jefferson's blood
homevideo reportsis it true?jefferson enigmaslaves' storychronologyview the story

Our Jefferson by Jack N. Rakove
Jack N. Rakove is a professor of History at Stanford University and the author of numerous books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Excerpted with permission from Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp.217-224. Reprinted with permission of University Press of Virginia.

As absorbed as we are in our speculations about Jefferson and Hemings, a skeptic might well wonder whether an absolute verification of the relationship would alter our understanding of the one member of the founding generation who still lives most vividly in our historical imagination. Obviously we would have to adjust our views of the "character" of the "inner Jefferson," hitherto deployed to support a conclusion opposite to the one that will now be sustained. Obviously, too, we would have to wonder how Jefferson could allow his children by Sally to disappear into a sort of netherworld of free society without providing his posterity with the full measure of liberty they deserved. No doubt the recent findings will help keep the Jefferson industry thriving well into the new millennium.

Yet what else does the Jefferson-Hemings relationship really add to the basic problem that has confronted us all along, which is simply to reconcile Jefferson's egalitarian commitments with the reality of his life as a slaveholder and his inability to discipline his reckless expenditures in the principled cause of emancipating his own slaves? As much as the relationship complicates and enlarges the problem of understanding Jefferson's private life, including the psychology of slaveholding, it does not fundamentally alter the essential public dilemma. Jefferson professed to hate slavery first and foremost for its effects on the republican citizen, but also, in more modest degree, for its effects on the slave; he drafted a bill for emancipation that corresponded with the best enlightened opinion of his age; he publicly affirmed that the freed slaves deserved settlement in a country of their own. Yet he never emancipated any slaves but those of the Hemings family; he never agitated for enactment of the bill he had drafted; he reacted with the deepest alarm to the slave revolt in Santo Domingo and to the growth of a (somewhat) more militant antislavery sentiment in the United States; and his notion of exactly where the freed slaves might be resettled continually receded as his "empire for liberty" progressively expanded. For the nineteenth-century South, his legacy included the flirtation with nullification in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and the avowal of a proto-scientific theory of racial inferiority in his Notes on the State of Virginia-- both foreshadowing critical elements of the new militance the South would project as slavery came under renewed and more fervent assault.

For the historian, it will not do to lump Jefferson's failings together under a valedictory judgment of hypocrisy. After all, hypocrisy is only a characterization of how we act, not an explanation of the sources of our actions. Nor is there much advantage to be gained by pursuing Jefferson with the sort of prosecutorial zeal exemplified in the work of Paul Finkelman. True, Finkelman and other likeminded critics have performed yeoman service by demonstrating just how easily Jefferson subordinated his ostensible abhorrence of slavery to more pressing considerations, both public and private. Yet does that disturbing evidence truly warrant the conclusion that "no one bore a greater responsibility for that failure [to place the nation on the road to liberty for all] than the author of the Declaration of Independence--the Master of Monticello"? Given the depth of the southern commitment to the peculiar institution as the bedrock of its economic, legal, social, and moral order, and the fact that its abolition ultimately required the outside intervention made possible only by the Civil War, it beggars the imagination to see how the engaged opposition to slavery that Jefferson admittedly never mounted would have made any difference in the fate of slavery. Judgments of moral responsibility and political agency are not always interchangeable.

Yet they are always troubling, and never more so to historians than when they feel impelled to encourage their students to suspend the impulse to judge in the interest of cultivating the need to understand. The one occasion on which I regularly confront our Jefferson problem comes when I make "Thomas Jefferson and the American Dilemma" the subject of the lecture that closes my course on colonial and revolutionary America. In that capacity, I act more as a teacher than a scholar; or rather, I try to bring my perspectives as a scholar of the eighteenth century to bear on my vocation of a teacher. As a scholar, it is not especially important to me to judge the morality of the actors of the past. Those judgments, if one wishes to make them, come easily and are not very challenging; explaining the sources of the acts committed is more difficult. As a teacher, however, I feel an obligation not only to answer my students' natural concern--even anxiety--to know how to think about Jefferson but, more important, to challenge their natural presumption that the moral values of our own enlightened age are superior to those of the Age of Enlightenment that Jefferson helped to illuminate.

In casting my Jefferson lecture in these terms, I confess to being much influenced by a passage that Gordon Wood wrote about the efforts of our mutual teacher, Bernard Bailyn, to write a "tragic" history of the American Revolution that would deal fairly with the most interesting of its real "losers": Thomas Hutchinson, penultimate royal governor of Massachusetts. Here Wood argues that Americans do not really want to hear about the unusability and pastness of the past or about the latent limitations within which people in the past were obliged to act. They do not want to hear about the blindness of people in the past or about the inescapable boundaries of their action. Such a history has no immediate utility and is apt to remind us of our own powerlessness, of our own inability to control events and predict the future.

