James Horton | Historian

James Horton is the Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University and director of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. His books include Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community and the newly published In Hope of Liberty.

  Why are we drawn to Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson, I think, for many Americans is an icon for our country. He is a metaphor for America. As one of his biographers said, "If Thomas Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If Thomas Jefferson is right, America is right." In many ways, Thomas Jefferson represents the fact that we as a society, as with him, don't always live up to our grandest principles. We have wonderful principles and we state them well, but we don't always live by them. Thomas Jefferson had that very human quality. And so Thomas Jefferson represents for Americans a window on ourselves, on our nation, on our personality as a group of people.

  How do you reconcile this man who wrote "all men are created equal" and yet owned 200 human beings?
This is the great contradiction of Thomas Jefferson—the fact that, as a slaveholder, he was also a great advocate of human freedom. He had difficulty, I think, reconciling his principles with his actions. In that way, he was human. We have often placed Thomas Jefferson in a situation which is not always fair to Thomas Jefferson. I mean, this is a man, this is a man with human frailty. The fact that he was so much more than many of the average men of the time has sometimes confused us so that we start to think of him as more than human. And he really wasn't. He was really a human being.

  So you forgive Thomas Jefferson?
I forgive Thomas Jefferson as I forgive any human being, but I understand that Thomas Jefferson has responsibilities to his own principles, as he does to his own society, and we as a society have responsibilities to our own principles. I don't forgive Thomas Jefferson in not following through in ways that he himself recognized were hypocritical. So that he could talk about human equality and human dignity and human liberty and at the same time be involved in an institution which denied all of that. And as a result, he was placed in a situation where he was often forced to rationalize his actions so that they would come close to his principles. He never quite pulled that off, and as a society, America never quite pulled it off either.

  So, he is us. He created the fault line...because he could not live out his creed.
Well, I don't want to lay all of our problems on the shoulders of Thomas Jefferson, but certainly he does exemplify many of the contradictions of the society in which he lived and the society which he helped to generate. And those contradictions flow around issues of race.

  Are we too hard on Thomas Jefferson?
Well, I don't think so. Thomas Jefferson is not an average person. We don't celebrate him as an average person. If Thomas Jefferson had been an average slaveholding person from Virginia, you wouldn't be making this movie. We wouldn't be talking about him here. The fact is that Thomas Jefferson, in many ways, was an extraordinary person. And so when you have an extraordinary person that is so ordinary—or even less than ordinary, in terms of his actions regarding slavery—one wonders. One wonders at how difficult it must have been for people of the time to come to grips with what must have been a striking contradiction between principle and practice.

  Was he a racist?
That's a very difficult question to answer except to say that he believed that race was a key determinant of a person's ability and of a person's character. To that extent, yes, he was. Was he a racist in terms that we would understand in 1995? That's a more difficult question to answer. But I would have to say that if Thomas Jefferson were living in 1995, looking at himself and his life 200 years before, he would certainly agree that race had played the central role in his viewing of human beings and his shaping of his ideas about human character.

  What do you feel about Monticello?
It's interesting. When I go to Monticello, one of the things I think about is that this is a place dedicated to one person in a large society of people who lived on that plantation. Thomas Jefferson, his family, and the white people on that plantation were certainly the rulers of that plantation, but they were—in terms of numbers and in terms of the shapers of the culture—they were a minority on that plantation. And so I am happy, for example, that Monticello has in the recent past started to investigate the total society of Monticello, which does include Thomas Jefferson but also includes a great number of Thomas Jefferson's slaves.

Sally Hemings Accusation

  Was Sally Hemings his mistress?
We don't know. How can you know that? The only thing we do know is that there is strong circumstantial evidence. I think a more interesting question is: Why do we care? And the answer to that question, I think, lies in our need to believe in the perfection of this American icon. The fact of life is that whether or not Thomas Jefferson produced children by Sally Hemings, it was not at all unusual for slaveholders to produce children by slaves. That was true in the 18th century, through the 19th century, and most people in the South before, after, and during Thomas Jefferson's time understood that.

  So it obscures the real issue, which is...
It tells us more about us than it does about him. The question to be asked is, Why are we so intent upon learning the answer to that question which, obviously, we can never learn? Would it make a difference? Would it make a difference that this man who says "I'm for freedom" holds people in slavery, and then does he have to take the next step and produce people who he will hold in slavery? Perhaps; perhaps he did. I think, as I said, that there's strong circumstantial evidence that he did. But there's certainly no definitive evidence that he did. I would still honor the Declaration of Independence even if Thomas Jefferson had produced children by Sally Hemings. And I would also argue that blacks at the time and in the century following honored the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson's words even as they recognized the inconsistency of the man in terms of his actions.

  So you're saying that Jefferson didn't just give ammunition to John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis.
No, I think the most interesting thing about Thomas Jefferson is that he provided ammunition for a broad range of political points of view and political actions during the time. You can read Thomas Jefferson's words and cannot help but be impressed by his commitment in writing to the issue of human liberty. But by the same token, you can read others of Thomas Jefferson's words and be struck by the extent to which he speculated, and speculated strongly, on issues of racial inequality. So that the complexity of the man is that he provides us a window into some of our most important ideals and he also provides us a window into some of our most troubling beliefs about human beings.

  What do we take away from that?
I think that what we have to do is what blacks in the abolitionist movement tried to do. And that is, they tried to take what was most useful, most progressive, most—and I want to use this term advisedly— “American” about Thomas Jefferson. That is, taking his American pronouncements and placing those pronouncements before the nation to say to the nation, "This is what you say you believe, and if you really believe what you say you believe, well then, you've got to take certain actions." So that what we can do is to try to make the nation do things which Thomas Jefferson found it difficult to do. That is, follow through on the stated beliefs.

  Drink in Monticello...
When you go to a Monticello of the 18th century, the thing you're going to be aware of is not only is it a European society with European cultural artifacts and cultural atmosphere, it's also an African society. In some ways, what you're seeing is American society, because America was this blend of European and African culture, native American culture. Especially that's true in the South—in Virginia, where large numbers of the population are African people; in South Carolina, where the majority of the people were African people. And so the sounds and the sights and the traditions and the way people moved and the way white people moved in this largely African setting is something that you would notice. And, in fact, Europeans did notice. One of the things that's really interesting to look at is European descriptions of American white people in the 18th and early 19th century. And one of the things that becomes very clear is the impact of African culture on those white people.

  Is Thomas Jefferson afraid of emancipation?
Oh, I think there's no doubt about the fact that he fears what might happen if large numbers of former slaves are set free in American society. The first thing he fears is that they will take retribution—that they will not have forgotten that they have been held in slavery against their will and that they will be violent as a result. He knows, for example, of Gabriel's Rebellion in Virginia in the early 1800s, and he is very concerned about the possibility that more racial violence might come. In any case, the choice is whether you free blacks and then have these newly freed slaves act in retribution or whether you don't and have them rebel and act in retribution. We have, after all, undergone a Haitian revolution, and he is very much aware of that fact. And that was a bloody revolution which brought Haiti into existence as an independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere. His whole notion of having the wolf by the ears, afraid to hold on and afraid to let go, comes from this. When the Missouri Compromise was being debated, he talked about the "firebell in the night" being sounded. That is, this whole debate over slavery and emancipation was coming, and he worried what that would do to the nation eventually. All these are the fears of Thomas Jefferson.

  Go back to Philadelphia. Was slavery sacrificed for the sake of union?
I think that is a more difficult question than we have thought in the past. Look at this possibility: South Carolina and Georgia were the only states that absolutely insisted upon slavery being a part of the Union. Other states had varying points of view, but they were willing to compromise on this issue. What would have happened if South Carolina and Georgia had been let go? What would have happened if the other 11 states had said no? What were their choices? They could have become a nation unto themselves, a nation bordering the new nation of the United States on one side and Spain on the other side, with England having recently being divested of its colonies and still licking its chops and looking in their direction. It seems to me that this was a moment in history, as historians are now beginning to realize, where a decision to do away with slavery could have been a meaningful and possible solution. The fact that the decision wasn't made tells us a lot about the fact that slavery was only a manifestation of a larger race issue which even those states which eventually did away with slavery within the next decade or so had not comes to grips with. And it also tells us that there were other kinds of political wheeling and dealing going on with reference to tariffs and with reference to all kinds of things that were only tangentially associated with slavery, which made it possible for two states to press their will on the other 11.

  Do you think Thomas Jefferson was a hero?
Well, I think Thomas Jefferson is a hero but a hero that is flawed. He is a hero in that he said the right things and wrote them well. He is a hero in that he stands for the things that most Americans hold dear. But I think that he is not a hero because he didn't have the personal tenacity, the personal wherewithal, to stand against many in his society and stand in favor of a total liberty and a total freedom.

  So, in the end, do we hold him close to our hearts?
I think in the end we see Thomas Jefferson as a very smart man, as a man with principles that we admire, as a very human man, and as a person who could not in the final analysis reconcile his principles with his practice. In some ways, I think that we have to stop being adolescent about Thomas Jefferson. Sometimes we want to see our parents as perfect in every way. Thomas Jefferson didn't come close to being perfect in every way. His failings were major. They were significant. Holding people in slavery is not a minor thing, especially when you do so while professing something entirely different as your deepest-held beliefs. But in the final analysis, he did some very important and very positive things in terms of charting the course for American society, and I think he ought to be honored for that. But I think that we ought to also understand that to hold Thomas Jefferson as a hero is to hold a human being as a hero, and understand that that human being has very human faults and frailty, and that slavery—and race even more than slavery—was a central failing, an obstacle that he could never quite overcome.

  Is Thomas Jefferson's story America's story?
In many ways, I think Thomas Jefferson's story is America's story. It is a story of lofty principles and actions that don't quite match. It is a story of knowing that you can be better than you, in fact, are. And it seems to me that in today's society, the society that Thomas Jefferson's principles ultimately helped to shape, we have some responsibilities—the responsibility of a citizen, not a subject. That is, we have the responsibility to say to America as we would say to Thomas Jefferson, "You have talked the talk, but you've got to walk the walk. You've got to do what you can do to put your principles into practice. And if you settle for less than that, you are being less than what you can be." One of the things that I am always struck with is the potential of this nation, of this society. No American, no good American, can ever allow that potential to fall short. And so often what we do by simply accepting all the frailties and all the failures in a person translates into accepting those failures in the society. A human being has limitations that a group of human beings that form themselves into a society may be able to overcome. And as a society, we have our responsibility to strive to overcome not only the frailties and shortcomings of Thomas Jefferson but the failures of our own society.

Banneker Letter

  If you could be a fly on the wall...
You know, if I could be a fly on the wall, watching Thomas Jefferson, I would like to have been there when he received the letter from Benjamin Banneker, the black astronomer and scientist from Baltimore who wrote to Thomas Jefferson in answer to Thomas Jefferson's request that somebody, please, give him any evidence that a black person could calculate, could show that they were capable of scientific reasoning. And so Benjamin Banneker sent him all of his calculations, his almanac, which was a scientific document of the time. Thomas Jefferson is very, very impressed by this. Now, we don't know what he really thought. We don't know what he really felt about the information that Banneker sent him. But I would love to have been there when he was alone reading these papers, trying to figure out what he felt about this. Ultimately, he says "Well, I don't believe it. I don't believe that this black man wrote this information. I mean, it's too sophisticated." But, you know, here's a scientist—Thomas Jefferson studied everything. Why not, then, have this man come and study him? Why not have him answer questions? You know, these are the questions that I would have to ask Thomas Jefferson, but I would love to have been there to know what he really thought. And I suspect what he really thought was, "Wow, this is pretty impressive stuff. And how do I explain this having been produced by a person who represents a group of people that I have said are inferior, are incapable of such things?"

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