and state, and for the right of the people to rule. But it is Jefferson’s position on race and slavery that makes him a problem. In our present climate the fact that Jefferson was a racist slaveholder seems to defile and discredit all of his great liberal and democratic achievements.

Paul Finkelman, visiting associate professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, brought a prosecutor’s zeal to the conference, and his comments and paper on Jefferson and slavery pleased some, angered others, and bemused many. It was not that Finkelman said anything new in his paper or in his comments; it was rather the relentless earnestness of his attack on Jefferson—to the point where some scholars present wondered what he was hoping to accomplish. Yet there was no doubt that Finkelman’s attack on Jefferson struck a responsive chord among some journalists and some members of the general public.

Surely there is no greater irony in American history than the fact that America’s supreme spokesman for liberty and equality was a lifelong aristocratic owner of slaves. Jefferson hated slavery, it is true, but, unlike Washington and some of his fellow Virginians, during his lifetime he freed only eight of his nearly two hundred slaves. “In the fifty years from 1776 until his death in 1826, a period of extraordinary public service, he did little,” says Finkelman, “to end slavery or to dissociate himself from his role as the master of Monticello.” On the contrary: he bought, bred, and flogged his slaves and hunted down fugitives in much the same way his fellow Virginia planters did—all the while declaring that American slavery was not as bad as that of the ancient Romans. Even when some of his younger countrymen like Edward Coles sought his blessing in liberating their slaves, he refused to encourage them and offered only excuses for delay.

Most embarrassing in today’s climate are Jefferson’s views of blacks. Jefferson could never really imagine freed blacks living in a white man’s America, and throughout his life he insisted that any emancipation of the slaves had to be accompanied by their expulsion from the country. He wanted all blacks sent to the West Indies, or Africa, or anywhere out of the United States. He feared that former slaves would take revenge on their former masters for the “ten thousand…injuries they have sustained.” In 1797 he told a fellow Virginian and slaveholder that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” “But,” says Finkelman, “he had no idea what that ‘something’ might be. A man who fearlessly pledged his life to fight the king of England and his mighty armies trembled at the idea of black slaves acting as free men.”


Jefferson’s remedy of expulsion was based on racial fear and antipathy. While he had no apprehensions about mingling white blood with that of the Indian, he never ceased expressing his “great aversion” to miscegenation between blacks and whites. When the Roman slave was freed, he “might mix with, without staining the blood of, his master.” When the black slave was freed, however, he had, said Jefferson, “to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.” Although Jefferson believed that the Indians were uncivilized, he always admired them and made all sorts of environmental explanations for their differences from whites. Yet he was never able to do the same for the African American. Instead, he continually suspected that the black man was inherently inferior to the white in both body and mind.

The only controversial issue that Finkelman avoided was that of Jefferson’s supposed relationship with his mulatto household slave Sally Hemings. Finkelman said he was agnostic on the Hemings affair and so spent little or no time or no it, but many others at the conference wanted to talk about little else. The charge that Jefferson maintained Hemings as his mistress for decades and fathered several children by her was first made by an unscrupulous newspaperman, James Callender, in 1802. Since then, historians and others have periodically resurrected the accusation. In fact, in the most recent study of Jefferson’s political thought scholar Garrett Ward Sheldon treats Jefferson’s “keeping of a black mistress” as an established fact, a “common transgression of his class.”5

In one of the most fascinating essays in Jeffersonian Legacies Scot A. French and Edward L. Ayers surveyed the ways in which scholars and others have dealt with Jefferson and the issue of race and slavery over the past fifty years, and actually carried their survey right up through the conference in which they were participants. Central to their discussion is the question of Sally Hemings, which one panelist at the conference called “one of the most talked about/not talked about issues in American history.” Having access to the papers of Dumas Malone, Jefferson’s great biographer during the past half century, allowed French and Ayers to describe with great detail the anguish and anger felt by the so-called “Jefferson establishment” over the revival in the 1960s of the old accusation that Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress.

