Thomas Jefferson - Patriot or Racist?

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
June 2, 2002

". . . I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility againsst every form of tyranny over the mind of humanity." -Thomas Jefferson

In just over 30 days our nation will celebrate its 226th year since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1976 the Knosts were living in Dedham. How well I remember the hundreds of thousands who gathered around the Charles River Basin to witness the celebration. And how about the visit of "The Tall Ships?" Sights that would bring tears to one's eyes.

I have a difficult time getting through the celebration of July the Fourth. Part of this is nostalgia. But it is more than that. It has to do with pride and gratitude one feels for the courage of our founding mothers and fathers in making this nation the Cradle of Liberty for which it has become known throughout the world.

When I think of our country, I think of our flag; I think of religious freedom; I think of the many sacrifices made to keep it free and I think of how it has become a veritable "melting pot" of religiou and political diversity. I am proud and privileged to have been able to live in a country so dedicated especially since the events of September 11th. But most of all, I think of a young Virginia colonist by the name of Thomas Jefferson and all he brought to the birthing of this nation.

A reporter once asked Jefferson to consider his many accomplishments and to choose among them what he would have people remember. He said that there were three things he had done. The first was that he had been the author of the Declaration of Independence. The second was that he had founded the University of Virginia. And the third was that he had written the Statute of Religious Freedom for Virginia.

Perhaps there are some of you here who caught what I left out. Did you catch it? Of course. He did not even mention that he had served as the third President of the United States. I researched in vain for reasons why he would ignore so great an accomplishment but I was not successful. It is not difficult to guess why.

One reason may have been that many held him in low esteem as President. Times were difficult. Taking on the mantle of leadership meant inviting critism The American historian, Samuel McCord Crothers, insisted that part of the reason was because Jefferson was a unitarian. To quote Dr. Crothers:

"While the name of Washington is received everywhere with praise, the name of Jefferson has different associations. Even so late as the time of Emerson the respectable classs had a fear of Jefferson. Emerson writes of `great transgressors like Thomas Jefferson'. What was the great transgression ofThomas Jefferson that made half the people of the country fear him,look upon him as a dangerous character? It was the religion of Thomas Jefferson which was feared.
S.M.Crothers, "The Unitarianism of Thomas Jefferson, AUA, 1946

On three occasions it has been my privilege to be in attendance at the swearing in of new citizens to these United States, On each occasion the participants showed how proud they were to be taking the solemn oath of citizenship. In each case, self-evidently, their pride was easy to see. They had become part of a country that welcomes citizens into the process of uplifting the ideals ofliberty and individuality under the rubric of "e pluribus unum"...out of the many, one. And how often hwe take those rights for granted!

Jefferson did not. Even while on a mission of state to France he nagged young George Mason to draft the Bill of Rights. He passionately believed the British had no rights in the colonies. The citizenry of his new country had to decide matters regarding public schools, taxation, libraries, new currency, etcetera. And he told his friend Mason that it was not enough to merely presume the sanctity of such rights, "You must specify those liberties and put them down on paper!"

The very first of those rights is the most important. It is the first Amendmenat to the Constitution It reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people to peaceably assembly, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances."

He never ceased being the champion of the individual. He lived and breathed it. It was what made him a patriot. But what then?

There has been a nagging question in the annals of American history that has vexed historians and students alike regarding this exemplary figure. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Just a few years ago the General Assembly was held in Charlotte, North Carolina. The planning committee for that annual event had planned a gala ball to be held as one of the assembly's main events. They had named it the "Jefferson Ball". It was meant to commemorate the 250th Anniversaryof Jefferson's birthdate.

But a march of protest ensued which ended up canceling the event. The driving force behind that objection was the fact that Jefferson had been the owner of slaves. The theory was that a religious organization which held a belief in "the supreme worthof every human personality" could not honor anyone who had been a slave owner, patriot or not.

I did not agree with that protest. I felt Jefferson was receiving what one might call "a bad rap". There is no doubt that as a man of his time he was a slave owner. He did have a plantation and he controlled the lives and the welfare of human beings deemed his property. Not only this, it has been alleged that he took as a lover one of those slaves, namely a woman by the name of Sally Hemings. Here is where the story becomes difficult, indeed.

Though historians have mostly agreed that some of the offspring of Sally Hemings were the result of her long-standing relationship with Jefferson, there are those who doubt it, too. In fact there are those of the Jefferson family who claim that the father of Hemming's children was actually Jefferson's brother, Randolph.

Thomas Oliphant is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Recently he wrote an op-ed page piece titled "Jefferson group's genteel bigotry". (Globe, 5/7/02) In it he write:

"For four years, it has been a matter of DNA-established fact that the male line of the Jefferson family and some of the Hemings descendant are linked. . . . when the historical evidence of the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship is considered, the likelihood that America's founding idealist was the fater of at leat one and possibly all of Heming's six children is huge."

He goes on to point out that this latest scientific finding only confirms what has been a consensus for years among a wide variety of jefferson scholars. But the people who began the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society two years ago set out to combat these emerging truths. They even went so far as to send a letter on email containing a picture of a black man's face altered to show a zipper over his mouth. For this the founder was forced to apologize.

Now the Society is insisting that only those descendents of Jefferson who are white will be allowed to be buried in the family cemetery at Monticello. To which one of the descendents of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally), by the name of Mary Jefferson replied, "None of us has any interest in invading your cemetery and making any of you less white. Our only wish is to be acknowledged as lineal descendants of Thomas Jefferson and your cousins." Boy, how those words must have stung!

Mr. Oliphant concludes:

"As time passes, it is hard not to imagine the descendants of Sally Hemings and the tiny band of association dissenters joining together for reunions of their own at Monticello. They have talked about it, and if they proceed it's also hard not to imagine their evolution into the organization most people recognize as embodying Jefferson's ideals and the one most capable of speaking to the public about his living legacy."

Before closing this interesting little dalliance into history and the present, I'd like to make a few concluding remarks.

Jefferson was a man of his times. Though we have many records of his generous treatment of those whom he owned as slaves, this does not excuse him from participating in that heinous institution. But his actions at the Continental Congress did underline his belief that slavery should end. In the original wording of the Declaration, Jefferson had included a sentence that would have meant the end of slavery once and for all.

Unfortunately, at least two of the thirteen states represented refused to sign the document with that sentence included. Its signing had to be unanimous, for it was Benjamin Franklin himself who said to them, "Gentlemen, we must all hang together or most surely we will all hang separately!" So, very reluctantly, Jefferson and his fellow unitarian, John Adams, withdrew the offending phrase and the larger issue of the creation of a new nation became possible.

Jefferson once watched a plantation owner beating a slave while the son of the owner looked on. We wrote:

"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it . . . The parent storms, the child looks on . . . and puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves . . . And thus nursed, educated and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals, undepraved by such circumstances...."

Thomas Jefferson - Patriot? .....or Racist? It is for you and for history to come to decide.