Dissing Thomas: An Apologia
Those who criticize the writers of the Constitution of the United States for "condoning slavery" by their silence on the subject have a valid point only if its abolition was in fact an option open to them at the time, in a new country struggling for survival. (1) —Thomas Sowell
This essay is written in response to an apparently widely-held position among some contemporary scholars that America has sexist and racist roots tracing directly to the Founders, and particularly to Thomas Jefferson. That the American character is also fundamentally flawed because of the undue influence of these hypocritical and unscrupulous Founders—and particularly Thomas Jefferson—is also implied in that position. Yet does the historical evidence support such a deconstructionist thesis? Upon reviewing the historical evidence, there is much that brings into question the validity of that position.
The Historical Record
The first document of note, of course, is the Declaration of Independence, the principal author of which was Thomas Jefferson. Although much of the document lists the grievances against British King George III, the preamble to the Declaration states the underlying principle from which the grievances against the British Crown were derived:
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.(2)
This preamble conveys the notion that all human beings, from every time and in every place—including apparently the yet unborn destined to become human beings—have a God-given right to these blessings. Nowhere in that document did Jefferson ever infer that men was meant to be limited to white males, much less limited only to white male landed-gentry of English descent. Another consideration, the use of the term, men, was a common 18th century term for people, as other documents of the period also indicate. Even in subsequent American societies, men was an acceptable generic term for both males and females of all races, including immediately prior to the onset of political correctness that first began its assault on free speech (ergo on liberty) in the 1960s.(3)
Many Founders were troubled by the institution of slavery, which was found in all the colonies. Thomas Jefferson was particularly troubled by it, which is why he wrote against the institution throughout his life. The fundamental idea of God-given blessings, expressed so eloquently in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, was also the very basis from which later grievances were made against the institution of slavery in the mid-19th century:
“All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” –Abraham Lincoln(4)
In response to overt claims that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, actually favored the institution of slavery, here is what Jefferson wrote originally in that document, words that were taken out of the final draft by other delegates, primarily for reasons associated with political expediency:
He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.(5)
Most Americans are probably unaware of these original, yet excised words. In that original draft, Jefferson also referred to slaves as “men,” indicating the enslaved were human beings and not mere chattel property, although legally so at the time. To the contrary, Jefferson saw them also as the rightful recipients of divinely authored nature rights. Thus, even human beings living in sub-Saharan Africa in the 18th century had been endowed with the same God-given, inalienable rights as any Englishman, according to Jefferson. What happened to their rights? They had been denied them by the British Crown, reasoned Jefferson.
There is also a direct political-philosophical link between Amendment XIII of the U.S. Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance, signed on 13 July 1787. The ordinance, a document clearly ahead of its time, formally forbade the presence of the institution of slavery in what had been the Northwest Territory, today the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The Northwest Ordinance greatly influenced the U.S. Constitution.
Here is what was said in Article 6 of that document (Northwest Ordinance):
There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…(6)
The person responsible for writing the draft of the Northwest Ordinance was none other than Thomas Jefferson, a key Founder accused of racism.(7)
Here are some additional relevant thoughts that Thomas Jefferson penned throughout his life, subsequent to the writing of the Declaration of Independence:
- Can 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 a gift of god? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that god is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. (9) —1782 [TJ’s response to the institution of slavery. Note the tie in with the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence]
- I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your state, for suspending the importation of slaves…this abomination must have an end, and there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it. (10) –1787
- Whatever may have been the circumstances which influenced our forefathers to permit the introduction of personal bondage into any part of these states, & to participate in the wrongs committed on an unoffending quarter of the globe, we may rejoice that such circumstances, & such a sense of them, exist no longer. It is honorable to the nation at large that their legislature availed themselves of the first practicable moment for arresting the progress of this great moral & political error: and I sincerely pray with you, my friends, that all the members of the human family may, in the time prescribed by the Father of us all, find themselves securely established in the enjoyments of life, liberty, & happiness. (11) —1807
- The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and the degrading submissions on the other.(12) –1818
- The abolition of this evil [slavery] is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. (13) –1825 [This last comment was penned the year before Jefferson’s death on 4 July 1826.]
Hardly the words one would expect from a pro-slavery racial bigot.
As the historical evidence shows, Jefferson consistently identified slavery as an immoral practice in conflict with the idea of God-given natural rights. He spoke out against slavery throughout his adult life, even as recently as the year before his death.
In addition to his legislative and executive actions, Jefferson’s private letters throughout his life bear witness to his consistent and persistent anti-slavery stance. In some of those letters, Jefferson objected particularly to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in his mind an ill-thought out and hastily conceived political arrangement that all but guaranteed the continuation of slavery, perhaps at the ultimate expense of the Union. At no time in any of his writings—nor in his writings as quoted by others—did he write in favor of slavery.
