Julian Bond | Historian

Julian Bond is a former legislator and newspaper editor from Georgia. He was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and has been a leading figure in the civil rights movement since the 1960s. He currently teaches history at the University of Virginia.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  What draws you to Thomas Jefferson?
The familiar phrase that all men are created equal makes him the fascinating figure that he is. And his life is so complicated and so intertwined with the beginning of who we are as a country that he’s just a man who pulls you to him, this brilliant mind, this far-ranging intellect, this father of liberty, this slave-owner, this agronomist, I mean he’s all of these things...bibliophile, everything. Thomas Jefferson is just one of the fascinating men of our nation, of our world.

“...yet his life stood against the words, in opposition to the words.”

  As a black American, how do you reconcile the words he wrote with the fact that he owned slaves?
When I was younger, the words, these magnificent words, superseded the man and took over from the man and surpassed the man. As I’ve gotten older and have begun to look at the man as much as the words, you see this in terrible conflict. The words are so wonderful, they’ve inspired so many. They’ve helped create so many other movements beyond his time and his life. And yet his life stood against the words, in opposition to the words. And you wonder about the conflicts in his own mind and whether or not he foresaw the conflicts that would develop as his words were compared with the reality of the ages that followed him. But, when I was young, I never thought about the man and how he may have lived. And, even though I knew he owned slaves, I never, never considered that a conflict with these words. The words stood apart and separate from him.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV

  Now do you feel that owning slaves is a toxic force, that it takes away from Jefferson?
Jefferson, the slave-owner and slaveholder and slaver-worker, contradicts Jefferson, the father of liberty. These are two ideas that can’t, in my mind, be reconciled. He obviously struggled with reconciling them, but did not come to grips with them. But it is a poison that dilutes the effectiveness of these wonderful words, of these noble words. It’s a scourge that whips them and beats them back as they’re trying to push to the forefront. It’s a blot on him. It’s a blot on his record. It’s a blot on his reputation. It’s a blot on his generation.

  He seems to embody that contradiction that you just articulated. Can you talk further?
It’s interesting to me that these words become inspiration for successive generations of people who fight for freedom. And the conflict between the words and the reality are the basis of the freedom movements that take inspiration from the words. So it’s almost as if Jefferson is saying, you know, “I have these wonderful ideas and my private life is not that great because it’s in contradiction to these wonderful ideas I have, but let me put the words forth and see whether or not over time this conflict can be worked out.” Well, we’ve not worked it out yet, but we’re helped to work it out by this inspiration Thomas Jefferson gave us so many years ago. But we’re held back from working it out by this life that Thomas Jefferson lived, the slaveowner, the trafficker in human flesh. I mean, this butts heads so strongly then as it does now.

“A man who owns slaves is not far removed from a man who will sleep with his slave.”

Sally Hemings Accusation

  Sally Hemings
Through all of my life, as long as I have known there was a Thomas Jefferson, I have known there was a Sally Hemings. And I have known, not in the scientific way or the scholarly way, but I have known that a relationship existed between these two. This is part of my growing up. This is part of what my parents told me. This is part of what my teachers in school instructed me. I know this relationship existed and, while I cannot prove it, I don’t at all find it odd that it might have, or could have, or actually did happen. A man who owns slaves is not far removed from a man who will sleep with his slave. A man whose slave is the daughter of his father-in-law is not far removed from a man who will sleep with a slave. There’s no distinction between the slaveowner and the adulterer with his slaves; in my mind, these are equal evils or parallel evils.

So it’s always been part of my world that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a sexual and romantic relationship. How willing she was, who can say? No one knows. Perhaps it was a loving relationship. And it’s always struck me how resistant scholarship has been to this notion, at least until fairly recently, refusing to consider the possibility and just rejecting it. “Mr. Jefferson never would have done such a thing.” Of course he would have. If you own slaves, if you can bring yourself to own other human beings, why is it such a major step to sleep with one of them, to have a sexual relationship with one of them, to possibly abuse and use one of them? What is the difference here? There is none in my view, so it’s perfectly understandable. And was part of my life.

