Alas, the woke Left has become so successful at trashing the reputation of Thomas Jefferson that even the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has joined the misguided mob against its own namesake. Its character assassination and revisionist history must not go unanswered.
A recorrection of the record is necessary — not just for Jefferson’s sake but for a proper understanding of this nation’s ideals and beneficence.
Most of the anti-Jefferson impulse, of course, revolves around his espousing liberty and equality while also owning slaves.
The second-biggest hobbyhorse involves Jefferson’s alleged — and yes, it remains only alleged, far from proven — fathering of children by his late wife’s enslaved half-sister, Sally Hemings.
The second subject is easier to answer, so let’s start with it. Despite widespread misreporting, we simply do not know whether Jefferson and Hemings were intimate. Twice, “minority reports” of the so-called Scholars’ Commission report on the subject vociferously disputed this conclusion, instead saying that DNA and other records make it “ impossible to prove ” either way.
Descendants of only one Hemings child have been shown to have DNA from any Jefferson male, and two other Jefferson males could have been the fathers. One of them was at Monticello when the child was conceived, and the other may well have been there, too. A famed commission member Forrest McDonald, a huge critic of Jefferson and admirer of Jefferson’s rival Alexander Hamilton, said the evidence went the other way: “ Thomas Jefferson was simply not guilty of the charge .”
The overall question of Jefferson’s handling of slavery is more complicated. Still, today’s woke critics are looking at it all backward. Indeed, to blame Jefferson for the evils of slavery is as senseless as blaming Alexander Fleming, who “discovered” penicillin in 1928 , for failing to find a way to turn it into a usable drug until others came along to do it more than a decade later.
The man who lights the way for turning a horrid situation toward healing and resolution merits more praise for his advancements than he does blame for not completely cleaning up a mess he inherited.
The moral worth and empirical success of a historical figure cannot be determined by measuring how much farther in the right direction mankind has gone (or thinks it has gone) in the decades or centuries since that figure’s life. Rather, it must be measured by how far that person moved things in the right direction from where he started. And by that measure, Jefferson deserves much better than he’s getting today.
Fortunately, Monticello’s website is far fairer to Jefferson’s record on slavery than its exhibits and tour guides appear to be. It details many of his manifold, lifelong efforts to find ways to eliminate slavery. It fails to note that his first draft of the Declaration of Independence contained an open attack on slavery — an attack that Jefferson was sorry that other members of the Continental Congress removed. It also notes that Jefferson was the original drafter of the part of the Northwest Ordinance that forbade slavery’s spread into new U.S. territories.
Most importantly, the declaration’s heartfelt and eloquent assertion of equal rights endowed by a creator, combined with Jefferson’s subsequent five decades of struggle to expand an “empire of liberty,” provided what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “promissory note.” Abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that Jefferson and his fellow founders were “truly great men … patriots and heroes. … Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense.”
In short, Jefferson materially aided the cause of slavery’s demise.
Finally, for all who are not too blinkered and obsessed with racial issues to see, Jefferson’s legacy is not, and never should be, defined by the single issue of slavery.
He wrote the declaration. He served ably as an envoy in Europe. He advanced the New World’s appreciation of great art and architecture. He advanced agricultural knowledge, invented numerous devices of great utility, founded a great university, established the Library of Congress, commissioned one of history’s greatest geographic and scientific exploratory land expeditions, and, as president, more than doubled the size of a new nation intended to spread freedom as far as humanly possible.
Sure, Jefferson was self-indulgent, Machiavellian, and unable or not courageous enough to live up to his stated principles on slavery. Still, he was no moral monster; he was a marvel for his time and place. The scale of worthiness, of historical effects of his life, weighs overwhelmingly in his favor.
And, no less, in favor of this nation he helped found, which has done more to redeem his promissory note of freedom and justice than any other sovereign people along history’s long arc.