No other Founder of his era did more to eliminate slavery than Jefferson, including northern non-holding slave Founders such as Alexander Hamilton (New York) and John Adams (Massachusetts).
“We Have the Wolf by the Ear…”
Why then did Thomas Jefferson not just emancipate his slaves, presumably he had choices? Does not his stated position and actions expose great contradiction, and perhaps even blatant hypocrisy? Further investigation of the historical evidence reveals he felt there was only so much that could be done in his day to remedy the situation:
“…if…a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. [But], as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go, justice in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”(16) –1820
Thus sudden, outright freedom including widespread manumission was impractical, although a theoretical option at times, perhaps. Existing slave law in Virginia, the possibility that freedom was tantamount to a death sentence in a hostile world to many would-be emancipated slaves (especially those very old, very young, infirmed, and/or unskilled), the inevitable break up of friends and families, and even the potential for mass rebellion, such as that which had occurred during Gabriel’s rebellion in 1800, and in Haiti, 1791-1804, were realities of his time that Jefferson had to consider.(20)
“…as far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed by slavery is like abandoning children.”(21) –1789
Jefferson’s persistent debt problems may also have been a contributing factor to his lack of action in freeing most of his slaves during his lifetime. Jefferson inherited much debt, to include that debt incurred from the former Poplar Forest estate of his deceased father-in-law, John Wayles (1715-1773).(22) Wayles had died heavily in debt and that debt was passed on to his heirs. Jefferson struggled with his share of the debt for factors largely beyond his control. These factors included currency fluctuations, the impact of crop failures, war in Europe, and problems associated with collecting remittances from his own creditors.
In Jefferson’s day, slaves were considered chattel property. Although Jefferson was forced to sell some slaves to cover some of his debt obligations, that option may not have been a practical one for him to have pursued overall. Although there is no historical record regarding the reason behind Jefferson’s lack of action to emancipate all his slaves, as discussed, he presumably would have considered the potential fate of those emancipated. Also, the possible realization that the wholesale selling off of slaves would not have produced sufficient revenues to retire significant debt, and at the same time undermined the very plantation micro-economy that produced cash-crop based wealth in the first place, may have been a consideration.
Thomas Jefferson was a highly influential thinker of the American Enlightenment, and yet he was also but one man. The institution of slavery in his day was a wide-spread and highly complex activity of the 18th century global economy. There were many empires, nations, institutions, economic cartels, commercial ventures, and powerful individuals profiting from the slave trade. Even the most powerful kingdom on earth at the time, Great Britain, could not end the slave trade politically throughout its global empire until the 1830s, years after Jefferson’s death.
Since the institution of slavery and racial prejudice was not likely to pass away in his day, Jefferson apparently believed it was his obligation to look after his enslaved persons as humanely as possible, including providing food, shelter, medical care, and clothing, while keeping loved ones together as best as possible. Jefferson understood the situation, and he wrote out against the institution of slavery continually. He believed slavery had a negative impact on all, the slave owner as well as the enslaved. To Jefferson, the abolition of slavery was something that would come in due time, but perhaps not in his lifetime. In 1821, only five years before his death, Jefferson wrote:
“..the abolition of the evil [slavery] is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. [Every] plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate objective.” (23) –1821
Again, he expressed his views in documents he authored, in actions he took as an elected official, and in private letters he wrote to many friends and acquaintances over the period of several decades. Arguably, Jefferson put his views into practice as best he could under the circumstances, which is why at least one of his enslaved persons wrote to him affectionately:
“Master[,] I wrote you a few lines to let you know that your house and furniture are safe as I expect you would be glad to know. I hear that you do not expect to come up this fall [visit Poplar Forest from Monticello]. I was sorry to hear that you [were] so unwell you could not come [.] [This grieved] me many times but I hope as you have been so blessed in that you considered it was God that done it and we all ought to be thankful for what he has done for us [,] we ought to serve and obey his commandments [,] that you may set to win the prize [salvation] and after glory. Master I do not [believe] my ignorant letter will be much encouragement to you as know I am a poor ignorant creature. This leaves us all well. Adieu, I am your humble servant, Hannah.” (24)
Hannah was an enslaved person at Jefferson’s retreat home of Poplar Forest.
By the way, similar thoughts were expressed about James Madison as well, another Founder and slave holder. In his short biography of James Madison, Paul Jennings, Madison’s enslaved manservant, described Madison this way:
Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave. Although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it. Whenever any slaves were reported to him as stealing or “cutting up” badly, he would send for them and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it before others.(25)
Jennings was a free person at the time he wrote that short biography, and Madison had been dead for several years, so Jennings (an abolitionist) had no incentive to hold back from the truth.
