Thomas Jefferson was a man of the greatest moral character who has been excoriated routinely over the last 30 years by historical revisionists and presentists. His commitment to America and his vast contributions to the framing of society as it is today are overlooked in favor of base analysis of his character that, while not flawless, is that of a morally upright person who has deeply held convictions and lives by them.
Jefferson was born to a prominent family of Virginia tobacco growers. Plantation life is based largely around the work of slaves, so Jefferson was surrounded by them from the time of his birth in 1743 until the day he died. One of the harshest criticisms of Jefferson comes from the fact that, while he vehemently opposed slavery, was indeed a slave owner himself. As historian Douglas L. Wilson points out in his Atlantic Monthly article “Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue”, the question should be reversed:
“…This was of asking the question… is essentially backward, and reflects the pervasive presentism of our time. Consider, for example, how different the question appears when inverted and framed in more historical terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished?” (Wilson 66).
Wilson also argues that Jefferson knew that his slaves would be better off working for him than freed in a world where they would be treated with contempt and not given any real freedoms.
Another way that Thomas Jefferson shows his moral character is in his most famous achievement, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. This document is probably the most important document in the history of the United States, and one of the most important in the history of the world. Jefferson writes that “all men are created equal” and argues that every man has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson’s document shows not only his strongly held beliefs in freedom, but his acceptance of and belief in the views of the Age of Reason. He believed himself to be a person who was doing what was morally right, not for the fame that would eventually accompany it. In fact, he didn’t want to write the Declaration to begin with. In 1776, the song “Not Me, John” shows how Jefferson was pushed into doing it, despite the fact that he would have actually rather gone home to see his wife. When nobody else would do it, he acquiesced and agreed to write it. His quote, “What will posterity think we were-demigods? We’re men-no more, no less” (1776), shows how as a contemporary of such philosophical greats as Voltaire and Mill, he did what he did because it was what needed to happen-not in any way, shape, or form because he wanted to be remembered as a demigod, a status he actually had anyway, according to Wilson, until the 1960’s.
Another thing that Jefferson’s character is criticized for and blown out of proportion is his liaison with a slave, Sally Hemings. Historian Fawn Brodie argues that it was “not scandalous debauchery with an innocent slave victim, but rather a serious passion that brought Jefferson and the slave woman much happiness over a period lasting thirty-eight years.” True, their affair started when she was only 14 years old, but to criticize this is terribly presentistic. In colonial times, especially in the middle and southern colonies, girls were married off between the ages of 13 and 16; it was not considered defilement and abuse like it is today. In fact, his relationship with Hemings could actually be considered to be a positive thing for him on two fronts: Since she was 52 when he died, Jefferson obviously did not lust after her solely on a physical basis; also, he promised his wife when she died that he would not remarry. He fulfilled his promise only because he found a woman to love whom he was not expected, indeed not allowed, to marry. This is a weak front on which to criticize Jefferson.
Given Jefferson’s contributions to American society, it is almost impossible to find him to be morally weak and coarse. Those who do are presentists, cynics, and nay-sayers who are simply looking for a way to criticize one of the greatest Americans who has ever lived.