The Thomas Jefferson I Wish I’d Never Met

Originally published by The Guy Code, July 9, 2000.

Until July 3, I hadn’t realized that I had a relationship with Thomas Jefferson. I must have had one, though, because on that day I suddenly found myself wrestling with it.

Few of us discuss such relationships. I mean, sure, people talk about having a ‘relationship’ with Jesus, and about finding the Buddha in the road. By and large, though, the only people who describe their relationships with non-religious historical figures are those endearingly dotty biographers on PBS.

Yet each of us knows something of what they feel. When Walter Matthau died, for example, most of us felt something, even if it was only the regret that there would now be no one to temper the smarminess of Jack Lemmon.

But here’s a question I’d love to get some email on: What is your relationship to historical personages long dead?

For me and Thomas Jefferson, I not only learned I had the relationship with him on the day before Independence Day, but it forever changed.

I was strolling around Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home – a place I’d heard about for years. I knew I’d only be there for a few hours, and, as if I’d come home for a family reunion and didn’t know when I’d be there next, it seemed awfully important to settle things while I was there.

Nor was I the only one having this problem. Each of the three tour guides my mom and I encountered seemed to be wrestling with it, too, and you could see pensive looks on the faces of the other tourists.

Jefferson and slavery

As children we knew him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president, and the champion of the farmer; he was easy to admire. As we’d gotten older, the picture had darkened: We learned that he’d owned slaves.

When I’d first heard talk about Jefferson’s slaves, I assumed he’d owned just a few. That wouldn’t have made it right, of course; it was a defensive reaction, an attempt to minimize the damage.

I wanted to admire Mr. Jefferson without reservation. I’d really liked the line President Kennedy had used in addressing a White House dining room full of Nobel laureates: “Never before has this room contained so much genius – at least since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Damn, that was a good line. I didn’t want to tarnish it.

Turns out, though, Jefferson didn’t own just a few slaves. At any given time, he and his family had owned more than a hundred. Slavery fueled the plantation that was Monticello.

And it was real slavery, not just foolin’-around-with-a-couple-of-well-dressed-and-well-treated-house-servants slavery. Dry, hot fields reverberating with slaves — such was the land of the man who gave us a line that was better than Kennedy’s, if not quite as witty: “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.”

It was Jefferson who’d given words to an ideal that has become so much a part of America that royalty, a condition that still pervades the Old World and Africa and much of Asia, seems to us silly, even pathological.

To tour Monticello is to rub your face in the fact that the man who had asked us to fight for that ideal did not practice it himself — at least, not in the way that we understand it today.

To him, there may have been no real discrepancy, but learning that only made me feel worse.

Jefferson spelled out his views on slavery in “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

I could have learned of his beliefs before, but I didn’t. I never read “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which Jefferson had claimed the mantle of science for his assertions that the races were biologically distinct, that the powers of reason and imagination were the province of whites alone, and that any mixing of white and black would produce a degradation.

I learned that from our first tour guide, a white woman. She recounted those words to a group that was largely white, but not quite white enough to keep a small tremor out of her voice.

Our group of roughly forty included four African-Americans, one of whom wore a T-shirt that said “Cornell Law School.” There was a family from India, and a few people who looked Japanese. Three Buddhist monks in orange robes inspired speculation about the Dalai Lama, who had spoken in Washington the day before.

Jefferson the writer was brilliant, but Jefferson the farmer never turned a profit. He could not let go of his slaves and hold his land, so he chose to cling to both. Even with the slaves, he fell deeply into debt; he died owing the equivalent, in today’s terms, of $2 million.

Not that he would have freed all of his slaves, even if the farm had been in the black. Our guide explained that Jefferson saw “piecemeal” freeing as dangerous, in that it could provoke other slaves to get ideas. And then there was the question of what to do with all those former slaves.

Because he was holding people against their will, Jefferson naturally encountered problems of discipline. Our guide described one for us: A slave hit another slave with a rock, breaking his skull. The guide left it to us to figure out what ought to be done, in order to make an example of the perpetrator and prevent a recurrence.

A white man in the group said quickly, “Hang him.”

“Well, you could hang him, I guess,” the guide said. “But what would be the problem with that?”

“You’d be damaging your property,” said the black man with the Cornell Law School T-shirt.

“That’s right,” she said, nodding. “And you wouldn’t want to do that. So he had to figure out something else to do. He was fairly benevolent, as slaveholders went; he didn’t want to use the whip. So instead he told his overseer to sell the man who had done that with the rock: ‘Sell him far away, and it will be for his family as if he was dead.’ So they sold him, and that slave’s family never saw him again; it was as if he was dead.”

The guide had to talk about Sally Hemings, so she did. Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife; they shared the same father, but because Sally’s mother was a slave, so was Sally. Mrs. Jefferson died after ten years of marriage. Thomas never remarried, so when things happened between T.J. and Sally, there was no wronged wife — only a slave woman who could not truly give consent, mixed up with a statesman who had written that it was wrong to mix.

“Interestingly,” said the guide, “since the DNA evidence came out to show that Jefferson was probably the father of Sally’s children, blacks have tended to have no problem accepting Jefferson, with all his flaws. Whites, on the other hand, have had a harder time with it.”

“So,” I thought. “So it’s because I’m a white guy. She’s saying that any trouble I’m having with Jefferson here today is because of the color of my skin, not the content of his character.”

* * *

Well, now, Thomas, you were a great man, and all, but I’m not so sure that the guide’s explanation cleared everything up.

As I walked around your little mountain and saw your lovely trees and objects of art, I sympathized with you. I imagined how hard it would have been for you to give up all that beauty just to free some people who probably seemed to be doing fairly well, for non-whites.

But I also imagined how hard it was for your slaves to see you, the big cheese, relaxing as they worked. Probably you told a few of them how much you loved Monticello – how it gladdened your heart to be home, away from the cares of statecraft. Probably they nodded at you, smiled for you, and doubted they would ever again see the relatives you had sold away.

I’d like to see the poll that tour guide took — the one that showed that it’s only whites who have an issue with you, Mr. Jefferson.

When it comes to brilliance, accomplishment, heart and influence, T.J., my inferiority to you is so great as to make me tremble. But I was created equal to you, so I guess I have a right to say my peace.

Although it sounds foolish to say it, my relationship with you is not what it was.

I realize, of course, that your relationship with me has not changed a whit: You didn’t know me then, and you don’t know me now.

So maybe I shouldn’t worry about it at all. And frankly, since I left your plantation, I pretty much haven’t. Pretty much.

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