Are we all monsters? (In defense of Thomas Jefferson)

I’ve been following Shaun King’s writing for a while now. He’s a powerful and important voice in the fight for racial justice and I’ve learned quite a bit from him. I’ve admired his passion and resolve in the Injustice Boycott and many other efforts.

But a recent post of his struck me as short-sighted, arrogant, and unnecessarily vindictive. In it, he took Thomas Jefferson to task for having owned slaves (and particularly for having had sexual relationships with them), even when some part of Jefferson knew it to be wrong and immoral. King calls Jefferson “cruel,” “evil,” “a monster” and that “he should not have statues, or be on money, or even have a monument celebrating his positive contributions.”

I’m not here to defend Jefferson. He is praised plenty. In that sense, I appreciate King’s attempts to show Jefferson’s warts and ask us to examine our reverence of our Founding Fathers a little more closely. And certainly, there is plenty to criticize. Most directly, King is right — Jefferson’s sexual encounters with a 14 year old Sally Hemings are rape, plain and simple. We don’t do ourselves any favors by trying to romanticize them.

But King goes too far, specifically in calling him “evil” and “a monster”. To be a “monster”, of course, is to be inhuman, lacking something essential that gives the rest of us decency. What purpose does such a charge serve?

Are we to take it that every human that has even been complicit in slavery, and any other evil institution — whether it be patriarchy, totalitarianism, genocide, or whatever — was evil and monstrous themselves? If so, then we have condemned the vast majority of humans that have existed as evil and inhuman. Slavery, of course, for example, has been used by a wide range of civilizations for millennia. Were all those civilizations evil?

If we want to see historical figures most clearly, we must view them in the context of the times (and the corresponding institutions and beliefs) they were raised in. We shouldn’t completely absolve Jefferson of his complicity in slavery because it’s “just what people did back then.” This must be a part of our understanding and reading of Jefferson.

But we also can’t use this reality to completely erase his positive contributions. Did he not still write the Declaration of Independence and revolutionize government and societal values for years to come? Is this less of an accomplishment and contribution to society because Jefferson also did things that were terrible? Or does it simply make him significantly more complicated and imperfect than we’ve let ourselves believe?

In reality, Jefferson was both the author of one of our country’s most important documents and a slave owner and a rapist. It’s in this tension that we better understand him — and ourselves. When we allow both of these truths to exist, we allow ourselves to see the world in a more complex light. We embrace humility and curiosity.

Three hundred years from now, for what indiscretions might some writer consider us monsters?

Surely, there are some behaviors we engage in now that to future generations will appear evil and monstrous. (Pillaging the Earth’s natural resources, torturing and eating animals, and allowing millions of humans to live and die in squalor while the rest of us enjoy our affluence seem like likely contenders, though I am more concerned about those that I can’t imagine.)

How will we want future generations to remember us? Will we want to be defined by our most monstrous behaviors whose evils, for whatever reason, we just couldn’t fully see and be accountable for? Will we want our highest contributions erased by our basest?

Or will we ask that future generations see us as products of our times and grant us mercy for all the atrocities we were blind to?

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