  Does this disqualify the positive?
No, I don’t think slaveowning or a relationship with Sally Hemings strikes Jefferson off the list of favored Americans or heroic Americans or Americans who set us on the path we’re on today. It’s a blot, it’s a stain, it’s a bad mark, it’s a disgraceful part of his life but... You know, we think Martin Luther King plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis, but when we think about Martin Luther King, we don’t say, “Boy, what a great Ph.D. thesis that man wrote” ; we think no, this guy was a freedom fighter and led a movement for human liberty. And the thing about Jefferson is that although this is an awful part of his life, these words and the ideas behind the words just rise above that, at least they do for me. This calling of the best of us rises over what was the worst of him and I think makes him a better person than he might have been.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  We hold these truths to be self-evident....
Well, this is the idea that every single human being has a God-given right to liberty. Every single human being—not classes of human beings, with some having more than the others or some having none at all....All of us, every single human being, all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator—I mean, that’s it! You don’t have to say more than that. All of us have this. And this is a literally revolutionary thought because prior to that, you know, you had some, you had some, you had some, I didn’t have any. But now, all of us, we are all endowed by our Creator. That just says it, you know. You don’t have to say anything more than that. We’re all endowed by our Creator with these rights. That’s it. That’s it. There’s not been a statement since then that encompasses the idea of democracy as well.

“I want him to have done better than he did.”

  Do you feel for him, for his ideas? Do they have emotional resonance?
I think about Jefferson sitting in that house, torn between what he, in his best times, knows is wrong and what he knows is right. The agonizing over his attitudes towards his slaves, towards black people generally. I feel drawn to him. I sympathize with him. I almost want to reach out and say, “Tom, you know, you can work this out.” I’m sorry he didn’t, that he didn’t come to some closure in his own lifetime, or some closure that satisfies us now, in his own lifetime. So I do feel some sympathy for him, some feeling toward him. I want him to have done better than he did. I want him to have worked this conflict through. And he didn’t do it.

  What do you feel as you walk through Mulberry Row?
When I walk along this section of Monticello where the slave cabins and the nailery used to be, I think about what could this have been with people bustling about, in and out. What were they doing? I always think: What was their interior life? What was their commerce with each other? What did they talk about? What did they say about the man in the big house? What did they say about the people who lived in the big house, who worked in the big house? What was the relationship between the Hemings family and the rest of this population? I’d just love to be able to know about their intercourse with each other as opposed to their intercourse with Mr. Jefferson. What were they doing? What were they thinking? And, of course, we’ll never know. But we can intuit some things about them. You think about these little kids working in this factory making nails so the plantation can keep going. You think about this population going out to the fields to work. You think about the people who were in the house who were serving Mr. Jefferson. You just wonder, what were their lives like?

First Plan for Monticello

  If you could be a fly on the wall....
I think I’d like to be able to follow Thomas Jefferson in his last years when he’s creating this environment for himself or re-creating over and over again this environment for himself. When he is building this world for himself. You know, you’d like to be with Jefferson in Paris; you’d like to be with Jefferson in the White House or in the Presidency. But I’d like to be with old Thomas Jefferson as he’s creating this world for himself to live out his days and I’d like to watch him and listen to him then.

  What would you ask him?
I think I’d want to know: Looking back on this life you’ve led, how were you able to create these noble, these wonderful words, and not balance your life with these words? How were you able to do these things? How were you able to balance, or unbalance, these parts of your life? How could you do that? How could you have possibly have done that?

  Is this an American imbalance or a human imbalance?
I think it’s typically American. It’s universal that our rhetoric favors liberty and our practices suppress it. Our rhetoric favors freedom and our actuality tamps it down—not just in America but universally throughout the world. But it is peculiarly American because we are the only society that has been democratic as long as we profess to have been and have wrestled with this problem for as long as we have and haven’t come to a solution yet. We’re the only society. And we owe thanks to people like Thomas Jefferson, who both show us what we could be and who show us what we’re not.

