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George Washington, shown here in an 1853 lithograph, oversees his slaves at Mount Vernon. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

Founding Fathers and Slaveholders

To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?

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Americans in great numbers are rediscovering their founding fathers in such best-selling books as Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers, David McCullough’s John Adams and my own Undaunted Courage, about Lewis and Clark. There are others who believe that some of these men are unworthy of our attention because they owned slaves, Washington, Jefferson, Clark among them, but not Adams. They failed to rise above their time and place, though Washington (but not Jefferson) freed his slaves. But history abounds with ironies. These men, the founding fathers and brothers, established a system of government that, after much struggle, and the terrible violence of the Civil War, and the civil rights movement led by black Americans, did lead to legal freedom for all Americans and movement toward equality.

Let’s begin with Thomas Jefferson, because it is he who wrote the words that inspired subsequent generations to make the heroic sacrifices that transformed the words "All men are created equal" into reality.

In 1996 I was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin. The History Club there asked me to participate in a panel discussion on "Political Correctness and the University." The professor seated next to me taught American political thought. I remarked to her that when I began teaching I had required students to read five or six books each semester, but I had cut that back to three or four or else the students would drop my course. She said she had the same problem. She had dropped Thomas Jefferson’s writings from the required reading list.

"You are in Madison, being paid by the citizens of Wisconsin to teach their children American political thought, and you leave out Tom Jefferson?"

"Yes," she replied. "He was a slaveholder." More than half the large audience applauded.

Jefferson owned slaves. He did not believe that all were created equal. He was a racist, incapable of rising above the thought of his time and place, and willing to profit from slave labor.

Few of us entirely escape our times and places. Thomas Jefferson did not achieve greatness in his personal life. He had a slave as mistress. He lied about it. He once tried to bribe a hostile reporter. His war record was not good. He spent much of his life in intellectual pursuits in which he excelled and not enough in leading his fellow Americans toward great goals by example. Jefferson surely knew slavery was wrong, but he didn’t have the courage to lead the way to emancipation. If you hate slavery and the terrible things it did to human beings, it is difficult to regard Jefferson as great. He was a spendthrift, always deeply in debt. He never freed his slaves. Thus the sting in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s mortifying question, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?"

Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime. He thought abolition of slavery might be accomplished by the young men of the next generation. They were qualified to bring the American Revolution to its idealistic conclusion because, he said, these young Virginians had "sucked in the principles of liberty as if it were their mother’s milk."

Of all the contradictions in Jefferson’s contradictory life, none is greater. Of all the contradictions in America’s history, none surpasses its toleration first of slavery and then of segregation. Jefferson hoped and expected that Virginians of Meriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s generation would abolish slavery. His writing showed that he had a great mind and a limited character.

Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people. He embraced the worst forms of racism to justify slavery.

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