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Americans used to put Jefferson on a pedestal as the primary creator of our democracy. Now his statues attract controversy and graffiti, which cast him as a racist and even rapist.

This denunciation troubles many, who worry that we will lose sight of his great accomplishments in leading a revolution and our nation—and in founding this university.

No leader of the revolutionary generation now engenders fiercer controversy and more polarized reactions. We seem conscripted to choose between seeing Jefferson as a hero or villain, with little room for the intervening ambiguity and complexity of humanity. That polarization pulls us from trying to understand how and why he became, other than George Washington, the most powerful and influential American of his time. Understanding differs from condoning or condemning.

As Hollywood has long known, Americans prefer melodramas that sort people into the good and the evil. So, we treat Jefferson as an icon of our unresolved prejudices and inequalities, which trace to slavery. As that burden becomes conspicuous in our national understanding, partisans wish to cast Jefferson as either an antislavery hero or a proslavery villain. In fact, he was both and neither.

Contradiction

Contradiction lay at the heart of the democracy that he helped create, one based on the consent of citizens. In his lifetime, Virginia’s citizens were white men, and many of them legally owned people of color. Committed to serving the will of citizens, Jefferson defended their (and his) right to practice slavery even while he criticized the system in principle.

Jefferson knew that slavery debased masters as it exploited enslaved people. He feared that masters became brutal and passionate. In his famous book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” He later described his countrymen as “zealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of others.” Recalling the revolution against British rule, he marveled that a Virginian could “inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”

Jefferson worried that enslaved people would revolt and destroy Virginia. On some night, a simmering plot might suddenly erupt into bloody retribution. Jefferson expected that God would help rebels crush their oppressors. “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. … The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” To avert destruction, Virginia’s masters needed to free themselves from slavery.

If we simply condemn Jefferson, we feel virtuous and on the right side of history. But that is too easy on us.

Jefferson regarded emancipation as necessary but insufficient to liberate whites from danger. Despite declaring all men created equal, in Notes on the State of Virginia, he notoriously described black people as “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Forsaking his usual optimism about human progress, Jefferson denied that people of different races could learn to live together as equals. He insisted that emancipated slaves would seek revenge, producing bloody “convulsions,” culminating “in the extermination of the one or the other race.” He likened slavery to possessing a dangerous beast: “We have the wolf by the ear and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

In 1779, Jefferson drafted a plan to emancipate Virginia’s slaves gradually, over the course of two generations, but he also proposed deporting them all to a distant colony in Africa or the West Indies. This colonization scheme was prohibitively expensive and economically ruinous for white Virginians, who relied on coerced labor and balked at paying higher taxes. The state lacked the means to finance and manage the overseas colonization of thousands of people. If adopted, Jefferson’s scheme would have annually cost Virginia at least five times its revenue, and a fivefold increase in taxation was unthinkable. After sounding out leading legislators, and finding them horrified, Jefferson withheld his emancipation plan, which survived  in the pages of Notes on the State of Virginia. Throughout his long public career, Jefferson had a powerful aversion to public controversy and political defeat, which inhibited his championing any unpopular cause. Jefferson concluded that if African Americans could not be deported, they had better remain slaves.

His self-interest also led him to cling to slavery. Jefferson relied on the labor of more than 150 enslaved people to sustain his genteel standard of living and permit him the luxury of political leadership. He also wanted to provide generous inheritances to two daughters and a dozen grandchildren (in his legitimate, white line). His dependence on enslaved labor intensified as his debts mounted and his family grew.

Jefferson kept an enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings, who bore him six children. His friend John Hartwell Cocke reported that Virginia’s mixed-race people “would be found by hundreds. Nor is it to be wondered at, when Mr. Jefferson’s notorious example is considered.”

After Jefferson’s wife died in 1782, he never remarried, keeping a vow made to her to protect the inheritance of their white daughters from a stepmother and additional white children.  Instead, Jefferson relied on an enslaved woman and denied legal responsibility for her children. As the daughter of an enslaved woman and Jefferson’s father-in-law, Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late and beloved wife.

Delayed Solution

Although opposed to national interference in Southern slavery, Jefferson hoped that Virginia’s state government would revive his emancipation and colonization plan. He believed that passing time favored abolition as young liberals grew up to replace old conservatives among Virginia’s leaders. Black freedom would only come, he argued, “by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors.” During the 1780s, Jefferson meant to work down from the top of society, beginning with young men attending the state’s leading college, William and Mary. He explained, “It is to them I look, to the rising generation, and not to the one now in power for these great reformations.” By treating the ruling generation as hopeless, Jefferson exempted himself from acting against slavery, save for encouraging younger men to do so.

