Since you’ve insisted, I will admit it to you: I really dislike Thomas Jefferson. In fact, I dislike him personally and profoundly, almost violently – I try not to dwell on my feelings in public, lest I become agitated and make a spectacle of myself, but the truth is, if I think about him for too long at a stretch, I will end ranting and cursing, even to myself.
There are many good reasons to dislike Thomas Jefferson: you might loathe the American farmer. You might have sided strongly with Alexander Hamilton. You might date the decline in American culture to the introduction of the dumbwaiter to the continent. You might be a banker.
I hate him because he was an accomplished hypocrite, and I believe that his moral janus-face helped lodge something poisonous at the heart of the American story.
I’m not talking about slavery. Well, I am, but I’m not. Slavery was disgusting – obviously, the decision of the founding fathers to allow the practice to continue in their new nation was despicable.
But the problem with Jefferson, in particular, is subtler: more than any other founding father (with the possible exception of George Washington), we identify with Jefferson our particularly American virtues. He was, after all, the author of our most exalted sentence:
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.
It’s magnificent – it fills Americans with patriotic feeling. It expresses the quality about which we are most proud. For this reason, we have always cherished Thomas Jefferson, as though he embodied in his person, and not merely in his words, our best self.
But, of course, he didn’t. Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. It’s all well and good to crow about universal human rights, but when you go home and rape the humans you own, you should have no claim on the affections of any nation which prizes those rights.
We ought to have repudiated Jefferson when we repudiated slavery, but we didn’t: we tried to keep the man while ignoring the slave owner, and I don’t think we can do that.
Slavery, the keeping of people in bondage, is an unpardonable crime – why do we pardon it for the sake of our founders? Jefferson gives us no reason to forgive him – he did not even manumit his slaves after his death, like Washington, despite recognizing that the institution was morally repugnant.
He also cannot take refuge in his age – many of Jefferson’s contemporaries realized that slavery was evil and acted accordingly, including Benjamin Franklin and the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton. And even if his peers had not seen their way to moral clarity on the issue of slavery, I don’t believe we would be unreasonable in nurturing higher hopes for Jefferson than for other men: he was, after all, the author of our guiding moral statement.
And Jefferson did realize that slavery was an immoral institution. He even took steps to limit its spread in the new world; he just stopped short of implementing measures which would have personally diminished him, and that is evil. A man who looked at black Americans and failed to see the crimes being committed against them would be morally, fatally, blind; a man who saw, but would not act for love of profit, should be damned by history.
If we are to grapple properly with slavery, we need to stop excusing the men who committed it. We don’t allow other nations to excuse their own crimes against humanity, or the men who commit them. Jefferson wasn’t merely a slave owner – he was a head of state, a powerful man who’s interventions helped perpetuate the institution.
We would not forgive the Germans if they exalted a Nazi statesman because he was the author of some beautiful words, enshrined his image on their currency, named towns and roads and hospitals after him. The ownership of a race, the complete refusal to admit its humanity, is not less evil than its extermination. We should not pretend that Jefferson is anything less than a monster.
It shouldn’t shock anyone that a nation which persists in revering Thomas Jefferson would, in 2016, essentially allow police to shoot black men without reason or repercussion. If we were, as a nation, serious about valuing black lives, we would not celebrate men who traded in them.