I’ve always been puzzled by Thomas Jefferson. He was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States. He was a worldwide spokesman for democracy and the rights of man, yet he was a slave owner, who seemed impervious to the hypocrisy of his lifestyle.
I recently read a young adult book which addressed this subject. It was titled Jefferson’s Sons, a Founding Father’s Secret Children, by Kimberly Bradley. This is an excellent book. Compelling and well written, it gives the reader a good look at what life was like on a colonial plantation – specifically Jefferson’s Monticello.
The author contends that Jefferson had four living children by Sally Hemmings – one of his slaves, and goes on to tell the story through the eyes of these children. While I realize there is some controversy as to the truth of this claim, it doesn’t look good for Jefferson. DNA tests have proven that at least one of Hemming’s children was his. Three of the children were essentially white in appearance, and all bore a marked resemblance to Jefferson.
While all Hemming’s children worked alongside the other slaves and lived in the slave quarters with their mother, they were given privileges that other slaves were not. Though never publicly acknowledged by their father, Hemming’s children enjoyed music lessons, better food and clothing, and a promise of freedom when they reached 18.
I think the telling point here is that despite their lives of relative privilege, all 4 children left the plantation as soon as they were able. What this says to me is that any type of slavery, no matter how loosely enforced is still intolerable. Thomas Jefferson may have been a great leader and orator, but this blot on his reputation is a hard one to ignore. In the end, our actions speak louder than our words.
For another side of Thomas Jefferson:
- 19 Famous Thomas Jefferson ‘Quotes’ That He Actually Never Said At All (businessinsider.com)
- Conduct Unbecoming a Philosopher (geopolicraticus.wordpress.com)