John Hope Franklin | Historian

John Hope Franklin is an emeritus professor of history and of law at the Duke University Law School. He has written numerous books on the African American experience, including Racial Equality in America, A Southern Odyssey, and the biography George Washington Williams.

Declaration of Independence, "Original Rough Draught"

  What draws us to Thomas Jefferson?
You know, we are drawn to Thomas Jefferson because of the many things that he did and the many things for which he stood in the period of the Revolution and the years following the Revolution. He was a scientist, a political scientist, something of a historian, a sociologist, an artist, an architect, and something of a Renaissance man, I would say. And it's very easy to be drawn to a person who declared that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberties, and the founder of the University of Virginia. That's a big order.

“It simply can't be reconciled with the institution of slavery.”

  How do we reconcile the words "all men are created equal" with the fact that he owned slaves?
I don't reconcile the fact that, on the one hand, Thomas Jefferson was a person who declared that all men were created equal, and at the same time he owned slaves. I don't reconcile these two things because Thomas Jefferson set standards for himself that make it impossible to reconcile these two things. He was a man who claimed, you see, to be a man of the Enlightenment; he was a scientist, a humanist. He knew what he was saying when he said "all men are created equal." It simply can't be reconciled with the institution of slavery.

“...I forgive him for what he did.”

  Do you forgive him?
I'm a forgiving man; therefore I forgive him for what he did. But I remember that what he did was a transgression against mankind.

  Is the story of Thomas Jefferson the story of America?
Unfortunately and tragically, I would say that in a sense Thomas Jefferson personifies the United States and its history. We have the contradictions that began as early as the 17th century and that persist today. And it's no surprise that one of the great icons of all times personifies in his own life these contradictions. I'm not terribly distressed or surprised, in one sense, but at the same time I hold him accountable for these things because he set standards that were so high for himself and for others.

  Are all men created equal?
All men are created equal in the sense that they should be given the same opportunity to fulfill themselves, and that is where the great opportunity comes for this country or any country to provide the context and the milieu in which a person can fulfill himself and therefore be equal to others.

  There are many who would argue that we need to release Thomas Jefferson from our 20th-century judgment. How do you answer that?
I answer the question regarding Thomas Jefferson as a man of his times by saying that he was himself different from some of the men of his own time on this very question. I speak not of persons who did not own slaves, for example. I speak not of the antislavery crowd in the north. I speak of Jefferson's contemporaries, his fellow Virginians, his neighbors. And while he set the high standards, they practiced these standards with much greater seriousness and much greater honesty than he did. For example, Thomas Coles, his protégé, said that he could not bear to hold slaves, and therefore he set his slaves free and left the state and went to Illinois. Thomas Jefferson told him he was making a mistake—he should remain in Virginia and take care of his slaves. Thomas Coles said, "No, I can't do it." George Washington, while not the great intellectual that Thomas Jefferson was, was nevertheless perhaps a greater humanitarian. George Washington set his slaves free upon his death. Thomas Jefferson, no, just a few.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII,

  He said that slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears: you didn't like it, but you didn't dare let it go. What's your response?
Oh yes, he always expressed some horror that someday if they turned the slaves free, if they emancipated them, that they would turn on their former slaveholders. What I think he was doing was merely expressing a profound sense of guilt and fear, a prediction that did not necessarily need to come true in the late 18th century and that, indeed, did not come true in the middle of the 19th century when they finally were emancipated.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV,

  Was Thomas Jefferson a racist?
To say that Thomas Jefferson is a racist is perhaps to apply a 20th-century term to him. I would simply say, without putting a label on it, that he talked very much like a person who felt superior in every conceivable way to the slaves or to free blacks. He thought he was superior to them when it came to color: he thought the color of blacks was very, very foreboding and unattractive, as I think he put it. He thought that slaves or blacks had a smell that white people did not have and that came from sort of—sort of the function of the kidneys of blacks. Well, he might be a scientist but I think he's pretty far off base on that score. He spoke of blacks as having memory almost equal to whites, but no reason. They were not capable of reasoning. As he said, "I have found none who could understand the problems posed by Euclid." That's as though saying he was running up and down his roads in front of Monticello or somewhere else, and all the whites that he found were capable of understanding the problems of Euclid but no blacks were. On both scores, I think he's probably just dreaming and making up things.

  And yet this man wrote the magic words of our country. How do we deal with that positive effect?
Well, we deal with the positive effect of Jefferson simply by accepting those things which he said that were positive as good things. But that does not obliterate the things that he said which I would judge not to be good and not to be true. He represents the kind of contradiction, of course—in his own reasoning and his own thinking—that is so typical of, say, all of us. Surely typical of human beings who struggle through problems and on the one hand, they see the light, and on the other hand, they can't see the light. Jefferson is no different from those others who contradict themselves.

