Paul Finkelman | Historian

Paul Finkelman teaches at the Hamline University School of Law. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the history of slavery in America. His works include, Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, and recently, The Dred Scott Decision.
 


Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  Why should we be interested in Thomas Jefferson?
We should be interested in Thomas Jefferson because he shaped America in a variety of ways. He shaped our political culture. He shaped our society. And most important, he's an icon. When we think of America, we think of the words Jefferson used, the Declaration of Independence. We think of "all men are created equal," and we think of the notions that Jefferson wrote that created America or created the vision of what we want America to be. Jefferson is central to the American experience.

  Why should we care about Thomas Jefferson?
Jefferson is an icon for America. Jefferson stated what we hope America to be. The Declaration of Independence articulates ideals that America's been trying to live up to for 200 years and so Jefferson becomes a central focus of how we think about ourselves. You know, we think about who Jefferson is, what Jefferson said and then we try to figure out—where do we fit into these ideals? He was an ideal-maker in a sense.

  Why is he so difficult to know?
Jefferson's extraordinarily difficult to get a handle on. Part of the reason is he lived so long. He writes hundreds and hundreds and thousands of letters and he keeps them all or most of them. There are some interesting gaps in his letters. Jefferson's difficult to know because he tries to be at times all things to all people. It's interesting, Bill Clinton left Monticello to go to Washington as president and he wants to model himself for Jefferson and, in some ways, there's a certain amount of Bill Clinton in Jefferson or Jefferson in Bill Clinton in the sense of a man who wants to be all things to all people.

“The hardest problem with Jefferson is slavery.”

  How do you reconcile the fact that he wrote the magic words of America and owned 200 slaves?
The hardest problem with Jefferson is slavery. Jefferson articulates the ideal that we're all created equal and yet he owns 150 to 175 slaves at the time. By the time he dies, he owns 200 slaves. It's extraordinarily difficult to get at the contradiction. My sense is that Jefferson is not thinking about slaves when he's talking about "all men are created equal." That doesn't mean we can't take his words and reinterpret them for our own lives. In 1780, Massachusetts wrote a constitution where they almost quoted from the Declaration and the Supreme Court used that constitution to end slavery in Massachusetts. So, people even at the time could use Jefferson's words that way. But I don't think Jefferson meant it to include non-whites.

“...he talks about freedom and liberty and he continues to deny freedom and liberty to other people.”

  Does that trouble you?
It's very troubling to deal with a man who articulates one things and does something quite different. I mean he talks about freedom and liberty and he continues to deny freedom and liberty to other people. I'll give you one example of this. During the Revolution Cornwallis comes through and runs away with a bunch of Jefferson's slaves. Jefferson later writes and complains that he only got five of these slaves back and that many of the rest died of smallpox in the British camp. Jefferson says, "If Cornwallis had taken the slaves to free them, he would have done the right thing." But what Jefferson never realizes is that he gets five slaves back and doesn't free them. He keeps them in bondage the rest of their lives. There's a tremendous contradiction, a tremendous hypocrisy between Jefferson's words and his deeds when we look at his articulation of human liberty and when we look at the fact that he is a tenacious slave holder, going after his runaway slaves throughout his life, holding onto his slaves and, of course, using his slaves as a source of ready capital whenever he needs money. Jefferson goes to France and seems to buy everything in sight: over 80 crates of everything from dishes to furniture to books to sculpture to paintings. It goes on and on and on. They recently found bottles of wine still in France that Jefferson forgot to bring back with him. How does he pay for all this? He pays for it in part by the labor of his slaves. He pays for it in part by selling slaves. He sells over 80 slaves in just the decade alone from 1785 to 1795.

  With the Sally Hemings question, does it matter?
The Sally Hemings question seems to me to be almost silly. Short of digging up Jefferson and one of Sally's children and doing a DNA test, we could never know if he was their father. But I don't think it really matters. Sally Hemings is the half-sister-in-law of Jefferson. Sally's father was also the father of Jefferson's wife. So therefore, all of her children are his half-nieces and nephews. Furthermore, most Jefferson scholars claim that Jefferson didn't father her children, but one of Jefferson's own nephews did. One of the Carr brothers. So they're doubly his nieces and nephews. To me it doesn't make much difference whether you're enslaving your children or your own blood relatives and the blood relatives of your wife. There's something immoral enough about owning slaves. There's something even more immoral about owning your blood relatives as slaves.

  Should he be faulted for not freeing his slaves in a society that was a slave-based society?
I think you can hold Jefferson responsible for failing to free his slaves. Many of his neighbors freed their slaves during and after the Revolution. Washington freed all of his slaves at his death. Jefferson's neighbor, Edward Coles, took all of his slaves to Illinois and freed them. Jefferson lived in a world where many people challenged slavery. Many people freed them. Jefferson did not. He freed three slaves during his life, all of them under very questionable circumstances. In one case, the slave was living in Philadelphia and may have had a legal claim to freedom already. He freed five at his death. The most tragic thing is Jefferson freed one of his slaves at his death and said that the slave could live on the grounds at Monticello in a house with his family but Jefferson didn't free that slave's family. That slave's family was auctioned off with the rest of the other slaves after Jefferson died. Jefferson could have joined an emancipation organization. There was a Manumission Society in Virginia that Jefferson could have joined. He was invited to join the French Manumission Society when he was in France. His friends all over the country were involved in trying to end slavery. Jefferson didn't lift a finger to do so and when people like his neighbor Edward Coles wrote to Jefferson and said, "I'm planning to free my slaves," Jefferson said, "Don't do it. Keep your slaves. Be a good master. Don't free your slaves." Coles asked Jefferson to propose a gradual emancipation program in Virginia. Jefferson flat out refused to do it. By this time Jefferson was retired. He had no more political ambitions. This would have been the crowning glory of his career. And instead, he ignores the issue. He fights the issue. At the very end of his life during the Missouri Compromise debates, he writes and says that he thinks that the nation is committing treason against the hopes of the world because they're debating slavery. To my way of thinking, it's Jefferson who's committing the treason against the hopes of the world because he had the opportunity of all of the Americans to take a forthright stand against slavery. He doesn't do it, ever.


Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  He doesn't live out the true meaning of his creed.
He can never come to terms with the meaning of the Declaration for his slaves or for the slaves of Virginia. And I think part of this is because slaves were black. Jefferson could not envision an integrated society.


Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV,

  Was Thomas Jefferson a racist?
In some ways, Thomas Jefferson invented racism in America. I realize that's a strong statement. But Jefferson, I think, because he knew in his heart that slavery was wrong, and yet at the same time was so hooked into the system and could never give it up, felt the necessity of creating a scientific rationale for racism. And he does so in the Notes on the State of Virginia. He talks about the blood of blacks perhaps making them black. He suggests that blacks mate with orangutans. He suggests they prefer white women to their own. He also goes on and on about the inferiority of blacks, that they aren't as smart as whites, that they don't have the same skills, that they have no musical skills, no poetry. He says they're as brave as whites but that's only because they lack forethought. And he does all this very articulately because he's perhaps the most articulate man of his generation. So that Americans come to believe in racism by reading Jefferson. And in the 1840's and 50's, these Southern racists who are defending slavery are reading Jefferson and quoting him on these issues.


Autobiography, Excerpts on Slavery

  Is Thomas Jefferson a racist?
Jefferson probably invented in a sense American racism. In the Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson goes on and on for many pages about the inferiority of blacks. He suggests on one hand that they mate with orangutans in Africa but, on the other hand, he suggests that they are also always after white women. He says that blacks are not as smart as whites, that they have no skills in poetry, in music. He says that they can never accomplish what whites can accomplish. He compares Roman slaves to black slaves and says Roman slaves did all these wonderful things but that's 'cause they were white. He also says that blacks are brave, as brave as whites, maybe even braver, but he says that's because they lack forethought so they can't see the causes or the consequences of their actions. This is very damaging, horrible ideas and they are used over and over again in the 1840's and 50's by the defenders of slavery to argue in favor of continuing slavery. Jefferson justifies slavery, in fact, by arguing that blacks are inferior to whites on almost all levels. Furthermore, throughout his life he expresses fear of miscegenation, race-mixing. He is obsessed with the question. He is also obsessed with the problem of free blacks. He thinks if you ever end slavery, you must transport all blacks out of the United States. This is impossible to do. He knows it. And if it's impossible to do, then the logical conclusion is you can never end slavery. So, in fact, his own racism justifies the continuation of slavery because he can't conceive of free blacks in his own society.


Statute of Religious Freedom

  What do you like about Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson is wonderful in a couple of ways. First of all, his use of language is fabulous. The Declaration of Independence is something that every American can raise their hand to, everybody in the world can raise their hand to and say "We love this." Jefferson also is, along with James Madison, the father of freedom of religion in America. Jefferson proposed the Virginia Statute on Religious Toleration which was eventually passed. And throughout his life, Jefferson articulates the importance of religious freedom. He writes to the Baptists in 1802 in Connecticut arguing for a wall of separation between government and religion. He writes in the Notes on the State of Virginia that freedom of religion is fine. He says that "if my neighbor believes in twenty gods or no gods, it does not pick my pocket or break by leg and therefore it's no harm to me." Over and over he uses the terminology that freedom of conscience, what you think about is between you and God, and the government has absolutely no business in interfering.

  What do we then make of Thomas Jefferson?
What we make of Thomas Jefferson is that this a very complex individual. He's a man who lives a long time; he says a lot of things about a lot of things. Some of them are absolutely wonderful and America should take from the image of Thomas Jefferson, the words of Thomas Jefferson, the good. We should take the ideology of the American Revolution; we should take the ideology of the Declaration. We should take the wall of separation between Church and State, freedom of conscience, his statements on freedom of speech. We should take all of these things and run with them as far as we can run. And we should realize that the person who wrote these things owned between 150 and 200 slaves at the time and that he was never able in his personal life to live up to certain of his own ideals and that he left us with a legacy of racism that we have to fight. I don't think you throw out Jefferson because part of him is a slaver owner and a racist. At the same time, you don't say he's the most wonderful man on earth, an icon, a marble saint, a statue to love when, in fact, there are deep flaws. And I think only when you recognize the flaws of Jefferson can we come to terms with race in our own times.

  Are we genetic descendants of Thomas Jefferson?
It's hard to know how much of Jefferson is in all of us. I mean, I listen to the news and people are always claiming Jefferson for their own - right, left, liberal, conservative, democratic, republican. Everybody wants to quote Jefferson and, because he wrote so much, you can always quote him. I would hope that we could continue to inherit his wonderful points, such as his strong support of religious freedom, and his understanding that you need a free press and you need freedom of speech—although he couldn't always live up to his views on free speech and free press. As President, he wanted a few newspapers suppressed because he didn't like what they were saying, but he understood deeply that this was important. And, at the same time, we have to overcome what we've inherited of his racism. Because his fear of racial mixing, his fear of an integrated society, his hatred, I think, for African-Americans is still deeply rooted in part of American culture, in our psyche. And that we have to overcome. We can't overcome that unless we recognize it and that's what makes it so difficult about coming to terms with Jefferson. We have to recognize his failures and his faults, bring them out into the open, talk about them, understand them and then get on.

  Are you troubled as you walk through Monticello or exalted?
Monticello's a fabulous place and it's hard not to enjoy walking through it and seeing all of the wonderful things that Jefferson brought there and built there. But it's important to understand that all of that was possible because of his slaves. His slaves paid the bills. They did the building. They provided the collateral for the loans. And when he was in debt, he sold slaves, sold whole families, sold people away from their families if he needed money to support his acquisitive habits. Jefferson was the ultimate consumer, the ultimate shopper. Maybe that's also what we've inherited from Jefferson.

  Can we fault him for not freeing his slaves?
One of the defenses of Jefferson is always "well, he was just a Virginia planter and we can't expect anything else from him. He's just like his neighbors." And I think the point to be made is, he was not just like his neighbors. We don't build monuments to people who are just like their neighbors. We don't put them on the nickel. We don't make them icons. Jefferson was a very special man and we can expect more from him. He should have been the best of his generation, not merely average. And so we compare him to the best of his generation. We compare him to Washington who freed his slaves, to his cousin John Randolph of Roanoke who freed his slaves, to his neighbor Edward Coles, to the thousands of individual small Virginians who freed their slaves. The free black population in Virginia grows from 2,000 to over 30,000 in a space about thirty years. A lot of Virginians are freeing their slaves. Where's the master of Monticello? Why isn't he there?

  Was slavery a legitimate sacrifice in order to concentrate on making a union?
I think in some ways compromises had to be made over slavery to bring about the Constitution. Certainly the three-fifths clause, a political compromise which did not say blacks were three-fifths of a person but simply said that we're going to make a political statement on how much representation the South gets in Congress. That probably had to be made. But so much more could have been done. It could have been put, as Lincoln would later say, "on the road to its ultimate extinction." And Jefferson was the man who could have done something about it. As President when he bought Louisiana, he could have said, "This new territory should be closed to slavery. We shouldn't let it spread further." And Jefferson could have done things in his personal life. As President, he could have freed his slaves and said, "I can't be the President of a free republic while owning slaves." Think of what that would have done to end slavery. Sure, South Carolina wouldn't have given up slavery, but South Carolina would have become increasingly isolated as more and more people in other places in the country followed Jefferson. Jefferson didn't only not do anything, he didn't try and he didn't encourage anybody. The union was a union with slave owners because there were so many slave owners like Jefferson who did nothing, even, like Jefferson, if they knew that they should be doing something

  Return to top