The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What do we remember about Thomas Jefferson?

(Backgrounds by Craig & Karl for The Washington Post; Photo by Amy King/The Washington Post)

"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." These are words from the Declaration of Independence, put forward by the 13 states of America on July 4, 1776, and drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

Yet the contradiction between Jefferson's words and his own actions — he owned more than 600 slaves over his lifetime — sits at the heart of his complex and controversial legacy.

For the third episode of the Presidential podcast, we spoke with several of the country's leading Jefferson scholars about how, and why, they have spent their careers studying this contradiction — and in what ways the country's third president shaped for better and worse the race relations and ideals of liberty in America today.

This week's podcast features Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Jon Meacham and Annette Gordon-Reed, as well as Jefferson experts Paul Finkelman, Peter Onuf and Julie Miller of the Library of Congress. It also features The Washington Post's Joe Yonan, who takes us through Jefferson's promotion of new foods and wines in the United States.

The Presidential podcast, consisting of 44 episodes leading up to election day in November, examines the leadership and legacy of each of the American presidents. In our previous two episodes, we explored the mythology of George Washington and why John Adams doesn't have a monument. The podcast is hosted by Lillian Cunningham, editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section.

As listeners tune in each week, the podcast will reveal the ways in which our collective sense of what’s ’presidential’ has evolved over the years and how each president—effective or ineffective, esteemed or forgotten—has something to tell us about what it takes to hold the nation’s highest office.

Want to learn more about Thomas Jefferson? Listen to the third episode of Presidential here:

A new episode comes out every Sunday. Here's how to follow along: