The Character of Thomas Jefferson: Then and Now [Part 1]

By Mikayla Knutson

In recent years, research into Sally Hemings’ life highlighted the experiences of slaves at Monticello and prompted questions of Thomas Jefferson’s apparent hypocrisy: the Founding Father who penned that “all men are created equal” and hold “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” was a slave master.

As part of its “Mountaintop Project,” Jefferson’s Monticello recently opened the “Life of Sally Hemings” exhibit – the culmination of a twenty-five-year effort to confront and acknowledge Jefferson as a slave owner. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, described the project as an “effort to restore Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello as those who lived there knew it, and to tell the stories of the people—enslaved and free—who lived and worked on the 5,000-acre plantation.”

While Jefferson’s home shifts its portrayal of his life with a new exhibit in 2018, critiques of Jefferson with respect to his slaves and Sally Hemings are not new.  Other individuals and groups have also critiqued Jefferson over the centuries.

During Jefferson’s presidency, in an 1802 Richmond newspaper article, James Callender accused him of keeping “as a concubine, one of his own slaves [Sally Hemings].” Callender implied Jefferson fathered Hemings’ son and enumerated how Hemings accompanied Jefferson and his two daughters to France. He declared that “[t]he delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibility. What a sublime pattern for an American ambassador to place before the eyes of two young ladies!” His objection seems to stem solely from the appearance of Jefferson’s display of an affair* (if the word applies) in front of his daughters.

Callender provided a less than stellar picture of the Founding Father, and modern critics also criticize Jefferson’s connection* with Hemings – albeit in a different light. In an August 2017 interview, in regards to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Rev. Al Sharpton argued, “When you look at the fact that public monuments are supported by public funds, you are asking me to subsidize the insult of my family.”  In September, protesters at the University of Virginia – which Jefferson founded – draped his statue in black and hung a “Black Lives Matter, F*** White Supremacy” banner. In April 2018, protesters spray painted “Racist + Rapist” on the statue.

Both Callender and twenty-first-century commentators express disapproval of Jefferson, but their foci and motivations differ.  Callender saw Jefferson as dishonorable by exposing his indiscretions* to the eyes of young ladies, while UVA protesters either assail him as a racist and rapist or go a step further to use his statute as a rallying point for contemporary protests against racism, and Sharpton makes the nexus between character assassination of Jefferson and public policy advocacy.

Yet, despite the Callendar piece, it does seem that attacks on Jefferson’s character have increased in frequency and intensity.  In general, Jefferson’s treatment historically seems to have evolved from being focused entirely on accomplishments – writing the Declaration of Independence, his ambassadorship to France, serving as Secretary of State, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and the Louisiana Purchase – to singular exposition as Virginia slave owner.

Acknowledging that neither can fairly be said to be historically even-handed, the evolution of historical treatment of the man begs inquiry into the underlying reasons for the change. Callender’s motives are perhaps easily attributable to political criticism of his president.  More than 200 years later, UVA activists would perhaps gain a symbolic win for anti-racism efforts with the removal of the Jefferson statue from campus.  And Sharpton highlights the debate over the use of U.S. public funds to memorialize notable and sometimes notorious figures and events in American history.

With this analysis, I hope to track the evolution of Jefferson’s presentation and reputation in the United States. What do increasing attacks on his character highlight about contemporary American culture? How does the presentation of historical events and figures impact national identity and policy?

As this is part of an ongoing research project, I will be posting updates on the topic in the future.

* None of the marked words is appropriate. The author makes no attempt (which would likely be futile) to craft language which could fairly describe Ms. Hemings nexus with Jefferson. The historical record is replete with evidence that a slave could not repudiate his or her master.

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