Particularly irritating to Malone, Julian Boyd, and others was Fawn Brodie’s 1974 psychobiography of Jefferson, which ingeniously argued that Jefferson had a passionate love affair with his mulatto slave. Far from being a critic of Jefferson, Brodie saw herself as saving him from accusations of racism. If Jefferson truly loved this mulatto slave, he could not have had as much antipathy to African Americans as others had suggested. Unfortunately, however, Brodie built up her case for the love affair largely through contrived readings of evidence and even the absence of evidence. She made much of the fact, for example, that Jefferson in his journal of his travels in southern France in 1787 used the word “mulatto” only twice in describing the soil. Then the fourteen- or fifteen-year-old Sally joined the Jefferson household in Paris, and the result, said Brodie, was that the love-stricken Jefferson in his journal for a trip through northern Europe in 1788 mentions the word “mulatto” eight times! Did Jefferson write to his supposed mistress during his trips? No letters have been found, but Brodie found it significant that the letter-index volume for the year 1788 had disappeared, the only volume missing in the whole forty-three-year record.6

Malone and others believed that the Hemings liaison was implausible to those who know Jefferson’s character intimately. Jefferson was after all a man who did not indulge his passions but continually suppressed them. But there are obviously many Americans who accept completely as truth Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. During the panel discussion on “Jefferson, Race, and Slavery” some panelists and members of the audience declared that everyone they knew believed in the affair. While white scholars weighed evidence and argued about the plausibility of the affair, blacks at the conference, particularly the heirs from the Hemings family who were present, declared that long-existing African American oral traditions confirmed the truth of the relationship. Some suggested that there was also a white oral tradition about the Hemings connection that only the protective scholarship of the experts had stifled. Former interpreters and guides at Monticello revealed that in the past many of the white and black visitors to Jefferson’s home had wanted to talk about the Hemings affair and about miscegenation but had felt inhibited to ask questions.

Recently, however, the protective atmosphere at Monticello of denying even the existence of Callender’s accusation has changed. In the late 1980s the Monticello administration for the first time directly confronted the Hemings story in its visitors guide, stating that the liaison was impossible to prove either way but that most Jefferson scholars discounted its truth. Yet what was seen by the newly professionalized staff at Monticello as a balanced statement of scholarly opinion was dismissed by many people, including Jesse Jackson during a visit to. Jefferson’s home, as “an attempt to pour sand over history.”

Once the issue of miscegenation was out on the table at the conference panelists and members of the audience stumbled over themselves in their eagerness to discuss it and acknowledge its reality in American life. One of the panelists at the conference, Bernadine Simmons, a vivacious and outspoken black TV journalist from Richmond, electrified the audience by claiming that all the African Americans in the room were “mongrels.” Miscegenation, she said, was not something that Americans want to talk about. But look at us, she said. “We did not get to be that way because God said it would be that way…. It got to be that way because people were miscegenating at all hours of the day and night.” Armstead Robinson, director of the Carter B. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, chimed in with a claim made by a geneticist friend that between 10 and 20 percent of the socalled whites in the southern states had some mixture of black blood. Others pointed out the way in which the offspring of miscegenation, like the light-skinned Hemings family, were given privileged positions in the big houses of the slaveholding planters and the manner in which these privileges have been carried into our own time in the class distinctions maintained among blacks.

Suddenly the truth or falsity of the Hemings affair became irrelevant compared to the undoubted fact that overwhelming numbers of white slaveholders had participated in miscegenation and that, acknowledged or not, many Americans today were living with various degrees of racial mixture. No scholar, even among those who find the Jefferson-Hemings liaison implausible, denies that Jefferson presided over a household in which miscegenation was taking place. Regardless of whether he himself was directly involved, he knew that white relatives or white members of his household or his Monticello staff were having sexual relations with his slaves. As director of research at Monticello Lucia C. Stanton says, Jefferson “who often stated his ‘aversion’ to racial mixture, lived surrounded by its examples.”

French and Ayres in their essay in Jeffersonian Legacies complain that no one in the conference “stood up to defend Jefferson.” Consequently, they say, “many of the discussions—especially the one on race and slavery—seemed unfocused and adrift. Instead of generating lively debate, Jefferson’s record on race produced little more than the sounds of muffled agreement.” It’s a strange complaint, especially since the discussion on race and slavery was the most lively and revealing of all of the panel discussions. Given the present-minded nature of the discussions at the conference, it is hard to see how those in attendance could have defended Jefferson’s record on race; they would have had to argue for the mental and physical inferiority of blacks and for racial segregation.

