In Defense of Mr. Jefferson

One of the by-products of a college education is the opportunity to bait the so-called heroes that are paraded before us in primary and secondary education. Among favorite subjects to mock, with this superior education, are George Washington for “I can not tell a lie” and Abe Lincoln for “Four score and seven years ago.” The reason for this is pretty obvious; after 12 years at least of having famous historical figures paraded before us as monuments to virtue, we as students love nothing more than a chance at academic revenge.

  Thus, when we learn that the icons of history are imperfect, we relish the opportunity to “expose” these men for being just as ordinary, contradictory, and flawed as we are. We find a sense of “equality” by denigrating these men. This is, in fact, psychologically healthy for two reasons; one, no human can attempt to set standards for himself knowing he must be measured against a god; and two, such criticism helps alleviate the pressure of “great men” for having to live up to their own reputations.

  Mr. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and a number of other documents, and represented Virginia in a number of Continental Congresses, held the seat of Governor in Virginia, and served as President of the United States before retiring to private life, and was principally responsible for the establishment of the first University of Virginia. He also served a number of years as diplomat in France, and with John Adams, Ben Franklin and others, helped negotiate treaties with a number of countries – not limited to France and England – that would help ensure America’s survival as an economically viable nation.

  Yet, with this legacy of talent and formidable powers, it seems that what is remembered were the whispered insinuations, the whispers concerning Jefferson’s private character. The “quirks” in Jefferson’s personal nature are still debated today.

  Mr. Jefferson had a number of quirks, as any dynamic personality is sure to do. He was laconic to the extreme – seldom speaking, but when he did, he spoke with a wit that could pierce, and with a conciseness that seldom left room for debate. He was a tall and imposing man, not for stature but for composure. Jefferson’s sheer presence and absolute clarity of mind made him a formidable opponent.

  Yet, unknown to many, Jefferson had nervous habits that he concealed well. He bit his nails frequently under stress; he was known to walk out of assemblies without so much as a by-your-leave; he would hide in corridors when he knew anything he’d said or written was going to be open to criticism or discussion; and, if pressed into conversation, would go on at length about weather patterns, or he would use other diversionary tactics.

  Jefferson was in the greatest of company when he signed the Declaration of Independence; in essence, what these men signed was an agreement that they would die for what they believed. Few if any of these men thought they really had a chance in hell of overcoming the British Army and whatever other powers the Crown might levy against them. The members of the Second Continental Congress felt that by signing the Declaration they were pretty much signing their own death warrants, but they agreed to do it because without solidarity of Purpose they had no hope at all of achieving Independence.

  Yet, this man who risked being hanged for treason, along with his compatriots, is still maligned and questioned as to the “authenticity” of his character today, some 200 years later.

  It was and still is whispered that Jefferson fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hennings. Even today, there is a society devoted to the legacy of Hennings and her illegitimate child and their descendants. In 2002, a DNA test inconclusively proved that Hennings’ descendants were not directly descended from Thomas Jefferson. The test proved A Jefferson fathered the child. (Virginia was just full of red-headed Jeffersons.) Also, T.J. just happened to be conveniently present during the nine-month period that Hennings' child was conceived,)

Imagine how this circumstantial evidence evidence must have warmed Jefferson's heart, and as a lawyer, would have redeemed his faith in the American system of justice.) Also, it was well-known that Jefferson was very fond of Sally Hennings, his own wife's half-sister. This circumstance has gone far in condemning Jefferson as not only a slavemaster, but also as an incestuous pervert. My argument to this is that Jefferson, always sympathetic to his slaves, may have really liked Sally Hennings as a person, and all the more so because she may have exhibited personality traits shared by her half-sister Martha, Tom's wife.

Has anyone considered for a moment that Sally herself may have grieved over her half-sister's death? And has anyone considered that Sally may have designated Tom as the father, not because he was, but because by his name, he might have been able to best protect her child?

It has been surmised (by some) that Hennings’ child was probably sired by Jefferson’s half brother or by a cousin.

Jefferson, in his lifetime, was aware of the rumor but was not allowed to speak in his own defense, since he was not directly accused. As a man of honor, he could hardly defend his own honor without defaming that of his family’s. Since he was not directly accused, he could not directly defend himself.

