How Could a Slaveholder Write “All Men Are Created Equal?”

Could a slaveholder also be an advocate for equality for all? That is the riddle left behind by one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Meacham join Walter Isaacson to discuss Jefferson’s monuments and whether or not they should come down.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now here’s a question. Could a slave owner also be an advocate for equality for all? That is the riddle left behind by one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Meacham have teamed up for a study in contradiction. “In the Hands of the People: Thomas Jefferson on Equality, Faith, Freedom, Compromise, and the Art of Citizenship” was edited by Meacham and has an afterword by Gordon-Reed. And they tell our Walter Isaacson whether his monuments and that of so many others should come down.


WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, welcome to the show, both of you all. Annette Gordon-Reed, HISTORY PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Glad to be here.

ISAACSON: You have done this book on Jefferson. And I want to ask you, Annette Gordon-Reed, a question that Jon asked in the introduction to this book, which is, why turn to a slaveholder to give us advice about what to do in troubled times like this in a diverse culture?

GORDON-REED: Well, because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, American independence, and he wrote words that have meaning then and have even more meaning now to what we’re trying to accomplish as we transform society. So, his words matter, his ideals matter. And so that’s why he’s a good person to start with, I think.

ISAACSON: You say his ideals matter. Jon, tell us, what is the Jeffersonian ideal?

JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: The ideal is one of human equality. It was not realized then, hasn’t been realized now. But he did, in a kind of mission statement for the country, devote the national experiment to an ideal. And you don’t have to listen to me for that. Lincoln said that. In 1859, he wrote a letter about Jefferson, saying that he was the only man who, in the rush of a revolutionary struggle for independence, actually initiated that it would be an idea that would drive it and an idea that would be a stumbling block to tyranny and oppression for all future generations.

ISAACSON: How do you wrestle, then, with slavery and him writing about equality, but being a slave owner?

GORDON-REED: Because I realize that there are many things that people believe intellectually that they are not capable of carrying out emotionally, because of their commitments to a particular way of life, to their commitments to a community, their people. And that’s the fallibility of humankind, of human beings, to be able to see something — and some things you can do things about. He thought that moving from Great Britain, changing Virginia laws in lots of different ways, those were kinds of things that he worked on. But this is something that he just could not bring himself to deal with. And that’s a flaw. And that’s a flaw that we recognize. Jon and I have written about this.

ISAACSON: Jon, you written both about Jackson, Jefferson and others who were slave owners. Tell us how you wrestle with the question of judging them by the times that they lived in, and also judging them by our standards and our times.

MEACHAM: The way I come — the way I decide this, because I have written about incredibly flawed people, right, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson. These were people who have significant, significant moral failings that were not just moral failings. They were massive political ones. And they contributed to the most — the deleterious chapters of our national story. But my view is, you can’t then banish those people from the public sphere or push them to the side, because that lets the rest of us off the hook. These were political people. They were makers of manners and morals, but they were also mirrors of manners and morals. And so, when you talk about Andrew Jackson, many, many Americans who are feeling awfully self-righteous about Andrew Jackson right now are living on land that his actions brought into the presiding regime sphere of influence. And what we have to do, I think, is not look up at them mindlessly and celebrate them. But we shouldn’t look down on them condescendingly either, but look them in the eye, see what we can learn, and then apply those lessons. And the moral utility of history, in my view, is if the best people in the public lives of the nation in the past could get stuff so horribly wrong, what are we getting so horribly wrong right now?

GORDON-REED: That’s the thing that I talk to my students about quite a bit. What are the things today that people 100 years from now will look back and say, can you imagine they did this? Now, this doesn’t mean that you excuse people. I mean, I think history is a moral enterprise, I mean, that you can’t help, at some level, make judgments about the people about whom you’re writing. It’s a question of balance, however. And remember that, if you’re talking about a human being, that we have our preoccupations. We are preoccupied, and I think rightly so, with slavery as an institution, with race as a problem. But Jefferson, those were not his categories, whether they should have been or not. That’s not what he was preoccupied with. Jefferson — the signal — the most important thing in Jefferson’s life was his participation as a revolutionary in the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America, a new country. And that’s — once that happened, that became his focus. And he thought that that — his life’s mission would be to — creating and maintaining that country. Now, this business about slavery, that would be something that would solve itself in time. Now, we know that’s not true. We know that didn’t happen. But if we’re — as biographers, as we all are here, if you’re looking at a person, you’re trying to figure out what mattered to them and why did it matter to them, and it’s difficult to do anything in the world. That’s one of the things that we have all learned, to do anything. But to do lots of different things — and I’m speaking of Jefferson now — is pretty amazing. And I don’t — it’s not a question of forgiving him for not solving the slavery problem. I think the slavery problem was solved the way it was going to be solved. And that is not something a person who put together a union could bear to think about.

ISAACSON: Do you think, having read so much about Jefferson, and you have written two or three books really on him, Annette, and you have written a magisterial biography, Jon. Do you think he wrestled with the moral issue of slavery personally, about having slaves and should he free them?

GORDON-REED: Wrestle would be too strong a word. No, I don’t think he wrestled with it. Peter Onuf and I, in our last book, one of the things we suggest is that France was a pivotal moment for him, when he was there as minister to France. And he looked at Europe and saw the problem of the peasantry, saw pre-revolutionary France, how long it taken them to get to a point where they would rebel. And he — his attitude about slavery, we think, changed there. And other people have noticed this. This is not something we have just come up with. But we think — we have some reasons why — but he comes back. And he decides that, instead of working against it, he is going to be a — quote, unquote — “good slave owner.” Amelioration becomes the word for him. And that happened to other people as well, but to do slavery, but do slavery in a different way. And, of course, once you do that, it’s over, if you start thinking of yourself as capable of being a good slave owner. And so I don’t think he wrestled, because he thought — we look at it and say — some people may look at this and say, how could he? But he would think that he was a good person. And so he begins to change his attitudes about how to do this, and satisfies himself that he’s doing as well as can be done until this situation was over. Not satisfactory, but I think that’s — I don’t see him — he’s not tossing and turning at night, saying, oh, my God, I know this is wrong, and I should be doing something. I think he thought the next generation of people would do it. His job was to keep the federalists from ruining the American Revolution.

ISAACSON: Jon, we have had a lot of talk about removal of Confederate monuments, and now even there’s talk about removal of Thomas Jefferson. So, let’s look at that slope and see if we can get some footholds here, so it doesn’t become so slippery of a slope. First of all, with the Confederate monuments, how do you feel about now removing them, when they were put up to celebrate Confederate officers?

MEACHAM: Well, my view — and my credentials here are, I was born in Chattanooga. I went to the university in the South. I grew up on Missionary Ridge, a Civil War battlefield. I live in Nashville. So this is not some Upper East Side view. I firmly believe that, if you took up arms against the Constitution, and thereby ended the experiment and the journey toward a more perfect union, you ended the context that gave us the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, however incomplete and however poorly implemented. You should not be venerated on public property. I’m not going to tell you what you should do at your house or in a church or a school. That’s for those institutions to decide. But if it’s a courthouse square, and you attempted to end the United States of America, and create a slave empire that had ambitions to go into the Caribbean and go into Cuba, to look south, to create an independent nation, I don’t think you should be there. And my test which I proposed after Charlottesville, now almost three years ago, was, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, those people who were wildly imperfect, should be judged by a different standard than Confederate figures.

ISAACSON: Annette, do you think you can draw such a crisp line between removing Confederate statues, but keeping up Jefferson and Jackson?

GORDON-REED: Yes. And I have written that. And I have said that. There’s a difference between trying to destroy the United States of America and trying — and actually having created it. And the people who created it are individuals that we have to grapple with their lives, with the imperfection of their lives, the good things they did and the bad things that they did. But it’s hard to go on living in a place that people created without some sort of acknowledgement of what it is that they did. But what you can’t do — this is what Jon mentioned before — the sort of hero worship, the suggestion that they were gods, or that we can’t criticize them, or that we shouldn’t talk about slavery, we should not talk about the way they fell short. That’s the problem. The problem is veneration, and without a realistic assessment of them. The Confederates, this is — I don’t know. It’s sort of odd to think how this — what people have written about how we have come to this point, or came to the point where people who lost the war got to put up monuments all over, and that people see them as people as worthy of veneration, that you can have the flag of the United States and the Confederacy together, as if that’s not mutually exclusive. It is sort of is hard to see how we came to this point. So I do think it’s a good bright line to draw.

ISAACSON: Jon, Jefferson knew that — and this is in your book, all these quotes, about partisanship. I mean, he was pretty dedicated to engagement in political issues. But what would he think of the type of partisanship we have now at this moment?

MEACHAM: I think he would recognize it, honestly. He once said, divisions of opinion have convulsed human societies since Greece and Rome. Divisions of opinion were the oxygen of a free government. I’m a skeptic of the prevailing scholarly view that the founders had this vision of a one-party — excuse me — one-party state and we would all be on Olympus with powdered wigs and solving problems. They may have had that vision. We all have that vision. But they understood reality. If you worry — if you’re worried about or if you doubt me about whether they understood reality, read the Constitution, which is entirely about reality. The Constitution — if Jefferson was an enlightenment document, the Constitution is a Calvinist document. It assumes we are all depraved and sinful and driven by appetite and ambition. And we have done everything we can since then to prove them right. So, I think this is a — the Hemings — the story about Sally Hemings was first publicized in 1802. And we — with all love and respect to Annette, we don’t know that much more than that first piece, do we?