“...he's human and therefore subject to all the frailties that human beings are subject to.”

  You really can forgive him because he is ultimately human.
He is ultimately human. I would not forgive him, though, on the grounds that he's a man of his times, you see. That's an escape hatch which I won't let him go through. But he's human and therefore subject to all the frailties that human beings are subject to. At the same time, though, I believe that Jefferson knew what he was doing. And the transgressions that he committed were transgressions of the mind as well as the heart, and that makes it less easy to understand how a man of such gigantic intellectual powers and so forth could fritter away his time speculating about how blacks smell or how they reason and that sort of thing.

  So where do we hold him? Close to our hearts?
We hold him, in the end, as a person who did some good things, said some good things, performed some good deeds. And a person who, at the same time, committed some awful offenses against human beings and who, I think, was quite aware of what he was doing when he did so.

“I think it was not necessary at the time of the formation of the union to maintain slavery.”

  Churchill said that a great country could handle only one great problem at a time. So it seems that the founding fathers sacrificed slavery on the altar of the Union. What is your response?
I think it was not necessary at the time of the formation of the Union to maintain slavery. It's my view that we had a great opportunity in the 18th century to do away with the institution of slavery. Not only would it have made it possible then for every man to pursue his destiny on his own, but it would have given us, as Americans, a greater credibility, greater honesty, greater sincerity, and we wouldn't have had to justify, rationalize, and qualify the great goal of this country of equality and of justice and of freedom, you see. The moment we wrote a Constitution that protected the institution of slavery is the moment that we defaulted in our claim to be just and to believe in equality and to pursue individual rights as human beings. You can't do that and maintain the institution of slavery. So that we sold out in 1787, and that becomes the dilemma, the problem, the quandary of the United States from 1787 on down to the present.

  And that dilemma knocks on the door of Thomas Jefferson, does it not?
Yes. It knocks on the door of Thomas Jefferson. But it knocks on the door of many of his contemporaries. And it knocks on the door of every generation since that time. I would think that it was no greater responsibility of Jefferson in the late 18th century than it was of others, his contemporaries. They were all in that together and they all knew what they were doing. That was true of the delegates from Massachusetts to the Constitutional Convention as well as the delegates from Virginia or South Carolina.

  There seems to be a strange 18th-century paradox that bubbles up: these landed gentry were the ones who conjured the words of liberty, that in some ways, slavery is the other side of the coin of freedom, that it in fact took a slave culture to produce these ideas.
Slaves were perhaps central to the economic as well as the political and cultural life of this country in the late 18th century. But they were made central by the inhabitants, by these people who would justify their actions with the use of slavery. For example, it's so easy to say that I go to Philadelphia and I deliberate in the Continental Congress or in the Constitutional Convention, but I could do that only because I had someone back home working and keeping everything going while I thought the profound thoughts and acted the profound and important deeds. No, who was keeping the home fires burning in New Hampshire and in Massachusetts and in New York and in Pennsylvania? Not slaves, although slavery, we must remember, until this time was legal all over the United States. But these northerners, New Englanders, Middle Atlantic residents, who came to Philadelphia had their own obligations at home. And perhaps it was easier for them to be antislavery, since they didn't have them. They might have wanted to do something else besides maintain their system of work and whatever it was. But they stood out and they challenged the South, but not really seriously enough to cause any kind of breakup of the fledgling Union. They made the concessions necessary. I always remember that the Pennsylvania Abolition Society had drawn up a resolution for Benjamin Franklin to present to the Convention that would demand the end of slavery. And Franklin never presented that resolution. It has been said, "Well, he was old and decrepit and forgetful," but one must remember that Franklin spoke more at the Convention, more different times at the Convention, than any other single individual, and he kept that resolution securely in his pocket all the time.

First Plan of Monticello,

  What do you see and feel at Monticello?
When I went to Monticello in 1981, before the more recent excavations and modifications and remodeling and so forth, and I was given a tour—it was a so-called special tour—one of the first questions I asked was where were the slave quarters? And they said, "Well, we don't quite know where they were, but we're working on that and we hope to find them." And I said to myself, perhaps unfairly, but I said to myself, "You mean, we're still maintaining the kind of false notion of our icon and trying to convey the impression perhaps slavery was so unimportant that we don't even know where the slaves were or where the 'servants' were, as they were called at Monticello and at other places like that. And I thought that here is Thomas Jefferson, one of the most precise men that we ever can remember, exact in every detail about everything, great architect, great scientist, and here is his great mansion, his great estate, and they don't know where his slaves were, where the quarters were? It was ridiculous on the face of it, and I sort of regard it as a kind of metaphor for his continuation of the ambivalence and the dishonesty of the whole enterprise.

