Feature

Jefferson deserves no absolution

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most admired Founders, but only because historians keep excusing his racism and cruelty.

Paul FinkelmanThe New York Times

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most admired Founders, said Paul Finkelman, but only because historians keep excusing his racism and cruelty. Nearly 200 years after the third president’s death, the nation is still trying to reconcile “the rhetoric of liberty” in his writing with his “lifetime support for slavery.” In two recent Jefferson biographies, his slave-owning is essentially excused as an artifact of his times. But the ugly truth is that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” was a disturbingly enthusiastic “buyer and seller of human beings.” George Washington and other leading contemporaries freed their slaves, recognizing the evil of owning men. Jefferson never did, keeping 175 slaves on his farm at Monticello, and selling off slaves and breaking up families so he could buy wine, art, and other luxuries. He took his slave Sally Hemings as a mistress, yet to his dying days insisted that blacks were inferior to whites “in body and mind,” and “lacked basic human emotion.” So let’s stop cloaking Jefferson in excuses: He was “a creepy, brutal hypocrite.”

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