Copyright © 1997, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .

-- Thomas Jefferson

It's a pleasure to flip back through the pages of American history and read the words of its leaders. So much of their writing is simply gorgeous literature. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is elegant as a prélude. Franklin's aphorisms still float about us. Merriwether Lewis reported on his journey up the Missouri in a voice that's spare and direct and beautiful.

If only they were writing today! "Call the Nobel Committee! We've got another live one!" Ah, what they might say about current events! Their ideas would surely startle and provoke us, their words once again charming us with their beauty.

I'm serious: go back and reread the Gettysburg Address. It's quite short; takes about two minutes to read slowly out loud. Listen to the words. Then tell me you weren't moved.

For that matter, reread aloud the Declaration of Independence. (Please skip that long laundry list in the middle which cites all the things the King of England did to make the colonists cranky.) You will find yourself listening to a great and powerful mind - a genius, perhaps - whose words to this day inspire liberation movements worldwide. The Declaration must have come from the soul of a great man.

But wait a minute: what's this passage, that reads, "All men are created equal" ...? What about the women? And didn't Jefferson keep slaves? And didn't he fail to free them at his death? And then he sent Lewis and Clark out west to announce, to any Native Americans they found, that all were now under the control of Washington. No leader of today would have dared try any of those things. Something must have been wrong with Jefferson. He must have been - what else? - wicked.

This train of thought has become popular, of late, among historians and biographers. They hold Jefferson up to today's standards and find him sorely wanting. Well, doesn't that make sense? Isn't morality timeless? Don't its rules apply equally to cavemen and astronauts?

I've titled this article "Is Jefferson Wicked?" because Jefferson is alive today in our minds as a kind of grand myth, an icon of American values. That myth evolves over time. Now that the revisionists have adjudged him guilty, his myth - the part of him that lives on - stands culpable. We shake our heads in shock: he seems, like some recent President suddenly exposed, to have violated one after another of our own most important rules of conduct. Slavery! Chauvinism! Imperialism! How the mighty are fallen! How frightening, we cluck, that we once admired so contemptible a man.

But is it fair to treat Jefferson, a man born over 260 years ago, as if he were alive today? Is it fair to hold him up to our modern rules of conduct, rules which have evolved over centuries? Are our ethics so self-evident that any decent person, at any time in history, would have understood and practiced them? Or are we guilty, ourselves, of moral arrogance? (Am I asking leading questions, or what?)

The most basic tenet of any ethical system is that we should not harm others. Offhand, most people have no desire to cause pain to their neighbors. So where's the beef?

There are just two little things we need to cook, and then we'll be well done. They are:

Here's an example: God forbade the Jews to lend money at interest to each other (though outsiders were fair game). It's right there in the Old Testament. I looked it up: Leviticus 25:35-38. Along come the Christians, who didn't want to have any fun, and outlaw usury for everybody. Now the Jews are in an awkward spot because - by their lights - it's just dandy to loan money to the Goyim, but all these Christians - who can't play - resent the Jews for earning all that interest. So who's right? The Jews are obeying Mosaic law, while the Christians hark to a newer standard. Yet a strict Christian believes the Bible is the Word of God, and must be obeyed. Is Leviticus 25 just for Jews, then, or has Christianity updated the Bible's ethics?

Here's another example. Slavery is bad, correct? Let's go back and see what the Bible says about it... Well, I'll be! Leviticus 25 again. There are a lot of rules in that one chapter! (There's even a passel of stuff about real estate, but I'll annoy Realtors another time.) Leviticus 25:44 says (Today's English Version), "If you need slaves, you may buy them from the nations around you." It goes on to condone mere indentured servitude among fellow Jews (the distinction would seem laughable today), but who cares? We've got a full-blown moral crisis here! Slavery? Permitted? In the Bible?

I'm not about to advocate slavery. "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master," to quote another of our tortured icons. But either the Bible's moral system is wrong or its ethics have evolved over the centuries. I'm not sure which.