To promote antislavery sentiment at William and Mary, in 1787 Jefferson donated  37 copies of his Notes on the State of Virginia to two key friends on the faculty who held antislavery views. George Wythe served as the professor of law and James Madison (a cousin of the more famous James Madison) was the college president. Jefferson asked them to provide copies to the most promising and idealistic students, who included Edward Coles, a young man from Jefferson’s home county, Albemarle.

Alan Taylor
Alan Taylor, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, holds the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chair at the University of Virginia. Dan Addison

Coles believed in the inspiring words of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. After hearing  Madison lecture on the universal rights of man, Coles asked, “If this be true, how can you hold a slave? How can man be made the property of man?” In an embarrassed reply, Madison admitted that slavery “could not be justified on principle, & could only be tolerated in our Country” by “the difficulty of getting rid of it.” Not satisfied, Coles responded that “we could get rid of them with much less difficulty than we did the King of our forefathers,” and if Madison “could not reconcile Slavery with his principles, … he ought not to hold Slaves.” Coles concluded, “I could not consent to hold as property what I had no right to.”

His father’s will put Coles’ conscience to the test, for he inherited a farm and twenty slaves. His siblings pressured Coles to abandon his vow to emancipate. They worried that freeing some family slaves would lead the rest to resent and resist their lot. The siblings also cited  a new state law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within the year. While falling quiet about his plans, Coles investigated land in Illinois, a free territory, as a haven to relocate freed slaves. He knew that he would have to leave behind “all my relations and friends.”

Before leaving, Coles made one last effort to persuade Jefferson to lead a public crusade against slavery. Writing to his hero in July 1814, Coles urged him to act consistently with “the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life … in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man.”

In a tortured reply written in August 1814, Jefferson regretted that Virginians had failed to free the enslaved. “The love of justice & the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a mortal reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness to relieve them & ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation.” He declared that Coles offered a “solitary but welcome voice.”

Rather than rally to that voice, however, Jefferson claimed that he had grown too old to influence anyone. “This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man.” Yet, Jefferson was still young enough to push for creating a new university for Virginia. He was capable of far more than prayer to promote the priority of his last years.

Jefferson urged Coles to remain in Virginia as a paternalistic master.  Coles had a duty, Jefferson argued, to cling to his slaves and “your country,” meaning Virginia. Then he could “come forward in the public councils,” to “insinuate & inculcate” emancipation “softly but steadily, thro’ the medium of writing & conversation, associate others in your labours, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on & press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.”

In sum, he wanted Coles to adopt Jefferson’s ameliorating mastery and cautious politics, waiting on an uncertain future to act more decisively.

Discouraged by Jefferson’s response, Coles considered emancipation a lost cause in Virginia. In 1819, he moved to Illinois with his slaves, whom he freed and granted 160 acres to each family. Elected governor of the new state, he helped defeat an effort to legalize slavery in Illinois.

Coles’ victory ensured that, during the 1860s, Illinois would rally to the cause of Union and antislavery in the Civil War that violently destroyed slavery in Virginia. That result would have pained Jefferson, had he lived to see it, for he wanted Virginians to abolish slavery voluntarily, peacefully and on their own timetable. And he also urged them to whiten Virginia by shipping away all former slaves.

Judging

Most modern readers identify with Coles rather than Jefferson. We like to think that we, too, would put moral consistency ahead of caution and self-interest. It is fair to wish that Jefferson had done far more, openly and consistently, to speak, write and act against a system whose evils he knew. There was no one more influential to lead an antislavery crusade. But he felt inhibited by his own interests, those of his heirs, and especially by the will of Virginia’s white, male citizens.

We also should recall the rarity of Coles’ sacrifice in favor of principle. How many people like him do we have today? We sustain our own racial, political and environmental woes that collectively threaten the existence of future generations. If we simply condemn  Jefferson, we feel virtuous and on the right side of history. But that is too easy on us, for it does too little to advance justice in our time.

The University of Virginia is celebrating its bicentennial. Such celebration tends to cast Jefferson as a noble founder and to seek a direct line from his precepts to the best qualities of the University today. But a historian wants to understand the very different context of 200 years ago, when Virginians created a university to defend a way of life that included slavery. Many twists and turns separate Jefferson’s University from today’s version, which has become far larger, more complex and cosmopolitan. During the past 60 years, the University made new commitments to diversity and equal opportunity, including the long overdue admission of women and African Americans. There is more to celebrate in what the University has become than in how it began. But this university and the United States do benefit from cherished parts of Jefferson’s legacy, including the pursuit of democracy, a devotion to rational inquiry and a determination to pursue truth wherever it leads. If that pursuit leads us to conclude that he fell short, the burden falls on us to do better.

Alan Taylor, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, holds the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chair at the University of Virginia. This essay draws from his forthcoming book, Thomas Jefferson’s Education: Making a University in Virginia.