Anatomy of a Critique
What then, might be the real problem with Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders? Here are some observations. However, before going further, the scholarly method of inquiry called deconstructionism is worth discussing briefly. Essentially deconstructionism is a method by which an historical person or event is de-mythologized. Often, but not always, deconstructionism involves the application of “new knowledge” gained from recently developed socio-cultural disciplines, such as feminism, Neo-Marxism, or Afro-centrism. Hence, Thomas Jefferson and others may be viewed as misogynistic and racist because modern-day feminist and Afro-centric theories have pre-determined guilt. Jefferson and others are worthy of opprobrium, and all prior favorable assessments of their lives and accomplishments must be heavily critiqued in light of this “new knowledge.” To what degree, if any, these socio-cultural disciplines have unfairly influenced recent assessments of Jefferson and other Founders might be a worthy topic for further scholarly investigation.
Returning to Thomas Jefferson specifically, it indeed appears to have become fashionable among many recent academics to assess Jefferson in a much different light than in the past—to demythologize him—rather than to embrace the assessments of earlier Jeffersonian scholars such as Dumas Malone and Merrill D. Peterson. To underscore that point further, Joseph J. Ellis in his book, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson laid out a fairly detailed description of how the view of Jefferson changed from the Malone-Peterson era to that of more recent academics and writers. Ellis mentioned specifically Leonard Levy, Wintrop Jordan, Eric McKitrick, Peter Onuf, and Paul Finkelman as the primary engines of change.(27)
Indeed, in Ellis’ own words,
“Another symptom of imminent decline [traditional view of Jefferson as advanced by Malone, Peterson and others]—again, all this in retrospect—was an essay in 1970 by Eric McKitrick reviewing the recent biographies of Jefferson by Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson. McKitrick had the temerity to ask whether it might not be time to declare a moratorium on the celebratory approach to Jefferson.” (28)
For sure, every person Ellis mentioned was and is a highly competent and credentialed scholar, all of whom have contributed substantially to the body of knowledge. Yet, unfortunately it appears as though a kind of collective zeal for demythologizing and re-writing the historical narrative on Jefferson reached a fever pitch, and drew broad consensus consequently.
In the final analysis, what many scholars embracing a demythologizing narrative in effect would have us believe is this: In perhaps the greatest con job in all of human history, Jefferson consistently lied to myriad of people over the course of several decades about his true feelings toward slavery, and no one caught on to this “great fraud,” much less took him to task, until certain academics of recent times arrived on the scene.(29) Whether this narrative is by deliberate design or by accident, the impact is the same.
Another recent re-interpretation of Thomas Jefferson centers on a view that Jefferson was wealthy and famous only because of enslaved persons. That also is nonsense. Jefferson was wealthy and successful because he not only inherited much of his wealth but he was also a highly insightful and industrious genius living in the right time and right place in history. Whereas, the labor of enslaved persons might have contributed to his wealth and success, that labor was not the sole—nor even primary—reason for Jefferson’s contributions to the nation and to the ideas of government and the ideals of liberty.
Again, we see the influence of “new knowledge” from recently developed socio-cultural disciplines at play here, in this case, Neo-Marxism. If success and wealth in life is always the result of someone else’s unsung effort then no one has a legitimate claim to what they have accomplished, or possess, as “someone else did that.” Fame, fortune, and accomplishment therefore are always the result of exploitation. That new idea arguably is the discredited old philosophy of 19th century Marxism merely poured into a new wine bottle.
Some Final Thoughts
Perhaps the time is ripe for scholars and the general American public to depart from the deconstructionist narrative. To presume to know the inner motives of individuals is unprofitable, and again Joseph J. Ellis has laid out in great detail in his book, American Sphinx, the thought processes, techniques, and procedures used to deconstruct, to demythologize Jefferson.(30) Yet, the conclusion that the United States has been sexist and racist society, attributable to the Founders and particularly to Thomas Jefferson, is a historically unsupported and overly simplified view, arguably.
For sure, truth should be followed dispassionately wherever it may lead. Expressed another way, in the interest of the public trust, truth should be presented unspoiled. Interpreting history within the parameters of trendy methodologies, perhaps to advance some ill-defined level of social justice to achieve some sort of ambiguous utopian aim, serves neither truth nor the public well.
Dave Dietrich served for over forty years as a professional national security analyst and educator at the international (NATO), national, and military service levels. Since his retirement in 2015, he has been working both as an Assistant Professor of Political Science (adjunct) and as a volunteer docent at a Thomas Jefferson historical site. Mr. Dietrich is also an occasional guest instructor at the School of Education of Johns Hopkins University (history of intelligence). He holds a Master of Science degree in Strategic Intelligence.
(1)Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View, New York: Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-06797-8, (1994), pg. 218. Thomas Sowell also discusses race and slavery in a broad, historical perspective in chapter 7 of this book.
