Jefferson - Enlightenment: Personal Freedom Personal Freedom

"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us." First Sketch of Monticello

Thomas Jefferson began building his mountaintop home, Monticello, at the start of his public career, and began rebuilding it in 1796, when he felt driven from public life by the Federalists. He added rooms for his near-dozen grandchildren and completely remodeled the appearance of the place to reflect his more refined architectural tastes. Construction continued to the end of his life, with many of his plans still unrealized. Yet Monticello has been called the most perfect work of American architecture and the most perfect reflection of the man who made it.

"The art of life," Jefferson once wrote, "is the art of avoiding pain. [And] the most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures."
At Monticello, Jefferson could live this philosophy to the fullest, pursuing happiness in his books, in his building schemes, in his gardening and farming experiments, in his collection of natural curiosities and fine art objects, and in devising clever inventions (like a swivel chair and a set of self-opening doors) that made everyday life more convenient. Here, too, he could pursue the pleasures of society, gathering his family around him, entertaining his wide circle of friends and writing letters for hours each day to men and women throughout the United States and Europe.

Yet all Jefferson's happiness at Monticello, his whole "art of avoiding pain," came at the cost of inflicting pain on others - the pain of slavery. Slaves built Jefferson's home and rebuilt it. Slaves cultivated his gardens and fields. Slaves cared for his grandchildren and served his friends. Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life, kept a slave beside him as he wrote the Declaration of Independence, brought slaves to Washington as he restored democracy to American government. While other Virginians freed their slaves, Jefferson remained a slaveholder to his death. Slaves even dug his grave.

Jefferson spoke out against slavery in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of...the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other...The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who [permits] one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other....Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever...
He saw the evil in slavery, sought to prevent its spread into the western territories, and even offered legislation for emancipation. But by the end of his life, he could only hope that "time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also."

  • How can one reconcile Jefferson's acceptance of slavery with his lifelong devotion to freedom? In his film biography, Ken Burns frames this question as both the central paradox of Jefferson's personality and the most troubling part of his legacy to our nation. How would you answer the question?

  • How might your answer to the question above reflect on your own treatment of others as you engage in "the pursuit of happiness" and enjoy the blessings of liberty?

Near the beginning of Thomas Jefferson, Ken Burns quotes a letter Jefferson wrote to his daughter Patsy:

"Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for; for none of us, no, not one, is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love."

  • How might Jefferson's words apply to Jefferson himself? What has history shown he was "good for" despite his "imperfections?"

This study sheet provided on PBS ONLINE courtesy of General Motors
for Thomas Jefferson, "A General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation."
Photograph courtesy of the University of Virginia Library.