All that can be said about Jefferson on the issue of slavery and race is that he was very much a man of his own time, very much a man of the eighteenth century. It should always be remembered, however, that by the time of the American Revolution slavery had existed in Virginia and the rest of America for over a century without substantial criticism or moral censure. Therefore by condemning slavery and by putting the institution morally on the defensive Jefferson and some of his fellow revolutionaries did defy the slaveholding society in which they had been born and raised; that was no mean accomplishment. In his sometimes muted opposition to slavery Jefferson may not have represented the best in his society, but he was certainly better than most; indeed his words in the Declaration of Independence eventually became the most important ideological force undermining the institution of slavery. In his views on race, however, he was like almost everyone of his white countrymen.

What the conference’s discussion on Jefferson’s views and actions on race and slavery clearly brought out was the conventionality of the man on these subjects. Indeed, even his beliefs that all men were created equal and possessed rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were little more than conventional liberal and enlightened principles of the eighteenth century, although, as historian William W. Freehling has pointed out, Jefferson did have “an extraordinary gift of lending grace to conventionalities.”7 Jefferson had to be conventional in much of his thinking or he could never have had the impact he had on his contemporaries. His writing of the Declaration of Independence, he correctly recalled in 1825, was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of…; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Some of Jefferson’s conventional thinking has lived on and some has not. On many modern issues, including those of civil rights, as Julian Bond’s lecture at the conference made clear, Jefferson’s ideas and words on rights and equality have transcended his particular time and place; even Martin Luther King, Jr., could build his dream on Jefferson’s words. But on the issues of race and slavery Jefferson’s ideas and words have not transcended his time and place and could not; and, remarkably, he himself sensed that. As he wrote to the poet Lydia Howard Sigourney in 1824, “Those who come after us will be wiser than we are, for light is spreading and man improving.” On that future wisdom and on the “dispensations of an all-wise and all-powerful providence” he rested his hopes for America’s eventually doing “what is right.”

Jefferson was a large slaveholding eighteenth-century planter, and, as Lucia C. Stanton’s carefully researched essay on Jefferson and his slaves at Monticello shows, that alone implicated him in the injustice of the system in ways he could scarcely have comprehended. Stanton has none of the prosecutorial zeal of Finkelman, but for that very reason her coolly professional account of Jefferson’s relations with his own slaves is far more damaging to Jefferson than Finkelman’s searing indictment.

In many respects Monticello was an ideal plantation of the old South, a self-contained patriarchal enclave set apart from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Like many other southern planters, Jefferson regarded his slaves as members of his “family,” whom he as patriarch had responsibility to protect and care for. But like all such plantations of the old South, the ideal had to be a hollow shell, no matter how kind or gentle the master.

Upon the division of his father-in-law’s estate in 1774 Jefferson became the second largest slaveholder in Albemarle County; thereafter the number of his slaves fluctuated around two hundred—with increases through births offset by periodic sales to pay off debts. Jefferson was known to be a good master, reluctant to break up families or to sell slaves except for delinquency or at their own request. Nevertheless, as Stanton points out, between 1784 and 1794 he disposed of 161 people by sale or gift. It is true that Jefferson was averse to separating young children from their parents; but, as Stanton writes, “once black boys or girls reached the age of ten or twelve and their working lives began, they lost their status as children and with it, the guarantee of family stability.”

Monticello was a working plantation and Jefferson was eager to make it pay. His slaves may have been members of his “family” but they were units of production as well. Everywhere on his plantation he sought to eliminate pockets of idleness. “Neither youth, age, illness, nor weather were allowed to stop the plantation machine,” writes Stanton. If a slave was too old or too sick to work in the fields, he or she was put to tending the vegetable gardens or to cooking in the quarters. When one of his former head men named Nace became ill, Jefferson ordered that he be “entirely kept from labour until he recovers”; nevertheless, Nace was to spend his days indoors shelling corn or making shoes or baskets. Jefferson was willing to prescribe lighter work for women who were pregnant or raising infant children because they were actually breeding more property; thus, he said, “a child raised every 2. years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” This was one of the times, he said, when “providence has made our interest and our duties coincide perfectly.”