(2)Congress, The Unanimous Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen United States of America, 4 July 1776
(3) According to the late author, Balint Vazsonyi, the term and concept of political correctness was first coined and conceived by Anton Semionovich Makenrenko (1888-1939), Lenin’s education theorist. See Balint Vazsonyi, America’s 30 Years War: Who is Winning?, Regnery Publications, Inc.: Washington, D.C., ISBN 0-89526-354-8, (1998), p 13.
(4) Abraham Lincoln; Letter to Henry L. Pierce and Others; Springfield, Illinois, 6 April 1859
(5) Congress, The Unanimous Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen United States of America, original Jefferson draft
(6) An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River of Ohio, 13 July 1787 [also known as the Northwest Ordinance]. The language of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance was based on the earlier proposed ordinance of 1784, also authored by Thomas Jefferson. That earlier version also included an anti-slavery provision. When the 1784 ordinance failed passage by one vote, Jefferson lamented, “We see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment.”
(7) Regarding Thomas Jefferson’s alleged misogyny, one might ponder, why did he devote considerable time educating his granddaughters, Cornelia and Ellen, as well as demonstrating great respect for, while continually seeking out the sage insights of another Founder, Abigail Adams, if he had been so anti-female?
(8) John P. Kaminski, compiler and editor, Citizen Jefferson: The Wit and Wisdom of an American Sage, Madison House: Madison, WI, ISBN 0-945612-35-4, (1994); and, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, The Words of Thomas Jefferson, ISBN 978-1-882886-27-2, (2008, second printing 2011).
(9) Thomas Jefferson: Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, edited by Frank Shuffelton, New York: Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-14-043667-9, (1999), pg. 169
(10) Thomas Jefferson letter to Edward Rutledge, 14 July 1787.
(11) Thomas Jefferson letter to Gerard T. Hopkins, 713 November 1807
(12) Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
(13) Thomas Jefferson letter to Francis Wright, 7 August 1825
(14) Thomas Jefferson letter to Francis Wright, 7 August 1825
(15) See, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Holmes, dated 22 April 1820. As we know, the events of 1861 proved Jefferson concerns and words prophetic.
(16) Thomas Jefferson letter to John Holmes, 22 April 1820; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, The Words of Thomas Jefferson, ISBN: 978-1-882886-27-2, (2008, second printing 2011), pg. 188
(17) Virginia law tied enslaved persons to the land, as chattel property. If the land was under lien, then so were the enslaved that labored there.
(18) As example, Virginia law stated that freed slaves had to leave Virginia territory within a year of being granted freedom.
(19) Other uprising included the Stono Rebellion in 1739 and Gabriel’s Conspiracy near Richmond in 1800.
(20) Thomas Sowell, in his book, Race and Culture: A World View, discusses in great depth the moral and socio-economic complexities associated with slavery. Dr. Sowell reminds us, "Slavery was "peculiar" in the United States only because human bondage was inconsistent with the principles on which this nation was founded. Historically, though, it was those principles that were peculiar, not slavery." Race and Culture, op. cit., pg. 186.
(21) Thomas Jefferson letter to Edward Bancroft, 26 January 1789; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, The Words of Thomas Jefferson, ISBN: 978-1-882886-27-2, (2008, second printing 2011), pg. 182
(22) The late Jefferson scholar, Dumas Malone, discussed the John Wayles debt and its association with Thomas Jefferson in his book: Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: Jefferson the Virginian, volume one, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, (1948). Refer to Appendix II. 3. The Wayles Inheritance, 1774-1800, pp 441-445.
(23) Thomas Jefferson Autobiography, 6 January- 21 July 1821; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, The Words of Thomas Jefferson, ISBN: 978-1-882886-27-2, (2008, second printing 2011), pg. 190
(24) Monticello Digital Classroom, https://classroom.monticello.org/media-item/letter-from-hannah/. One contemporary academic argues that Hannah was being disingenuous in her letter to Jefferson, suggesting her enslaved status precluded her from writing the truth. However, that position is based on personal conjecture and not historical evidence.
(25) George C. Beadle, Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, Brooklyn, The Montpelier Foundation, second edition, (2010), pg. 15
(26) The inter-disciplinary demythologizing methodology was influenced by theology, particularly with thinkers such as Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976). Ultimately, the intellectual antecedents are traceable to the Age of Reason, initially to the philosophical ideas of Spinoza (1632-1677) and later to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and others.
(27) Others scholars might be added to the list, more recent Jefferson critics such as Annette-Gordon Reed, Andrew Burstein, and even Ellis himself.
(28) Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York: Vintage Books, ISBN: O-679-76441-O, (1998), pp. 1-23
(29) Of course, a major exception was James T. Callender (1758-1803), the original source of the Sally Hemings stories.
(30) Ellis, American Sphinx, pp.3-26.