Thomas Jefferson’s birthday was today.
It’s been said that our attitude toward Jefferson reflects how we feel about the country as a whole. If that’s the case, it’s a terrible sign for the country.
To say that history has not been kind to Jefferson would be an understatement on par with calling the sinking of the Titanic a “somewhat disappointing evening.” Historians have been performing the historical equivalent of drop-kicking Jefferson for decades now. Whenever I open the newspaper, I cringe, expecting a headline along the lines of, “Historians find Thomas Jefferson to be responsible for Swine Flu, rise of Nazism, rampages of wild bears through countryside, and all racist sentiments held by anyone at any time, including during the days of the ancient Romans.”
Yes, figures go in and out of vogue. But this is more than that. Jefferson is inextricably intertwined with our national self-love — or self-loathing. He embodies our nation’s early contradictions. He loved French wine and books, bankrupted himself on one and had to donate the other to form the Library of Congress. He praised small government and yeoman farmers, yet made the Louisiana Purchase from France when it was not even clearly within his authority to do so, launching America’s Manifest Destiny. And — most commented on, these days — he avowed freedom in ringing terms while owning slaves — and fathering children with some of them — himself.
Jefferson has sunk and sunk in our esteem until there’s almost nowhere else for him to go. Since they breathed their last breaths on July 4, 1826 — “Thomas Jefferson survives!” Adams erroneously proclaimed — Jefferson and John Adams have been wrestling for the verdict of posterity, and Adams has been triumphing in recent years. Paul Giamatti even portrayed him on an HBO special. The best Jefferson’s gotten was Sam Neill, and that was on CBS in a special called “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.”
Popularity once moved in cycles. But I doubt that Jefferson’s will rise anytime soon. Of all the top tweets for his birthday today, none referenced his accomplishments. Most of them were jokes about the Sally Hemings affair. “Happy birthday, Thomas Jefferson,” wrote TheTweetOfGod. “Thou wrote “All men are created equal,” then created six of them with a woman thou owned. Way to go TJ!”
Perhaps the reason people no longer mention Jefferson’s accomplishments is because they no longer know what they were. A survey conducted by the U.S. Mint in 2007 revealed that only 30 percent of those surveyed knew Jefferson was the third president. Only 57 percent knew that he had written the Declaration of Independence. At the rate our historical illiteracy is progressing, soon Thomas Jefferson will just be “that racist slave owner who slept with Sally Hemings and for some reason is on the nickel.”
There is little denying that Jefferson was a flawed man, that his support for slavery was deplorable, that much of his behavior was inexcusable. But this does not mean we should deny his legacy. His words were truer than he was able to make them in his own life. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”-- these words remained at the core of struggles for liberty, seized by speakers and writers from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. because they recognized their inherent power. Honoring Jefferson’s achievement does not mean denying that he was, by most measurements, a horrible man. Nor does acknowledging the flaws of his life mean denying that he was instrumental in creating something great.
And, hey, thanks for half the continental United States.