  This must have been galling to Jefferson, since this accusation arose after he had already publicly proclaimed in writing his belief in the right to trial by jury, and the right to face one’s accusers. It was also, to say the least, a direct insult to his wife, Martha, who died in childbirth. Jefferson was inconsolable when Martha died. Jefferson knew what was at stake, and he fully recognized his own very public profile, and would hardly have dabbled in marital or moral indiscretions, knowing his political enemies would only use such an opportunity to exploit the outrage of the citizenry, to the peril of the newborn and delicate system of Democracy that was too vulnerable to the powers of international intrigue.

  Another whisper asks that if Jefferson was opposed to slavery, why did he not release his own slaves? Jefferson’s response might have been: To where? To what?

  Jefferson inherited his slaves along with his father’s estate. Jefferson, like all the Virginia delegates and supporters including George Washington and Richard Henry Lee, were prepared to abolish slavery the day after the original Declaration of Independence was approved. In fact, these men had already called for the abolition, or the great reduction of slavery, in 1759. These were men with independent incomes that did not require slavery. Slavery in Virginia, at least, in the latter 1700’s, was an ancillary, rather than primary source of income. Most of the men who eventually signed the Declaration of Independence had professions and other sources of income.

  The original Declaration was not approved with the anti-slavery clause. This was not Jefferson’s fault, but for some reason he carries the stigma of “not having seen the matter through,” through no fault of his own. He was voted down by democratic process. The fact is that in 1776, South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge was adamant that slavery not be banished at that particular time. Part of Rutledge’s rationale – and a practical one – was that the South, and the independent colonies, needed a solid economic basis with which to wage warfare with Great Britain, should such a conflict be inevitable.

 History, if it likes, can attempt to portray Edward Rutledge as a racist “pig”, but the fact is, he was doing his job by representing South Carolina citizens during the Second Continental Congress.  It was Rutledge’s vote – even by striking the inflammatory anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence that allowed the solidarity of American colonial government to rise up against Great Britain, and united a nation against governmental and political tyranny. Rutledge’s vote allowed consolidation in getting the Declaration approved, and did so with the understanding that the Colonials had an economic system – including slavery – that allowed a capital base of imports and exports that would help defend the Americas against invasion and insurrection.

  Thus, it was agreed that while slavery was an ugly subject, and had no true “redemptive qualities” in a moral or aesthetic sense, was still considered necessary – not because it was “just,” but because it already existed, and like it or not, was already part of the fabric of the American culture, which the British had helped to inculcate.

  The question of slavery, then, was left for future generations to resolve.

  Why then, collegiates like to ask, didn’t Jefferson abolish slavery when he was the President of the United States?

  Jefferson was the third President of the United States. He was not the KING. Jefferson, in company with his fellow statesmen who served in the Continental Congresses and other bodies, simply didn’t have the POWER to excise slavery, or to enforce any other reforms that might have been suggested. Jefferson, and his fellow civil servants agreed from 1776 and onward to support the tenets of Democracy.

  Democracy was a concept debated by Greek philosophers, of whom Jefferson and others had read much. Democracy, like Christianity, has been much written about but little-tried. It’s important to understand that America wasn’t simply a choice between “picking the government that hasn’t been used yet.” America as a nation was founded on theories.

  The Founding Fathers were extremely well-read and versed; this makes them exceptional by our standards today. With this in mind, we would do well to try to equal their academic exposure to the great works of history, language, and trends in art, science, math and music, and to try our own hand at expounding a great societal system of democracy, economic proficiency, and social and artistic balance to keep equality afloat.

  Jefferson spent the majority of his public life defending Democracy, and defending his own efforts to support Democracy. Jefferson very much believed in class demarcations; that the “quality” of a human being very much was reflected in their mannerisms, philosophy, educative reflections, and what-not. Jefferson, it is fair to say, had his preferences; he preferred the company of sensitive, educated people who possessed insight, character, and the same resolute quality that characterized his own generation when he signed the Declaration of Independence, fearing quite likely that it would be his last official act before being hanged and his head stuck on a pike as an example to other revolutionaries.

  What would Jefferson say today about Democracy?

  “Democracy is the voice of the people. Pray the people aren’t too stupid.”

Love, Galadriel