ityThomas Jefferson was a man of the greatest moral character who has beenexcoriated routinely over the last 30 years by historical revisionistsand presentists. His commitment to America and his vast contributions tothe framing of society as it is today are overlooked in favor of baseanalysis of his character that, while not flawless, is that of a morallyupright person who has deeply held convictions and lives by them. Jefferson was born to a prominent family of Virginia tobacco growers. Plantation life is based largely around the work of slaves, so Jeffersonwas surrounded by them from the time of his birth in 1743 until the dayhe died.
One of the harshest criticisms of Jefferson comes from the factthat, while he vehemently opposed slavery, was indeed a slave ownerhimself. As historian Douglas L. Wilson points out in his AtlanticMonthly article Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue, the questionshould be reversed: . .
. This was of asking the question. . .
is essentially backward, andreflects the pervasive presentism of our time. Consider, for example,how different the question appears when inverted and framed in morehistorical terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holdingsociety, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited afortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an earlyage that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it oughtto be abolished? (Wilson 66). Wilson also argues that Jefferson knew that his slaves would be betteroff working for him than freed in a world where they would be treatedwith contempt and not given any real freedoms. Another way that Thomas Jefferson shows his moral character is in hismost famous achievement, the drafting of the Declaration ofIndependence.
This document is probably the most important document inthe history of the United States, and one of the most important in thehistory of the world. Jefferson writes that all men are created equaland argues that every man has the right to life, liberty, and thepursuit of happiness. Jeffersons document shows not only his stronglyheld beliefs in freedom, but his acceptance of and belief in the viewsof the Age of Reason. He believed himself to be a person who was doingwhat was morally right, not for the fame that would eventually accompanyit.
In fact, he didnt want to write the Declaration to begin with. In1776, the song Not Me, John shows how Jefferson was pushed into doingit, despite the fact that he would have actually rather gone home to seehis wife. When nobody else would do it, he acquiesced and agreed towrite it. His quote, What will posterity think we were — demigods?Were men — no more, no less (1776), shows how as a contemporary ofsuch philosophical greats as Voltaire and Mill, he did what he didbecause it was what needed to happen — not in any way, shape, or formbecause he wanted to be remembered as a demigod, a status he actuallyhad anyway, according to Wilson, until the 1960s. Another thing that Jeffersons character is criticized for and blownout of proportion is his liaison with a slave, Sally Hemings. HistorianFawn Brodie argues that it was not scandalous debauchery with aninnocent slave victim, but rather a serious passion that broughtJefferson and the slave woman much happiness over a period lastingthirty-eight years.
True, their affair started when she was only 14years old, but to criticize this is terribly presentistic. In colonialtimes, especially in the middle and southern colonies, girls weremarried off between the ages of 13 and 16; it was not considereddefilement and abuse like it is today. In fact, his relationship withHemings could actually be considered to be a positive thing for him ontwo fronts: Since she was 52 when he died, Jefferson obviously did notlust after her solely on a physical basis; also, he promised his wifewhen she died that he would not remarry. He fulfilled his promise onlybecause he found a woman to love whom he was not expected, indeed notallowed, to marry.
This is a weak front on which to criticize Jefferson. Given Jeffersons contributions to American society, it is almostimpossible to find him to be morally weak and coarse. Those who do arepresentists, cynics, and nay-sayers who are simply looking for a way tocriticize