“Thomas Jefferson is the most accessible American figure....”

  Why is it that his thinking appeals to both sides of the political spectrum?
Thomas Jefferson is the most accessible American figure because you can find in his words something to fit almost any occasion. And he spoke about this himself, about the misuse of his sayings, the misuse of his thoughts. If you favor greater state intrusion into the lives of the people, Jefferson is your man. But if you favor less state intrusion in the lives...Jefferson is your man. If you favor spreading of individual liberty, he’s your guy. If you favor less individual liberty, he’s your guy. There’s something there for both sides and it’s interesting to read the debates of civil rights legislation 30 years ago and just a few years ago. Both sides are still saying “Thomas Jefferson would have it so. I’m using Thomas Jefferson to bolster my case.” And people who are just far, far apart find in him something to make their cause stronger.

  Let’s go to the man, so completely enigmatic. How do you know Thomas Jefferson?
Well, I think about a kind of gawky person, someone who’s a little ill at ease in social circumstances, someone who is thinking all the time and not always happy about the company he’s in because it doesn’t always think as quickly, as swiftly, as precisely as he does. I think of someone who’s a bit contemptuous of others, even others in his own circumstances, his own social standing, and someone whose mind must be racing at top speed all of the time, who can barely keep ahead of his own ideas and get them down on paper and preserve them. An organizational man who likes lists and some kind of order and diaries and “I did this on this date and I’ve got this many books and these are their names and here are the names of my plants and here are the names of my slaves and this is how many nails they produced today and I’ve got so many acres under cultivation with this and that and I’m going to Washington and I’m taking this route. I’m going to stop in these places....” He’s a man of lists and organization and there is something going on there that I can’t quite get to, but a man I think he would be very, very hard to know.

Declaration of Independence, “Original Rough Draught”

  What did Jefferson mean by the “pursuit of happiness” ?
I think Jefferson meant the ability all of us should have to develop our lives to the fullest. Not just to have leisure, not just to enjoy oneself, but to develop your life and your personality to its utmost. That’s what “the pursuit of happiness” means, the ability to be the most you can be. I guess even the Army uses the slogan now. But it means to be able to develop your human personality to its utmost. That’s what it means.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII,

  Do you feel there’s some religious or spiritual dimension to Jefferson?
I think Jefferson was a religious man, not in any orthodox kind of way, but you know, he once said, “If God is just, I fear for my nation.” He was someone who thought about the world—in a kind of a religious sense—that there was a force there greater than we are and it had the ability to guide our lives, to structure our lives, to shape our futures. And it had the ability to mete punishment to us if we transgressed. And he was aware of how much we had transgressed.

View of the University of Virginia

  Talk about the University of Virginia and education.
Well, you know he had this idea of this academic village where teachers and students would live together and it’s interesting, the University tries to do that now using the pavilions and the ranges. Of course it’s much, much bigger than he ever envisioned. But it is pretty much a village. It is a community, at least as much as any other school I’ve ever been to. And he remains this very, very strong presence there. You get the feeling that people are saying, “Would Mr. Jefferson have done this?” And you get the idea, I get the idea anyway, when you walk around the grounds that you’re going to bump into him, that at least you’re bumping into his spirit, that he has put something into that place that is very, very different from what you’d find at another American school, another American university.

  Why should we care about Thomas Jefferson?
We should care about Thomas Jefferson because he is the author of these sentiments that have, in every decade since he died, summoned us to what we ought to be. They did so then, they do so today, they’ve done so in every intervening period. They’ve been used by people who love freedom to summon us to recognize it in all of us, to create it for all of us. We should recognize him because of his achievements in life: the Statute on Religious Freedom, the Declaration, the Presidency, all that he did—and for his mind. But most of all we honor him today and we value him today because of what he meant to us in those words: “endowed by their Creator.” I mean you just...that’s it. You can’t say it better than that.

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