  Drink in Monticello and its population.
Monticello was, I suppose you could say, typical of the large plantation, not the small ones. One must always remember that there were more small farms where there were slaves than large plantations, although always the majority of the slaves were on large plantations. And I think of Monticello as typical in the sense that it had a minority of whites, a relatively small number of whites—the family of Jefferson and the persons who were in his employ who were white were not large in number. And then I think of these hundred, two hundred, blacks who were there as slaves. Then I recognize the fact that this institution is maintained by force, by law first of all, which had no concessions with regard to the rights of the majority of the people here, and at the same time had the backing of any kind of force that was necessary to maintain the institution. So in that sense—in that sense, Monticello is a kind of emblem of the rule of the majority by the minority. And this becomes emblematic of the country at the time, and it bespeaks a disregard for equality and justice.

“I think that it doesn't really matter whether he slept with her or not. He could have. After all, he owned her.”

  Sally Hemings. What do you think?
What do I think about Sally Hemings? I think that it doesn't really matter whether he slept with her or not. He could have. After all, he owned her. She was subject to his exploitation in every conceivable way. It was he who brought her to Paris; it was he who sent her home from Paris. He had complete control of her destiny. And he might have fathered the several children for which we sometimes give him blame or credit. But, you see, it's not the important subject, it seems to me. It's not the important question.

When we see the countryside at Monticello and all over Virginia and South Carolina and North Carolina and other places littered with mulattos of every conceivable description—red-haired, green eyes, freckled faces, and all the rest—we know that someone is busy sleeping with the slaves, and I see no reason why Thomas Jefferson should be excused from that. He was more discreet than James Hammond. When James Hammond's wife asked him if a certain baby on the plantation was his, he said, "Well, it could be." Jefferson would never say that. But these youngsters around Monticello could have been his children. And it's perhaps as easy to ascribe them to him as to his nephews. It's easy now. Many people who deny that Jefferson fathered any mulatto children say that it was done by his nephews or by some other relatives. They seem to have scientific proof for that, without having any scientific proof for his not having slept with Sally Hemings or some other slaves. The important point to make is that throughout the land in the 18th and 19th centuries, blacks were the victims, the subjects, the exploited people of their owners and of those whites who didn't own them. And that we lived in such immorality, such irregularity...that these things were part of the natural landscape in Virginia, and Mr. Jefferson was as likely as any others to have done this because it's in character with the times—and indeed, with him, who believed in exploiting these people that he controlled completely.

  When was the first time that you heard "We hold these truths to be self-evident"?
I heard "We hold these truths to be self-evident" at least when I was in what is now called junior high school... And I thought they were beautiful words. They are beautiful words, and I was impressed with them. And their beauty cannot be erased by any qualifications that we might make of the author or of the times in which he lived. So that I'm not disturbed by any contradiction there. They are beautiful words by any standard, and I will continue to believe so.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  There seems to be a kind of abstractness to the words that ensures their duration. We're as curious about the mystery of Thomas Jefferson as we are about the contradictions.
Well, you know, when I first heard them—and I refer to the beauty of them—I was thinking of what assurances they gave me when I was in 7th grade, let's say: that I was equal to others and that no one could take that away from me. It reinforced what I was being told at home—that no man anywhere was any better than I was.

And that I could look at the Declaration of Independence and see that it said it there and it's the same thing that my mother and my father were telling me at home. And that merely increased the beauty of the words, so far as I was concerned, and gave them a resonance which I think otherwise they would not have had, had I not been reinforced with my home teachings. So that I've always felt a special place for these words in my own being, in my own life, in my own heart, because of the juxtaposition of them with the teachings which I got at home.

  Why do the words last? What's so great about them?
They last because of what they mean to every generation. If every generation writes its own history or relives its history, I think every generation also has a way of renewing itself in the great words that have been spoken or written in the past. And I think that every generation can look at "We hold these truths to be self-evident" and can see something in those words for that generation. They wouldn't need to know the history of the 18th century to know the value of those words in the 19th century, or indeed in the 20th century, for they mean to that generation that reads them or hears them...they mean something very special. It's the way they're put together. It's the way they reflect the aspirations, the desires, the hopes, and yes, the beliefs of succeeding generations.

  What a gift that is.
Yes, it's a remarkable gift. And Mr. Jefferson could put the words together and make us appreciate a great philosophy that helps us to develop a philosophy of life, a philosophy of our government, a philosophy of our relationships with each other.