The discipline of history, Wood continues, does not fully share the common project of other social sciences. Where these disciplines try to breed confidence in managing the future, the discipline of history tends to inculcate skepticism about people's ability to order their destinies at will. History that reveals the utter differentness and discontinuity of the past tends to undermine that crude instrumental and presentist use of the past that Americans have especially been prone to. Arid history that shows that the best-laid plans of people in the past often went awry and that most people struggled against forces which they never clearly understood or over which they had little control tends to dampen that naive conquer-the-future spirit that Americans above all other peoples possess.

And yet, Wood concludes, it is only by understanding those limitations-- and not by imposing arbitrary degrees of freedom that the past never really enjoyed--that we can understand what "makes true freedom and moral choice--and wisdom--possible."

What draws us to Jefferson--and what most troubles us about him--is that our Jefferson problem embodies the incompatible poles of historical consciousness that Wood identifies. That Jefferson was embedded in a vicious institution that he inherited but had not created goes without saying; that his doubts about it fell far short of what was demanded or morally correct is just as apparent. Yet who better represents the American conviction that the past is something from which we can be liberated--indeed should be liberated--than Jefferson? There is more wit and irony in Franklin; a more prudent accounting of the possibilities and perils of popular government in Madison; a more realistic grasp of public policy and foreign relations in Hamilton; and a more insightful understanding of human nature in John Adams. But Jefferson speaks to us as the great optimist, the apostle of equality and democracy, the believer in the power of reason and the opponent of superstition and hidebound tradition. It is Jefferson who tells us we should have confidence in our own judgment, when his friend Madison warns us--as he warned Jefferson-- that the play of public opinion on politics has to be carefully checked, that people more often act out of impulsive passion or selfish interest than a prudent regard for their own or the public good. As Wood has elsewhere noted, none of his contemporaries was more optimistic, or more inclined to prefer the promise of the future to the errors of the past. "He was a virtual Pollyanna about everything," Wood observes; he "had little understanding of man's capacity for evil and had no tragic sense whatsoever." Hence Jefferson embodied, even helped to create, that very impoverishment of a historical sense that Wood decries--but which we arguably need to apply if we are ever to come to grips with our Jefferson problem. It is precisely the difficulty we experience in looking at Jefferson in this way that makes his failure to come to grips with the problem of slavery so troubling. If Jefferson, with his belief in reason and equality and progress, could do no better, then what could be expected of the rest of American society?

I have come to suspect--although I cannot prove--that Jefferson understood this quandary better than we have realized. Far from dismissing the contradiction between Jefferson's public condemnation of slavery and the possessive individualism of his own slaveholding as rank hypocrisy, I now regard his inability to imagine how whites and blacks could ever coexist as an act of moral honesty. Having looked into his own heart (again) and seen the depth of the prejudice that resided there, how could he have imagined that his countrymen would prove more enlightened?

Treating Jefferson not as a hypocrite or slacker but as someone grappling with questions he could solve neither intellectually nor morally may help us to think anew about that passage in his writings which disturbs us most: the discourse on racial difference in Query XIV of the Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson opened his discussion of the logic of linking his proposed scheme of gradual emancipation with a plan to colonize the freed population elsewhere by noting that "It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?" Jefferson initially answered this rhetorical question in a single, remarkably direct if grimly pessimistic sentence: "Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race." What Jefferson was arguing, in effect, was that this relationship was already so tainted, indeed poisoned, that it could never be made right; that the currents of mutual fear and justifiable resentment were likely to run so deep and strong that no stable society could ever be reconstructed with this disturbed history as its foundation--much less a republican society requiring strong bonds of fraternity to provide the cohesion that an absent aristocracy would not be available to offer.

Had Jefferson stopped there, or merely elaborated this point, we could still fault him for a lack of remorse and a failure of moral nerve, but we would also have to credit his willingness to confront the problem of creating a biracial society with a painful if disturbing honesty. But Jefferson did not stop there. He immediately plunged on to offer a further point: "To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral." From here Jefferson quickly descended into his discussion of the physical and intellectual differences that must long discourage the free white and black citizens of one polity from ever coexisting on conditions of equality. The account Jefferson offers, however, is frankly a mess. From a brief speculation about the possible physical sources of differences in complexion, he quickly passes on to a merely aesthetic opinion about the relative beauty and expressiveness of the two races, the one capable of changing color to reveal emotion, the other "veil[ed]" in an "eternal monotony" of "the countenances." Then Jefferson recovers and returns to "other physical distinctions," which turn out to offer a rather loosely defined category of analysis, including some extraordinarily subjective impressions about the emotional state of Africans. Some of the observations are downright foolish. First Jefferson notes that blacks "seem to require less sleep," being inclined to stay awake "for the slightest amusements"; then, a few sentences later, he illustrates the observation that "their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection" by associating it with "their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour." What else were they supposed to do in the intervals between the labor demanded by their master and the casual leisure they expropriated for themselves: crack open copies of The Iliad or Tristram Shandy, or manuals of personal improvement--and to what end? A further comparison of the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley and Ignatius Sancho with the artistic accomplishments of the slaves of antiquity also seems like an extended digression.

