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Who Was the Real Thomas Jefferson?

A heated op-ed war among historians is picking up where two controversial new biographies left off this fall.

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Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard professor whose books have done more than any other modern scholar to reframe the conversation about Jefferson and slavery, wrote in Slate that Wiencek’s treatment was “bizarre” and obsessive and full of misreadings. Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers-Newark took apart the author’s claims in the Daily Beast, charging that Wiencek was “blinded by his loathing.” Wiencek responded by calling Professor Lewis’ arguments “petty twistifications” — a word Jefferson himself used in attacking Chief Justice John Marshall for interpreting the law so that it reflected his personal biases.

The scholar who should be most offended by Wiencek is Lucia (Cinder) Stanton. Her long career as a researcher at Monticello has been singularly devoted to comprehending the personal lives and limitations imposed on the slave families of Monticello. Stanton receives praise in Wiencek’s acknowledgments; then the author proceeds to obscure, if not undermine, all she has brought to light.  We strongly recommend to readers her book  “Those Who Labor for My Happiness.” Stanton has no ax to grind; her purpose is to humanize the past and bring it to life responsibly.

It’s fascinating that people still get angry about dueling portrayals of Jefferson. He wasn’t the only one who lacked political courage. The founders were clannish lawyers and land speculators who identified with the interests of their states and never entirely surrendered their will to an idealized Union. They had to deal with state jealousies, jurisdictional controversies over land and expansion.  In the 1780s, Jefferson wanted slavery prohibited in the federal territories of the Northwest. And that’s how Congress voted. So, do we laud Jefferson for his progressive instincts?  Tentatively.  Does it rescue him from the collective judgment of scholars?  Hardly.

For he was a timid abolitionist at best. His primary constituency was the Southern planter class, landed men of social privilege. Like him, they borrowed heavily. They owed bankers in England and elsewhere. They were constantly perched on a fiscal cliff. And they, like the majority of their Northern peers, bought into the convenient consensus that those millions of individuals brought in chains from Africa and the Caribbean were an inferior race of people. Political men constantly privileged their own collective self-interest. No surprise there. Even in manumitting certain individual slaves (most commonly upon the death of the master), they allowed slavery to fester. There were a few heroes who spoke out for racial justice, a relative few who turned their backs on slavery. But in the first 50 years of the republic, the vast majority of elected U.S. representatives invested their hearts in issues we’ve long since forgotten. No inheritance continues to affect the U.S. and point to its deficiencies so much as the brutal memory of ugly mistreatment of a people whose skin pigmentation offended some lily-white European-Americans.

Why Jefferson? He is a bellwether, a moral indicator. Though the superior democrat, he is still compared unfavorably to the intrepid Washington, who finally freed his slaves in his will. But Washington never attempted to legislate in the interest of the enslaved in any one of his 68 years. In fact, his will kept his human property enslaved until after his widow Martha’s death, which occurred a few years later. One of those he owned was Martha’s half-sister – we learned that fact in Henry Wiencek’s earlier, well-received book,  “An Imperfect God.”

Jefferson cared deeply about how he would be remembered. In the final decades of his life, he made repeated attempts to find a political historian friendly to his perspective on post-Revolutionary partisanship, with whom he could share his trunkfuls of documents.  But he did not exhibit any concern over his published views on black inferiority, because he did not anticipate the 21st century and its evaluation of him on the basis of his life as a sexually active slave owner. He though his credentials in that regard would shield him from attack where and when it mattered.  Like the posthumous Washington image. Seeing black as inferior was, and would remain for quite some time, mainstream thinking.

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