I recently read an article in the October 2012 Smithsonian magazine about Thomas Jefferson and slavery. I think most of us remember his infamous words that “All men are created equal”. That seems to give him an emphatic view of slavery but this article showed that has now been found to not be the case. It ends up that after studying the numerous documents left by him that he viewed slavery very much as a profitable situation to be engaged in. In 1792 he wrote Washington the now famous, at least among historians, “4% Letter” in which he talked about just how profitable being a slave owner was. He also recommended to some of this friends and relatives to move away from tobacco farming (he said it destroyed the land) and get into the more profitable area of owning slaves.
The above discoveries should not discount the fact that Jefferson believed that slavery, at its base level, was wrong. He cushioned this discomfort by removing himself from the daily interactions with his slaves. He counted on a man named Mr. Lilly to buy and sell slaves and to discipline them whenever necessary which included beating ten-year olds who did not want to work in his nail factory. And then there was Sally Hemmings. It is obvious that he did have true feeling for her at least on some level but I think he still considered her property.
Getting to the matter of the title above Mr. Jefferson, like so many since him and maybe especially today, got around his discomfort with slavery because it was the means by which he lived an affluent life. He left the dirty work to Mr. Lilly and lived his luxurious life because of slavery.
Thomas Jefferson certainly did a lot of good things for this country. I can’t imagine our Declaration of Independence could have been as well written by anyone else. Without Jefferson, Hamilton might have turned our country into something very different from what it is today. Even though I have read many of the books about him several times I still enjoy reading his words and thoughts. But unfortunately like the rest of us the ends tend to justify the means in his life.
No one is perfect. Not even my hero Will Rogers. It is alright to put someone on a pedestal as long as we realize that they are just people with faults just like the rest of us.