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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?

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson describes the institution of slavery as forcing tyranny and depravity on master and slave alike. To be a slaveholder meant one had to believe that the worst white man was better than the best black man. If you did not believe these things, you could not justify yourself to yourself. So Jefferson could condemn slavery in words, but not in deeds.

At his magnificent estate, Monticello, Jefferson had slaves who were superb artisans, shoemakers, masons, carpenters, cooks. But like every bigot, he never said, after seeing a skilled African craftsman at work or enjoying the fruits of his labor, "Maybe I’m wrong." He ignored the words of his fellow revolutionary John Adams, who said that the Revolution would never be complete until the slaves were free.

Jefferson left another racial and moral problem for his successors, the treatment of Native Americans. He had no positive idea what to do with or about the Indians. He handed that problem over to his grandchildren, and theirs.

The author of the Declaration of Independence threw up his hands at the question of women’s rights. It is not as if the subject never came up. Abigail Adams, at one time Jefferson’s close friend, raised it. But Jefferson’s attitude toward women was at one with that of the white men of his age. He wrote about almost everything, but almost never about women, not about his wife nor his mother and certainly not about Sally Hemings.

So it is of particular irony to admit that Jefferson was as remarkable a man as America has produced. "Spent the evening with Mr. Jefferson," John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary in 1785, "whom I love to be with....You can never be an hour in the man’s company without something of the marvelous." And even Abigail Adams wrote of him, "He is one of the choice ones of the earth."

Jefferson was born rich and became well educated. He was a man of principle (except for slaves, Indians, and women). His civic duty was paramount to him. He read, deeply and widely, more than any other president of the United States except, possibly, Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote well and with more productivity and skill than any other president except, perhaps, Theodore Roosevelt. Wherever Jefferson sat was the head of the table. Those few who got to dine with him around a small table always recalled his charm, wit, insights, queries, explanations, gossip, curiosity, and above all else his laughter.

Jefferson’s range of knowledge was astonishing. Science in general. Flora and fauna specifically. Geography. Fossils. The classics and modern literature. Languages. Politicians of all types. Politics, state by state, county by county. International affairs. He was an intense partisan. He loved music and playing the violin. He wrote countless letters about his philosophy, observations of people and places. In his official correspondence, Jefferson maintained a level of eloquence not since equaled. I’ve spent much of my professional life studying presidents and generals, reading their letters, examining their orders to subordinates, making an attempt to judge them. None match Jefferson.

In spite of these rare abilities, Jefferson was not a hero. His great achievements were words. Except for the Louisiana Purchase, his actions as president fall short. But those words! He was the author of the Declaration of Independence. The second paragraph begins with a perfect sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Those words, as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison has said, "are more revolutionary than anything written by Robespierre, Marx, or Lenin, a continual challenge to ourselves, as well as an inspiration to the oppressed of all the world." Eventually, with Lincoln, who articulated and lived these truths, and slowly afterward, the idea made its progress.

Jefferson was the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a doctrine that spread throughout the United States. He is the father of our religious freedom. It is, next to the words of our independence, his greatest gift, save only perhaps our commitment to universal education, which also comes to us via Jefferson.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was based on Jefferson’s "Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory" written three years earlier. In it, he made certain that when the populations of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan were large enough, these and other territories would come into the Union as fully equal states. They would have the same number of senators and representatives as the original thirteen. They would elect their own governors, and so on. He was the first who had the thought that colonies should be equal to the thirteen original members of the Union. No one before him had proposed such a thing. Empires were run by the "mother country," with the king appointing the governors. It was Jefferson who decided that we wouldn’t do it that way in the United States. The territories would be states. He applied the principles of the Northwest Ordinance to the Louisiana Purchase territories, and by later extension to the West Coast. It was Jefferson who envisioned an empire of liberty that stretched from sea to shining sea.

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