Pictured above: Isaac Granger Jefferson, in 1847. Jefferson purchased his entire family in 1773 when Isaac was a child. He became a blacksmith while enslaved at Monticello and lived long enough to experience life as a free man. His memories of life at Monticello were recorded.
He was a strict Constitutionalist who knowingly violated the U.S. Constitution for a pretty good land deal.
He was a fiscal conservative who was so reckless with his own money he was forced to sell his private library – one of the finest and most comprehensive in the new world.
While claiming to cherish and respect Native Americans, he fathered policies that all but ensured their systematic annihilation.
He gave us the words “all men are created equal” yet in the latter part of his life consistently and unceasingly supported, expanded, and defended a system where one man was lawfully able to own another.
For sure, Thomas Jefferson was a shocking hypocrite. Without a doubt he espoused principles that he clearly did not mean or intend to live by.
On the other hand, our third President left us incalculable gifts. He scribed one of the greatest documents ever written, he was a key architect of our nation’s charter document and through the force of his own will ensured our nation was founded with a Bill of Rights – ten amendments that have not only stood the test of time after 200 years, but have inspired scores of nations to follow suit. He gave us the nation’s first secular university, championed public education, stood for religious liberty even as he took religion out of government, and the list goes on and on.
So which is it?
Is Thomas Jefferson to be reviled for his hypocrisy or admired for helping form this nation and usher in enlightenment thinking to the new world?
We cannot truly understand our own history if we simply accept one highly simplified storyline. We fool ourselves if we ascribe to the notion that our founding fathers were either evil, racist, sexist demagogues or were heavenly beings that could do no wrong.
Thomas Jefferson is among the most complex leaders our nation has ever had. And there are things to both admire deeply and condemn unequivocally about this man.
And that is the point that should drive today’s political conversations. Too often – in our polarized political culture – it is as if we either have to glorify the success of our founding generation OR criticize their tragic and costly failures. We must do both. We must wholeheartedly embrace the unique gifts of our founding ideas and confront the continuing repercussions of the institution of slavery.
It is too easy for us to put others – especially those who stand in disagreement with us – into a convenient easy-to-understand box. Good or evil. Black or white. Liberal or conservative. X or Y. But in doing that, we lose an opportunity to learn from each other – from our insights and equally from our failure to live to our own standards; from our brilliance and from our feet of clay.
In this environment where we blindly elevate “us” and dismissively demonize “them,” it feels freeing to agree that whatever else separates us, we are all more human than not. We have that in common with each other and with Mr. Jefferson – and it is a starting place worth embracing. This is also the starting place of America, where Jefferson’s generation made concrete an idea, with its checks and balances, to secure freedom and self-government of, by, and for flawed hypocrites like himself – and if we are to be honest, like us too.
We think today’s civic conversation – on the heels of tragic deaths of young black men in communities across America – should embrace both our founding ideals through Mr. Jefferson and the legacy of America’s Original Sin – a sin committed by Jefferson, his generation and an agonizing number that followed, and at incalculable cost to their fellow human beings and to our fellow citizens, still today. We hope that by doing so that we are striving to perfect the idea of America that Jefferson first imagined so brilliantly, yet failed so miserably in living out: All men are created equal.
We can think of no better way to unequivocally and forever claim the generational gift of a democratic voice for all colors of American citizens.
Learn about our companion project to The Jefferson Dinner – the Book Club on Race.