From our vantage point, we have good reason to wish that Jefferson might have allowed a sense of discretion to get the better part of his intellectual valor. Yet the confusions of this passage instruct us to read it with some care. For starters, it is essential to understand that Jefferson's foray into a proto-scientific racism was made in defense not of slavery but of emancipation. That by itself distinguishes it significantly from the more virulent expressions of racism that would be offered in later generations, for then observations of racial difference were more commonly made to explain why enslavement was in fact a logical and natural condition for an entire people. Jefferson's concern is rather with explaining the problem that emancipation of a racially distinct population would pose for the future of republican citizenship. Moreover, by shuffling awkwardly between different modes of comparison and analysis, Jefferson conveys his self-conscious embarrassment about the implications of the position he is tentatively espousing, and this becomes even more manifest when Jefferson closes his discussion on a note of uncertainty. The conclusion he is suggesting, Jefferson warns us, "must be hazarded with great diffidence," not least because its acceptance might work to "degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them." Jefferson then undermines his conclusion even further by questioning the basis of his own reasoning. "To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history." In other words, as plausible as everything Jefferson has just alleged about racial difference may be, it is little more than speculation resting on an incomplete and inadequate empirical foundation.

This impression of Jefferson's intellectual embarrassment draws further corroboration from the other section of the Notes on the State of Virginia addressed to the "particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state." It is not self-evident that Jefferson needed to answer that query by discussing the effect of slavery on the character of the free citizenry. Surely that broad heading could have sustained other possible answers that would have skirted the slavery question entirely--as if blacks were merely the objects of white control, not active participants in society. Instead, Jefferson invokes slavery as a fundamental threat to republican citizenship, and in terms that simultaneously elevate the subject race to the condition of a people capable of freedom. 'And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, "Jefferson asks, "who permitting one half the citizens to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part [the masters], and the amor patriae of the other [the slaves]." To speak of the enslaved as the other half of the citizenry, possessing rights at least in potentia, is a revealing usage, and so is the concession that "love of country" is something that slaves can be desired to possess but not expected to acquire. This language echoes one of the opening sentences of the earlier discussion of emancipation, where Jefferson imagines how the preparations for freedom will end. When the younger members of the enslaved race reach the appointed age (eighteen for women, twenty-one for men), "they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household and of the handicraft arts, feeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c." --- and further, those making this colonization possible should also take care "to declare them a free and independent people." The echo of 1776 is unmistakable, for what the Declaration of Independence finally declared was that the colonies were now "Free and Independent States." A truly free and independent people following the example of 1776 should not, of course, have independence declared for it, but declare it for itself, making its own Lockean appeal to heaven because slavery, by Locke's own terms, cannot be established as a hereditary condition. That was a prospect that Jefferson, fearful of slave rebellion, could conceive but not countenance. Yet Jefferson's doubts about the capacities of a freed population to be integrated as equal citizens in a republican polity cannot completely outweigh his recognition that they were equally entitled, as a people, to reclaim the rights of self-government their enslavement had denied them.

In both queries, Jefferson's brief for emancipation takes an avowedly political cast, resting on the dual assumption that just as blacks cannot be expected to take the part of equal citizens, so whites reared in the habits of domination cannot be expected to acquire the attributes desired of republican citizens. Yet in the later query, Jefferson strikes an entirely different and surprising note. Now when he "tremble[s] for my country," it is divine, not civil justice that he invokes, conjuring the order of a morally governed universe where neither a mechanistic deity nor a politically correct ultimate reality reigns, but a justice-dispensing God. If not quite a God of revelation or miracles--for what miracle could rescue Americans from this sin.?--it is still an almighty clothed in the mantle of the Old and New Testament, and ominously capable of intervening in human history to permit "a revolution in the wheel of fortune" through an act of "supernatural influence!" Lay this passage aside Lincoln's second inaugural, which pronounces the sentence that God has just (and justly) executed on both parties to the Civil War as "true and righteous altogether," and their symmetry is perfectly complementary. So is the deeper irony linking their authors: two men who had escaped the blinders and shackles of doctrinal creed or denominational loyalty, yet who had absorbed the language of a Protestant moralism and who understood its hold on the consciences of their countrymen.

The way in which Jefferson's troubled and troubling treatment of slavery and race in these passages implicates his commitments to equality, self-government, and the rights of conscience provides the larger context within which, I believe, Americans need to reflect on the complexity of the Jeffersonian legacy. It is to restoring this complexity that I now turn.

home ·  view the report ·  is it true? ·  the jefferson enigma ·  the slaves' story ·  mixed race america
special video reports ·  discussion ·  links ·  quiz ·  chronology ·  gene map
interviews ·  synopsis ·  tapes ·  teacher's guide ·  press
FRONTLINE ·  pbs online ·  wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation