CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Sure, he wrote the Declaration of Independence and spent two terms in the White House as one of our greatest presidents and built this marvelous house on a mountaintop and founded a great university. But for Thomas Jefferson, there are still the character issues.
Was he a hypocrite? Self-indulgent? A deficit spender?
Did he take a slave, Sally Hemings, as his mistress? (Sally, they call her around here, as though she might walk in the door.)
Why, despite his public proclamations that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right of liberty, did Jefferson continue to own as many as 200 slaves? Why did he free only two in his lifetime and only five when he died?
"His ideas and words are wondrous," writes a dyspeptic professor, "his deeds banal at best, pathetic or cynical at worst."
What tough times these are for icons! Christopher Columbus was all but hung in effigy on the quincentenary of his epic voyage. Now, perhaps, it is Jefferson's turn. This spring will mark the 250th anniversary of his birth.
The first of the many commemorations ("celebration" is, again, in disfavor) has been going on for several days: The Jeffersonian scholars are swarming. They are here at the University of Virginia for a conference called "Jeffersonian Legacies." For the most part Jefferson has been lauded and praised; Jefferson scholars are hardly a spittle-spewing, stink-bomb-throwing bunch. But inevitably they have to deal with the not trivial problem of his attitudes toward blacks, women, Native Americans and just about anyone else who was not part of the white, male, property-owning elite. Indeed, the most anticipated event of the week occurs this morning, a seminar titled "Jefferson, Race and Slavery" that is not expected to add any luster to Jefferson's reputation.
"Among professional historians Jefferson's stock has sunk in the last generation, and it has a lot to do with race and slavery," says Peter Onuf, the conference organizer. He adds, however, "I'd like to get moving away from the old obsession with thumbs up, thumbs down, good man or bad."
But although the brain can handle ambiguity and complexity, the heart wants simplicity. Jefferson is not just a figure in the history books, he's right there on the nickel. A society that thinks in black-and-white can reduce anything to a choice of extremes: Hero or villain? Democrat or demon?
To judge from the first few days of the conference, Jefferson won't get the full Columbus treatment. Whatever Jefferson may have done in his private life, his words are his true legacy. The proclamation of unalienable rights and the equality of human beings has inspired African Americans, women, the disabled and innumerable excluded or downtrodden people. Just as Jefferson's emphasis on rights makes him crucial to liberal movements, his impulse to limit government resonates for conservatives. The words are bigger than the man.
"He's obviously a hero," says Armstead L. Robinson, director of the Carter Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies and the moderator of today's event. "He's also obviously human."
Jefferson is America's most beloved Renaissance Man. People remember the famous remark of John F. Kennedy to a table of Nobel laureates: that there had not been so much knowledge and wisdom in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Perhaps what people relish most about Jefferson is that he so obviously relished his own life. He loved scientific gadgets, collected mastodon bones, designed weird clocks, invented dumbwaiters for bringing wine up from the basement. Eurocentric in the extreme, he seemed to want to single-handedly bring Western Civilization across a new continent. His neoclassical home looked west, toward the American frontier.
No one was ever more relentless than Thomas Jefferson in his pursuit of happiness. The question is whether he pursued it a little too hard, too blindly, at too high a price.
The Slavery Issue
"I want to say it is wake-up time for the panel," proclaims a man in the audience.
An academic conference can be a tedious affair. There is a proliferation of nuance; scholars never met a nuance they didn't like. When things get slow, when the contextualization gets thick, it is easy to see the appeal of the screaming diatribe: It's exciting!
So here is this man, Rhys Isaac, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson scholar, sending a wake-up call to a rather conservative group of colleagues gathered around a long table. Isaac says he's astonished that not once have his colleagues mentioned the issue of equality. What about blacks? Women? Native Americans? What about the fact that we still haven't achieved reasonable equity among these groups? ("He was deeply locked in a system of injustice," Isaac had been saying during a break.)
An esteemed figure, Gordon Wood of Brown University, says in Jefferson's defense: "He was a man of his own time -- let's not ask him to be something that he wasn't."
The record shows that Jefferson had beliefs that are abhorrent to modern sensibilities. He thought blacks inferior to whites, mentally and physically. He did not believe that whites and blacks could coexist in a free and equal society, because of "deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made ... "
He repeatedly said he wanted slavery abolished, but sensed that the institution would end through violence. In his "Notes on the State of Virginia" Jefferson made a famous, apocalyptic statement: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever. ... " He hinted at the possibility of race war. He said he hoped for emancipation "with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." (These sentences are in a section titled "Manners," in which Jefferson explains that one of the evils of slavery is that it fosters petty tyranny among white children.)
Of all the scholars here, none has taken a more virulently anti-Jefferson position than Virginia Tech historian Paul Finkelman. He wrote the paper that calls Jefferson "pathetic" (more than once) and a racist.
"A profligate, undisciplined spender, Jefferson could not live without slaves," Finkelman writes in what he cautions is merely a rough draft. "Too self-indulgent to manage carefully his lands and his life, he relied on slaves as a source of ready capital, selling scores of them to support his habits and pleasures. With only some discipline and a few cuts in his life style -- a little less Bordeaux, not quite so many books, fewer scientific gadgets -- Jefferson could have lived within his means."
Such words chafe the ear of the older generation. Less Bordeaux? Fewer books? He wouldn't be Jefferson!
Merrill Peterson, professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia and a leader of the old guard of Jeffersonians, says Finkelman's paper is "intemperate."
"I don't think you can understand any historical figure if you go at him with the idea of putting him in the wrong," Peterson says. "I do hold to the belief that he was authentically anti-slavery. ... "
This kind of debate typically degenerates into charges of political correctness. Finkelman says he doesn't consider himself PC. He's not trying to judge an 18th-century man by 20th-century standards, he says. Rather, Jefferson fails the test of his own time. Jefferson was a leader of the nation yet in his own life was not a leader of the emancipation movement. Other Virginia slaveholders, including George Washington and James Madison, freed their slaves. Finkelman's rough draft concludes that the failure to abolish slavery was "treason against the hopes of the world," to use a Jefferson phrase, and "the arch traitor was the author of the Declaration of Independence."
The Sally Hemings situation won't be cleared up this week. Most scholars say there's not a jot of documentary evidence that Jefferson took the slave (and half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha) as his mistress. Some scholars think the octoroon children of Hemings may have been sired by a sybaritic Jefferson nephew.
A few scholars are still suspicious, though, and if there is one provocative revelation this week it is that Lucia Stanton, director of research at Jefferson's estate Monticello, has found a record of another, previously unknown Hemings child, and as in the case of the other five Hemings children, the timing of the birth does not rule out Jefferson's paternity. Even assuming that the Jefferson-Hemings affair is fiction, such relationships were common in plantation America, as the light-skinned slaves around Monticello proved.
In any case, in the last 20 years, says historian Jack Greene of Johns Hopkins University, "people began to recognize how deeply racist Jefferson was."
Our problem, ultimately, is not so much with these old heroes, the Columbuses and Jeffersons, as it is with history itself. We are handed a tale of wonder and woe. There is at times almost a zero-sum quality to the story: for every winner a loser; for every master a slave; for every treasure a terrible price. Monticello may be a magnificent temple that represents a new republic and the spirit of enlightenment -- but it also represents a Pharaonic taste for luxury, a fancifulness, a material impulse sustained only by the sacrifice of men and women and children held in bondage and, for the most part, sold upon the master's death.
History, says Jack Greene, "is irreversible. What happened happened. You can't escape it."
Jefferson himself might actually applaud the revisionist impulse of the professors. He believed in change. He hated legacies, the debts handed down from one generation to another, the dogmas, the chains of the past. Every generation should reinvent itself, he said, make its own rules, establish its own principles. He called this idea the "sovereignty of the living generation." And the living generation is now passing judgment on Thomas Jefferson, passing judgment on all the elders, passing judgment on this strange mixture of heritage and curse.