Declaration of Independence, Earliest Known Draft,

  If you could be a fly on the wall, what moment would you like to witness?
I would like to be present...if I had one moment to live with Thomas Jefferson, I would like to be present not at Monticello—that would be too much. Not in Paris, where he had his own coterie of friends both on the American and on the French side, but I would like to see him at the Continental Congress, where he would have the opportunity to give meaning and body and soul to the beautiful words which he wrote in the Declaration.

I suppose I would like to be excused when the debates on the Declaration began and when the slaveholders objected to that very important provision in the first draft of the Declaration which condemned George the Third, king of England, for bringing slaves over to this country—innocent people who had not done anything to him and established slavery in this country. We get to be a little dishonest at that point in the Declaration. And I wouldn't like to have been there when the slaveholders objected to that and Thomas Jefferson let them get off the hook because he was getting himself off the hook. And that provision, that part of the Declaration, was simply expunged from the Declaration without any serious debate. And the fact that Mr. Jefferson did not debate that makes me somewhat disheartened and makes me realize that he was in the boat with those men who objected to the phrase, to the provision which they were expunging.

Statute of Religious Freedom

  Jefferson separated church and state. Do you have a thought about that?
Jefferson felt very deeply about the whole question of the separation of church and state. First, he was not terribly religious himself, in the orthodox sense of the term. Being a deist, he perhaps believed in God, but certainly didn't subscribe to all the trappings of institutional religion. At the same time, he felt that there was a place for it in the lives of many people, and he made that concession. At the same time, he wanted to make a clear distinction between what the role of the church was in the lives of the people and what the role of government was in the lives of the people. He did not want any sign of a theocracy. He knew something about the history of New England and the theocratic state there. He knew something about the established religion in Britain and even in colonial Virginia, and he wanted no part of it because he believed that these very important domains could not function in conjunction with each other and surely they could not function with one dominating the other, one controlling the other. And so he believed that, on the one hand, one should enjoy religious liberty as he sought to write it into the Virginia Statute. But on the other hand, he believed that it would be a terrible mistake to confuse religion with the state or to bring religion into the state in any form. And so he subscribed very, very—I almost said "religiously"—to the separation of church and state.

  Do you know the circumstances of his death?
I know that he died on the 4th of July, 1826 and I know that John Adams died on the same day.

  Do you see Jefferson as a tragic figure with all these contradictions?
No, I don't see Jefferson as a tragic figure for these contradictions. For most men are—and women are—a bundle of contradictions. Despite the fact that we are endowed with reason, and despite the fact that we regard ourselves as rational beings, we at the same time have contradictions within our lives, within our beliefs, within our practices which, if we analyze it very closely, would perhaps be tragic inasmuch sense as Jefferson's contradictions were tragic. I think it's a part of the character of humankind to go off in different directions, to have different beliefs, some of which contradict each other, some of which complement each other. And when they contradict each other, it is not so much a tragedy as it is a human quality.

  So what is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, finally? Is it a gift or a curse?
I would say that the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is both a gift and a curse. That is, expressing the noble ideal of equality and justice and democracy and freedom on the one hand, but at the same time giving the example that he lived, of a person who denied equality and justice and freedom to others, and rationalizing it in his own life and in many of the institutions he sought to create and maintain. So that he's a blessing in one way, for he gives us many important things that we can hold up as ideals, but he cursed us with a practice of inequality and of slavery and the denial of justice that can scarcely be erased by anything we could think of and of, and it comes down to us in the most graphic, vivid terms today. And our task, it seems to me, is to try to take the most of that which is beautiful and important and just and develop a power to discriminate in our judgment so that we will not be cursed with the fallacies that come out of the 18th century and that were, to some extent, procreated and promoted by the Jeffersons of his time.

  So would you hold him up as a hero?
I would not hold Thomas Jefferson up as an American hero. I would hold him up as an American, an American who was a talented, gifted, creative human being, but whose flaws were such that they stand out graphically and even dramatically. So he's not a hero to me, but there are not many heroes without flaws. Perhaps we think that they shouldn't have flaws. In any case, his flaws are so great that he ceases to be a heroic figure for me.

  Do you think his reluctance to free his slaves comes from arrogance or fear?
I think that his reluctance to set the slaves free comes from selfishness and arrogance. Not fear. For a man who was in control, in complete control, who had no experience with insurrections or plots to insurrect or to rise up, I don't think that was a reality for him. I think that he was satisfied with the institution of slavery. He was comfortable with the work that slaves were doing for him. And it's merely one more excuse—you could call it arrogance if you will—for his arguing that slavery should be maintained or that he cannot set his slaves free or that they have a wolf by the ears and we cannot let him go or that, in the case of Thomas Coles, he should stay here and take care of his slaves. I think that that's what he had decided to do, and it was not fear.

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