Common misconceptions about Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was an incredible man. From penning the Declaration of Independence, to establishing the laws of our land, he truly helped shape the early culture and political structure of America. While he has been lauded as a an exemplary leader in the past, Thomas Jefferson’s life and ideals have met with some skepticism in the recent decades. Of the many misconceptions about Jefferson, the most notable ones are those of him fathering illegitimate children with a slave, and of his role in proliferating slavery.

In honor of his 273rd birthday, I wanted to shed light on who Thomas Jefferson really was, and aid the restoration of his honor.

He was a staunch opponent of slavery

Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, who, unlike George Washington, did not free his slaves upon his death. This is a fact. However, it is important to understand that it was not of his own volition. At the time it was illegal to free slaves, and he tried many times to change the law, but was unsuccessful.

Jefferson inherited all of his slaves- 187 to be exact — when he was 14. But slave ownership did not agree with his morals, as he stated when representing a slave in defense of his freedom in the case of Howell Vs. Netherland:

“Under the law of nature, all men are born free. Everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which include the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of Nature.”

But for much of his life, Virginia was rigid in its pro slavery laws. It’s no surprise then that during his career as a lawyer, he lost this and many other cases to secure the freedom of individual slaves.

Truly, his life’s goal was to end slavery, which he considered to be evil:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it…And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae [love of one’s country] of the other. And 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?”

Virginia law made emancipation almost impossible

In 1692, Virginia instituted formidable economic hurdles for those wanting to emancipate their slaves, the most significant being that the emancipator had to pay for the transportation of the slaves out of the country. In subsequent years, further stipulations were added: the owner had to guarantee a full security bond for the education, livelihood and support of their freed slaves. While this seemingly pro-emancipation clause appeared to benefit the newly freed slaves, the deviously restrictive nature of the law prevented most owners from releasing their slaves.

In 1723, the state forbade the emancipation of slaves altogether, even by a last will and testament.

But George Washington was able to release his slaves

That’s true!

In 1782, Virginia, surprisingly, began to allow emancipation upon the death of the owner.

This allowed George Washington to free his slaves in his last will upon his death in 1799.

But in true fashion of law fuckery of pre-emancipation America, this law was repealed in 1806, allowing for emancipation, but with large economic commitments in order to do so. In addition, it required that the newly freed people depart the state, or else be forced to re-enter slavery. This meant freed slaves would have to leave behind their spouses and children who were not as lucky as them.

Unfortunately, due to devaluation of money during the post revolutionary war period, Jefferson did not have the finances to provide a livelihood for his freed slaves, before his death in 1826. He had given large sums of money to the loan office during the revolution, and received 2.5% of the sum back.

Despite these hardships, Jefferson continued to fight for emancipation.

Jefferson endeavored to end the spread of slavery, and effect national emancipation

In addition to taking on cases of slaves seeking freedom, Jefferson worked within the legal system in pre and post war America to eradicate slavery.

  • In 1769, he introduced a law in his state allowing masters to take control over the emancipation of slaves. He was thwarted by the pro-slavery crowd.
  • In 1776, Jefferson wrote a draft of the original state constitution for Virginia including a provision that prevented anyone subsequently coming to Virginia to be enslaved. The state convention rejected this.
  • In 1776, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included an Antislavery clause that was a scathing remark on the King’s war against human nature by his proliferation of Slavery. Unfortunately, the clause was stricken from the document at the behest of the pro-slavery southern states.

In 1777, he introduced a bill in Virginia to ban the importation of slaves into the state from other countries. The legislation passed (finally!!) and, as Jefferson put it, “stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving future efforts its final eradication.”

When he became Governor of the state, he introduced a measure to emancipate all slaves born after the passing of the act that halted importation, but was unsuccessful. Frustrated, he stated, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate that these people are to be free.”

In 1807, as president, Jefferson signed into law, a long awaited provision by anti-slavery advocated: Article I, section 9 of the Constitution, which included a ban on the importation of all slaves.

While he was able to stem the increase in slavery, Jefferson was frustrated that he could not stop it altogether. In 1805, after 40 years of efforts to end slavery, he said:

“I have a long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us. [While] there are many virtuous men who make any sacrifices to affect it, many equally virtuous persuade themselves either that the thing is not wrong, or that it cannot be remedied.”

Still, fair into his old age, he continued to encourage others to pick up the mantle of the fight. When a young Frances Wright, an anti-slavery proponent, asked for his help, he replied:

“At the age of 82, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which is the subject of your letter, and which has been thro’ life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable within the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. And I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will, and such mind engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object.”

Jefferson considered it a failure that he was not able to herald an age of freedom for all in this young country he helped establish.

Jefferson did not father children with Sally Hemings

In 1998, the journal Nature claimed that DNA testing proved that Thomas Jefferson was father to the child of a young slave girl (Sally Hemings) who served Jefferson’s daughters in their Monticello home.

Eight weeks after the initial announcement about Jefferson’s philandering, it was retracted, on the grounds that it was unclear that Jefferson fathered any children with Hemings. Nature clarified that the title of the study was misleading, because no DNA sample from the Thomas Jefferson family line had been used in testing. For genetic DNA paternity testing, the Y chromosome from a male descendant of the subject must be used. But Jefferson had no male descendants, since his only son died at birth. So researchers used the Y-chromosomes from the descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas’ uncle. This test then, only proved that some Jefferson male had a relationship with Sally Hemings; at the time, there were 26 Jefferson males living in the area.

A new commission looked into the matter further noted that “at least 10 possible fathers for Sally Hemings’ children who could have passed down genetic material that might produce children physically resembling Thomas Jefferson and who are thought to have visited Monticello regularly during the years Sally Hemings was having children.”

After investigating the 10 possible fathers based on the genealogical results of the DNA test, the group noted, “the case against Thomas Jefferson’s relatives appears significantly stronger than the case against him. “

While the initial story received much media attention, the retraction did not, which is why the lie lives on.

The accusation is is an old one. In fact, it was first hurled at Jefferson in 1801 by James T. Callender, who had been a long time supporter of Jefferson. After a fall out, Callender charged Jefferson of fathering a child with Hemings due to his belief that Jefferson had refused to pay a fine on his behalf. Callender later recanted and acknowledged that his attacks had been motivated by their feud.

Jefferson knew he could take Callender to court for the libel he published about him, but instead he said:

“I know that I might have filled the courts of the United States with actions for these slanders, & have ruined perhaps many persons who are not innocent. But this would be no equivalent to the loss of [my own]character. I leave them therefore to the reproof of their own consciences. If these do not condemn them, there will yet come a day when the false witness will meet a judge who has not slept over his slanders.”

He believed that history would look at his words and life, and treat him fairly, for above all he cherished his morality and honor.

Hope you guys enjoyed this read! There are a lot of details of Jefferson’s innocence that I was forced to omit in order to keep this article brief. For additional details, I’d encourage you to read the referenced links as well as The Jefferson Lies, which delves deeper into this and other myths about this incredible man.

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.

Thomas Jefferson

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