DeMarco: Reconsidering Thomas Jefferson

The Op-Ed Page


A version of this column appeared in the July 21st edition of the Florence Morning News.

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

Reconsidering learned history is difficult. As we are educated, most of us create a world view that portrays the tribe with which we identify in a positive light. For most of America’s existence, schoolchildren have been taught a story favorable to whites. This narrative persists and tends to harden in adulthood.

As I wrote about in a previous post, I continue to learn that my formal and informal education about my country’s and world’s history has been skewed in my favor. This relearning has been particularly difficult with one of my heroes, Thomas Jefferson.

I am a proud class of 1985 graduate of the University of Virginia. More than most universities, UVa reflects the personality of its founder. As I walked the Lawn, I had a window into Jefferson’s expansive mind. I saw him at the drawing board at Monticello, poring over competing designs for his “academical village.”  I was grateful to be one of thousands of students he had inspired. I spent four years at the university in awe of Jefferson’s creativity, intellect, and eloquence.Jefferson

Although I knew he owned enslaved people, I never grappled with the awful reality of what that meant. Despite my four-year sojourn at UVa, I emerged with a child’s understanding of Jefferson. He was an icon, as near to a perfect American as there would ever be. This is partly my own fault; somehow I managed to graduate from UVa without taking any history courses.

One of the things I did learn about Jefferson while at his university was his epitaph. His gravestone is engraved with the following: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” He was so accomplished that his two terms of president of the United States did not make the cut.

After I graduated, when rumors of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman whom he owned, gradually bubbled into the press, I was skeptical. This information did not fit with the nearly faultless image I had fashioned for him. I was of the same mind as Dumas Malone who wrote an exhaustive six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time. Malone opined in the fourth volume that the accusations related to Hemings were “distinctly out of character, being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson’s moral standards and habitual conduct,” and I agreed.

However, in 1998 DNA evidence revealed that Jefferson could have been the father of one or more of Hemings’ six children. To be clear, the evidence is not definitive and there remains a group of scholars who argue strongly that it was another Jefferson relative (his younger brother, Randolph, seems the most likely candidate).

What is known is that Sally Hemings (who was 30 years younger than Thomas Jefferson) was herself the child of Jefferson’s father-in-law and an enslaved woman, Elizabeth Hemings. This made Sally Hemings half-sister to Jefferson’s wife, Martha.

I struggled with the fact that the possibility Jefferson could have been like many of the slave masters of his era who fathered children by their enslaved workers had never occurred to me (or was communicated to me) during my years at UVA. Despite seeing statues of Jefferson on the grounds almost every day, multiple visits to Monticello, and hours of reading, I had not fully reckoned with who Jefferson was. I saw what I wanted to see.

Irrespective of whether Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children, my subsequent reading forced a deeper examination of the sharp contrast between Jefferson’s exalted words and his actions. Although he did make strong statements condemning slavery throughout his life, he was closely involved in the management and disciplining of the enslaved workers at Monticello. He, like many planters, would have been destitute without them. A nailery at Monticello, which ran mainly on the labors of 10- to 16-year-old boys, was critical to the economic stability of the plantation. The overseers occasionally whipped the children to ensure a sufficient output of nails, a practice about which Jefferson was fully aware. He also recognized the investment potential of enslaved people and calculated that “he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.”

It was unsettling to have my comfortable images of Jefferson transformed in such a disfiguring way. It highlighted for me the fact that when Jefferson wrote the words “All men are created equal,” he was writing about people like himself, white male landowners: not women, not people of color, nor even white men who did not own property. Certainly not Hemings.

I’ve been included in Jefferson’s vision since he penned it over two centuries ago. I have had to fight for none of my rights. My freedom, my ability to live where I wanted, to be educated where I chose, to compete for any job, to expect only respectful deference from the police or any other representatives of government has been guaranteed since the founding of the republic. Not so for so many others.

Seeing our nation for what it really is – both great and deeply flawed, like Jefferson himself – will allow us to better understand and support those for whom the American dream remains unrealized.

Dr. DeMarco is a physician who lives in Marion, and a long-time reader of this blog.

17 thoughts on “DeMarco: Reconsidering Thomas Jefferson

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Again, Paul’s view is not my own. Not because he and I have significantly different values or anything. But we have very different experiences.

    Basically, this paragraph describes the difference most starkly:

    Although I knew he owned enslaved people, I never grappled with the awful reality of what that meant. Despite my four-year sojourn at UVa, I emerged with a child’s understanding of Jefferson. He was an icon, as near to a perfect American as there would ever be. This is partly my own fault; somehow I managed to graduate from UVa without taking any history courses….

    And I suppose the crux is in that last sentence. Paul is a smart guy, and a well-educated guy. I have great respect for him. But the fact that he got through UVA without taking a single history course is a pretty shocking commentary on higher education as experienced by too many of us.

    Oh, there are holes in my own college education. I didn’t take a single math course, for instance. That’s because I tested out of it, which wasn’t hard to do for a kid who got as far as pre-calculus in high school.

    But I find it shocking that our society considers those math skills (which I learned, which is why I tested out of taking any more in college) critical, but will allow a smart kid to get through without having any realistic grasp of the foundations of the society in which he or she lives.

    None of those things that came as shocks to Paul — Jefferson’s involvement with Sally Hemings, for instance — were in any way surprising to me. I absorbed those things so long ago that I don’t remember learning them. No, we didn’t have the DNA evidence when I was in school, but did anyone who studied the mud-slinging campaign of 1800 really need that to have a non-hagiographic view of the lord of Monticello?

    Anyway, as a consequence, I’ve pretty much had the view of Jefferson that Paul has now ever since I was a kid. He was a remarkable person with talents that helped launch this magnificent country at the outset, and I respect him for those and other things. But I’ve also always seen him as something of a political and scientific dilettante who was able to keep his remarkable mind entertained by dabbling because why? Because he was a wealthy man whose wealth, comfort and free time were all provided by the labor of slaves. (And no, I don’t dress it up with that language that is currently in vogue — “enslaved people.” I call it what it was, and don’t need extra words to remind myself that slaves were people.)

    Consequently, Jefferson has never been my favorite Founder. That goes to the irascible, irritating, pain-in-the-arse John Adams — a man who had to go out and earn a living for his family while he was risking all to start this republic.

    It’s not that I despise Jefferson. I give credit where due. But then, I tend to see historical figures as full, three-dimensional human beings — not as “good guys” or “bad guys.”

    People are complicated. And if you don’t get that from studying history, you’re not reading it right…

    1. Ken

      Rather misses the point of DeMarco’s piece – contained in the last line. It’s less about Jefferson than it is Jefferson as one example of the inherent flaws in America’s past and in how we read that past. Here I think an observation from Adam Michnik serves as a good guide (simply substitute “American” for “Polish/Pole”):

      “’He who is ashamed of Polish sins is a Pole.’ This radical assertion makes conscience the foundation of identity, and patriotism is hollow without conscience, too. Patriotism often invokes honor; honor requires conscience; and conscience entails the possibility of shame. If the only permissible emotion is pride, then patriotism is merely chauvinism. Love for one’s country may be all the stronger for being troubled, and the country may be the stronger for that kind of love.”

      Recognizing the flaws in our national past and collective character is merely the starting point. Fully exercising the conscience Michnik speaks of involves acting with that understanding in mind.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, to elaborate on this point:

      It’s not that I despise Jefferson. I give credit where due….

      I view him sort of the way Adams did. Adams had done all the hard work of getting the Congress to decide upon independence — strenuously pushing it in day after day of difficult debate. All that time, Jefferson had not said a word.

      But then, when Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and two others were appointed to a committee to WRITE the declaration, Adams pushed for Jefferson to put the words together. Why? Because he knew Jefferson’s talents lay in that direction.

      Each of them brought what gifts he had to the process of creating the country. And having different talents didn’t make either of them a black-and-white “good guy” or “bad guy”…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I just ran across an excerpt from a letter in which Adams described how that happened:

        Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.’

        He really had both himself, and Jefferson, pegged…

        1. James Edward Cross

          Have you not seen *1776*? There’s a whole song about that and they use Adams’ letter as the basis. *1776* does a decent job of getting most of the history behind the Declaration right.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I saw it long, LONG ago, but I probably ought to watch it again sometime…

            The thing about Adams choosing Jefferson to write the Declaration has always been one of my fave facts to know from that period of our history. It’s just so powerfully ironic.

            Although they famously made up at the very ends of their lives (before they both died on the 50th anniversary of the 4th of July), I’ve always thought that a LOT of the bitterness between them over the years came from Adams resented how Jefferson was revered for that one thing he did — and it’s something Adams talked him into doing…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Jefferson is not a man of our time but of his own. He was formed by the historical realities of the 18th and 19th centuries. The mortal Jefferson was subject to the same desires, prejudices, emotions (pride, love, ambition, hope) that drive all human beings in that context.

    He defined human rights for a new age, with his eternal sentiment “all men are created equal” which we through the ages have refined and expanded to include women and all people of color, race, and creed.

    Jefferson speaks to the American psyche because the ideas that consumed him are still with us today: liberty and power, rights and responsibilities, war and peace. He was a philosopher, a politician, a legislator, and a diplomat. He was versatile and a great man. However, he was also a man with flaws and failures. He was not all he could be, but no human being ever is.

    With Washington we have awe for his accomplishments. With Adams, we have respect for his accomplishments. Jefferson is different. His versatility (for instance, his grace, hospitality and light touch in diplomacy compared to his love for the thrust and cut of raw politics behind the scenes) makes him hard to characterize, but most great men are contradictions.

    Due to his contradictory nature, Jefferson is claimed by many different groups. Civil War secessionists found Jefferson to be a hero. New Deal era progressives like FDR and Truman believed that Jefferson was the embodiment of the best parts of American popular government.

    Just before the Civil War broke out, Lincoln used Jefferson as a link to the cause of freedom when he wrote “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded…Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God, cannot long retain it.”

    Isn’t that amazing? Lincoln holds up Jefferson (a slave owner) as the emblem of liberty not just for white men, but for blacks. In Lincoln’s view, the core of the Jeffersonian vision was at the time of the revolution Jefferson introduced an abstract truth, applicable to all people, for all times. And it works. But it’s complicated and contradictory.

    Jefferson also built a political party, which was a very practical act. FDR once said of Jefferson: “When people carelessly or snobbishly deride political parties they overlook the fact that the party system of Government is one of our greatest methods of unification and of teaching people think in common terms of our civilization.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Also, and I stand ready to be corrected on this (it’s been awhile since I’ve read in detail about the origins of the Democratic-Republicans), did Jefferson really build the party? Wasn’t it more Madison who built the party around Jefferson, while Jefferson stayed above the fray?

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Yes, there is truth to that. Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State on New Year’s Eve of 1793, and Washington accepted it on the first day of 1794.

          Jefferson returned home to Monticello, leaving the politics of Philadelphia behind. However, few people believed he was permanently retiring from public life. John Adams knew as much, noting the marvel of “how well political plants grow in the shade”. This was at the strained time between Adams and Jefferson, with Adams saying also of Jefferson, in a letter to Abigale on January 6, 1794 “He [Jefferson] has talents I know, and integrity I believe; but his mind is now poisoned with passion, prejudice, and faction.”

          In a nautical metaphor Jefferson wrote of his retirement to Horatio Gates: “In storms like those all hands must be aloft. But calm is now restored, and I leave the bark with joy to those who love the sea. I am but a landsman, forced from my element by accident, regaining it with transport, and wishing to recollect nothing of what I have seen, but my friendships.”

          Jefferson followed the politics closely from Monticello where he was kept informed and corresponded with many, including James Madison. Jefferson knew that men did not seek office at the time, merely letting it be known they would reluctantly accept if elected. He also knew the country had summoned Washington from his retirement to be the first president, and he had a good reason to believe that America might return to call forth another retired Virginian again.

          He was very close to being right. In February of 1797, Adams carried the vote 71 to Jefferson’s 68.

          So while the day-to-day work of building the Democratic Republican part in opposition to the Adams/Hamilton Federalists was done by others, it is certain that work was done with Jefferson’s blessing in a publicly tacit, but privately explicit manner. Returning to Jefferson’s imagery of ships and storms, the years of Adams’ presidency were certainly no time in which one would covet the Captain’s place on the quarterdeck.