Now let's look at Jefferson's lapses, one at a time.

Yes, he did. In fact, nearly every landowner in those parts owned slaves. (Perhaps Jefferson thought he could "buy slaves from the nations around" him with moral impunity.) He might have freed his slaves, then promptly hired them as paid farmworkers. But he would have gone broke: everyone else insisted on keeping their costs down by using slaves, while he'd have been stuck with W-2 forms, job actions, OSHA inspections. Don't get me started.

As it happens, Jefferson was deeply troubled by the moral dilemma he faced: free the slaves and lose the farm (or at least his stature and political influence), or keep the slaves and perhaps lose his soul. Here he was, a champion of liberty and owner of humans! No doubt the irony was not lost on him. He often worried about the future of the Union on account of the slavery issue, and feared that there would be a reckoning. At least the man had a conscience: it nagged him.

Jefferson opted to keep the slaves and the farm. This gave him the wherwithal to win election to the Virginia Assembly. There he brought legislation, not once, but eleven times, to free the slaves. Each time he was defeated. Finally, he opted not to try the Assembly's patience further, lest he lose influence on other important matters. Now, this is a fellow you want to have influence: he stood for liberty, yeoman farmers, and respect for the environment - ideals that are politically correct to this day. Incidentally, he helped found what became the Democratic Party. His credentials are in order.

No, he did not. He couldn't! He didn't own them! Jefferson died broke; his creditors, out of respect, allowed him to live out his days at Monticello, then promptly kicked the remaining family off the premises.

He may well have been. As a scientist, he was interested in just about everything, and he tussled with whether blacks were somehow inferior to whites. Jefferson at one point seemed to come down on the side of inferiority. Perhaps he was trying to assuage his guilty conscience with a convenient theory. But many otherwise decent people shared his views. Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, sometimes disparaged blacks. Debates between abolitionists and slaveowners had more to do with common decency than IQ tests. (All right, there weren't any IQ tests back then. The point is the same.)

The best way to answer this charge against Jefferson is to suggest that, had he access to modern scientific data about human racial variation, he would most assuredly have agreed - as he so eloquently put it - "that all men are created equal."

Of course he was! Everybody was, back then.

In some sense, perhaps so. After all, he bought enough land west of the Mississippi to double the nation's size, then set about controlling its native inhabitants. But Jefferson expected that all future residents - native and imported - would live together in harmony. His deputy for Indian affairs, William Clark, soon found himself battling for Indian rights against the inroads of impatient white settlers. Partly for this reason he lost the election for governor of Missouri. The sentiments of Jefferson and his lieutenants seem to carry a high moral tone with respect to the Indians. It was for later generations to decide on the dreadful path we took.

A wicked man doesn't wrestle with his soul. A good man may commit wicked acts, but not willingly. Jefferson was torn between huge forces in his life, and his course - though it might seem callous today - was thought radical at the time. "You want to do what, Mister Jefferson? Free all the Negroes? Good heavens, have you gone mad? Are you suffering from heat prostration? Sit here, and my slave will get you a glass of water."

Our country has evolved to the point where the very idea of slavery is outlandish. When was the last time you thought about buying a few people to help around the house? But what we take for granted wasn't always so. Then, it was a parent's duty to spank the children; now it's considered child abuse. One decade it was wicked to drink alcohol; the next decade, alcohol was in, but marijuana was out. (Which way is it now? I forget.)

We may condemn Jefferson for his perceived lapses, but why throw stones? The future might not look kindly at us, either, with our guns and drugs and executions and huge prison populations and closed borders and land mines in Korea and nuclear dumps in Nevada and gambling on the Internet, and is pornography an act of love or violence? Again, I forget.

Meanwhile, Jefferson will probably outlive us all.


If you find any part of this work quoted without credit to the author, please let him know! Thank you.



But caveat auctor: Jim reserves the right to put your little screed on his Web site! (And he has no dignity about this, so be careful what you say...)




[Ed. note: this one seems to have a really old postmark.] The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. --Thomas Jefferson


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