MEACHAM: The basic — but it was…

GORDON-REED: Oh, you mean the basic outlines of the story?


GORDON-REED: Yes. Yes. Yes.

MEACHAM: It wasn’t seen as a historical or cultural document. It was a partisan attack.

GORDON-REED: Yes, yes.


GORDON-REED: And continued during that — during his presidency, and a few times afterwards.

ISAACSON: There’s been a big debate recently coming out of “The New York Times” 1619 Project of, how much do we need to revise our concept of the founding of this nation? Do you think that makes sense? Or has it gone a bit too far?

GORDON-REED: Well, the problem is, historians have been writing about this now for quite some time. But what we haven’t done as much is to think about what that means for us today, that the legacy of slavery is still with us. There’s a tendency — there has been a tendency on the part of many people to say, oh, well, we knew that, but that’s over. I think that’s the — that’s the contribution of the magazine, of 1619, is not to tell us something, many things that we didn’t know, but to say, there is a connection to this that is continuing. You don’t get rid of hundreds of years of slavery in a century or so. I mean, we really don’t get going as legally full citizens until 1965, the passage of the Voting Rights Act. That’s not — in the history, that’s a blink of an eye. It’s not even a total blink of an eye in history. And thinking that this stuff is all in the past has been the problem. And that’s — I think that’s what the project was trying to do, was to say, no, this isn’t over.


MEACHAM: I was struck, I believe it was the remarks at the signing of the Civil Rights Act in July, July 2, 1964. Lyndon Johnson grounds his remark at the bill signing not on Philadelphia, but on Jamestown, and which I was struck by.

GORDON-REED: Yes. Talk about a complicated figure.

MEACHAM: Yes, there you go.


MEACHAM: Well, we’re — the Democratic nominee for president is a 77-year- old white man who was the vice president of the first African-American president, incredibly loyal, and eulogized Thurmond and Eastland. So, if you’re looking for simplicity, if you’re looking for straightforward figures, good luck. I don’t know who they would be. I think what Annette just said is absolutely essential. I have a theory — I have bored Walter with this, I think, privately.


MEACHAM: Actually that we’re only a 60-year-old nation, right? The country we have right now, the polity we have, which is soon going to be majority diversity, whatever phrase it is, was really created in 1964-’65, not only with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but with the Immigration Act, which totally changed the nature of the country.


MEACHAM: And so no wonder this is so hard. No wonder we’re having such a ferocious white reaction. This is kind of the 1830s in a way. And so it’s not to excuse it, but I do think it explains it a little bit. And this idea of progress — and I know it sounds tinny to people. And, look, if you look like me, you can talk about progress, right? I’m a boringly heterosexual white Southern Episcopalian, right? I mean, things tend to work out for me in America. So, I stipulate that. But, but it’s simply the lesson of history that we are, in fact, a better country than we were yesterday. Doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Doesn’t mean we stop, but are enough of us devoted to doing all we can as citizens and as leaders to try to create a country that more of us can be proud of?


MEACHAM: And if we are, then let’s get to it.

GORDON-REED: Yes. And I would throw in women, the changing role of women from the 1960s. And this is — that’s a good point. I wouldn’t — I agree with 60 years, again, a short time in history where everything — where everybody’s sort of in place. It’s like Ken Burns said, that he found it difficult to call – – talk about the golden age of baseball.


GORDON-REED: And there were no black players in the Major League. How do you do that? And this is a similar situation, where you have blacks legally allowed to vote, and those rights are protected. I mean, there’s issues with voter suppression, but sort of, on paper, equality is there. And it’s hard. It’s wrenching for people who have had power, who were used to a certain hierarchy, a certain way things are — were, or they think about their grandparents, the good old days. It’s hard to get used to all of that. And so you’re right. There’s no wonder that there’s a people upheaval.

ISAACSON: Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, thank you all for joining us.

GORDON-REED: Good to be here.

About This Episode EXPAND

Activists Aalayah Eastmond and Alicia Garza reflect on the role of young people in social movements like Black Lives Matter and the March for Our Lives. Author Lemn Sissay recounts his experiences of systemic racism growing up in Britain. Historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Meacham discuss Thomas Jefferson’s complicated legacy.