“I love industry and abhor severity,” said Jefferson in 1805, and he himself apparently never physically punished a slave. But he certainly ordered disobedient slaves whipped; and those he could not correct he sold, often as a lesson to the other slaves. Jefferson ordered one particularly unmanageable slave to be sold so far away that it would seem to his companions “as if he were put out of the way by death.”

To protect himself from the realities of owning human beings, says Stanton, Jefferson “needed the same psychological buffers as other well-intentioned slaveholders.” Sensitive as he was, he had to numb himself to what was going on at Monticello, close his mind in a way that distanced and dehumanized the black families among whom he lived for his entire life. In the infrequent descriptions of his slaves in his correspondence, Jefferson, writes Stanton, singles them out “for characteristics—trustworthiness or unreliability, intelligence or stupidity, sobriety or drunkenness—that bear entirely on performance.” To Jefferson the slaves could not be real human beings, never mind persons who might be equal to him and other whites. For Jefferson, as for most of the southern planters, the bulk of the slaves were and had to be merely names in an account book, and, as Stanton adds, “only first names, and diminutives at that.” Only by regarding his slaves as inferior beings could he justify what he was doing at Monticello. As he reportedly told a visiting Englishman in 1807, the “Negro race were…made to carry burthens.”

Ultimately patriarchal benevolence was irrelevant to what was increasingly seen by the late eighteenth century to be the inhumanity of slave-holding. All the kindness in the world could not hide the horrors of black slavery, one hour of which, said Jefferson in 1786, was “fraught with more misery” than ages of the tyranny that the American revolutionaries had just thrown off. Yet Jefferson eventually learned to deaden whatever stings of conscience holding other humans in bondage caused him. As Stanton says, “He appears to have convinced himself that those who were, as he suspected in print in the Notes on Virginia, ‘inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination,’ and whose griefs were ‘transient,’ might find happiness in a bondage mitigated by a benevolent hand.” He said he could not free most of his slaves because it would be “like abandoning children”: they could not survive outside of his kindly rule. In the end, however, he died so deeply in debt that his “family” that he had nurtured and controlled for sixty years had to be sold and dispersed throughout the land. He abandoned his “children” after all.

Jefferson’s career as plantation slave-holder was the career of many other southern slaveholders, and no degree of deification of the man can change that fact. Thus we should stop the deification, stop searching for legacies that supposedly pass directly from this eighteenth-century man to our present. No doubt Jefferson made many ringing statements on behalf of liberty and equality and freedom of speech and freedom of conscience that have resounded throughout our culture, and indeed the world’s culture, during the past two hundred years; and we quite sensibly renew our belief in these values by periodically reinvoking and rereading Jefferson’s statements. Yet we ought always to remember that Jefferson’s eighteenth-century statements have been glossed, refracted, expanded, and developed by two centuries of subsequent historical experience that is just as important in sustaining our values as the original statements themselves. The legacies we have received from the past are not and could not be the products of a single man of the eighteenth century, or for that matter all the “founding fathers” put together; instead, our legacies are the products of our entire accumulated historical experience.

We Americans make a great mistake in idolizing our so-called “founding fathers”; we seriously err in canonizing, and making symbols of, authentic historical figures who cannot and should not be ripped out of their own time and place. By turning Jefferson into the kind of transcendent moral hero that no authentic historically situated human being could ever be, we leave ourselves demoralized by the time-bound weaknesses of this eighteenth-century slaveholder. If we continue to make Jefferson stand for America and represent the country’s moral character, we will end up stressing our deficiencies and ignoring just how far we have progressed since the eighteenth century. Heroes and founding fathers are wonderful things for a culture to have, but they must be mythical characters like Romulus and Remus or King Arthur, obscured in the mists of the distant past; they cannot be, like Jefferson and the other “founding fathers,” real human beings about whom an extraordinary amount of historical detail is known.

This Issue

May 13, 1993