  3. Ken

    Jefferson is, in the words of historian Joseph Ellis, an American sphinx, the embodiment of our aggregate inconsistencies. But as another historian, Merrill Peterson, demonstrated back in 1960, Jefferson cannot be held to account for everything others have made of him:

    He has been reconfigured numerous times in service to multiple causes and interests. I’ve visited Monticello five times because I find Jefferson fascinating owing to both his accomplishments as well as his contradictions. Our ongoing re-interpretation of him is reflected in how that site has sought over the years to change how it portrays and explains him and in so doing reflects the evolution in our understanding of our collective past.

  4. Kathleen

    Thank you everyone for an interesting discussion among intelligent people with a good understanding of history. Like Brad I managed to evade the math requirement and I also took the easiest of the courses available to meet the science requirement. English, Western Civilization, US History, US Government, and at least one foreign language, not to mention Physical Education, took up most undergraduates first two years at most colleges and universities when I was a student. Even liberal arts schools seem to have eliminated or, in my opinion, watered down what were once considered basic degree requirements. Ken’s quote from Adam Michnik would be appropriate for most, if not all, history classes.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I had to smile at this part: “I also took the easiest of the courses available to meet the science requirement.”

      Yeah, me, too.

      As I was nearing graduation, I realized I had to take two science courses to graduate. I enjoyed one of them — geology. All I remember about it is learning to identify rocks. I wish I had retained more of it. About all I still have left is when I see something that looks like pink granite, I point to it and say, “potassium feldspar!” I do this in a vain attempt to impress someone.

      It was fun, and very, very easy. But not as easy as the OTHER science course I took.

      I forget the formal name of the course, but it was known as “football physics” — basically, the kind of course created for athletes on scholarship to get an easy, good grade in.

      I took a look at it and quickly saw it was basically the same course as the one called “physical science” that I’d taken in Bennettsville back in the 9th grade.

      I made a request to be allowed to simply take the final exam and get credit based on that. This got me an interview with the head of the department. I think he was insulted by my attitude, so he said no, but offered me this compromise: If I took the first semester of the course and got an A, he’d let me take the final for the second semester, without having to sit through the class.

      So I did. I remember one thing about the experience. I think I’ve told this story here before, but here it goes again…

      The class was in one of those huge lecture halls that rose toward the back, like stadium seating (appropriate for “football physics,” right?). Anyway, the instructor — probably a graduate student, but I don’t recall, exactly — was explaining that if you fired a cannonball on a trajectory that was parallel to the ground, however far it went, it would hit the ground at the same time as another cannonball simply dropped from the same height.

      It’s one of those things that might seem counterintuitive to someone who’s never actually thought about it, but logical if you think about it for a second.

      Someone was too impatient to do that. A male voice from the very height of the back of the hall immediately cried out in protest: “No WAY!!!”

      I like to think that guy was one of the actual football players, but really I have no idea.

      Anyway, I sat through the course and with minimal effort got an A. So they let me take the exam for the second semester. I prepared by skimming through the text over a weekend, and got an A in that, too.

      It sounds like I’m bragging, but if you read that textbook yourself and saw how very simple the course was, you’d know I’m not…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        We had a geology class at W&L that was apparently very easy, so it’s nickname was “rocks for jocks”.

    2. Norm Ivey

      Agreed, Kathleen. The main reason I follow this blog is that I enjoy the discussions of people who understand better and think more deeply about these types of topics than I do.

      As a Humanities candidate, I only had one math course–calculus. It was easy, but only because I had a remarkable professor–a moonlighting high school teacher. I had a couple of science classes, the easiest being a self-paced astronomy course that was designed for minimal effort on the professor’s part. In hindsight, that course was a disservice to the students.

      Also in hindsight, I probably should have taken a science path through university. I’m better at teaching science than ELA (and enjoy it more).

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I, too, find that my friends here are often much smarter about things than I.

        For instance, I — who have always earned my living based on my abilities in using the English language — had to look up “ELA” to see what it was.

        Once I did, of course, I was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of that.” I just didn’t know it by initials…


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