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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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Like us, that generation argued without reaching an epiphany. In Madison and Jefferson, we show that Madison’s racism did not descend to the level of Jefferson’s. In  “Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello,” Andrew Burstein focuses on early American cultural understandings of the body and right living, to explain how the widower and man of privilege that Jefferson was could justify sex with any “healthy, fruitful female” as an acceptable, indeed prescribed, method for a man of letters to maintain his health.  There remains much to learn about the conflicted culture that birthed this nation.

Slavery as an institution was defended by the Constitution — a document Jefferson did not have any hand in drafting. Slavery was protected by state and federal laws. History is the art of engagement with that distant country we call the past; it is about more than personalities. It is not enough to be repelled by Jefferson; you have to probe the political and social environment if you wish to explore the reasons why he did those things that we find so reprehensible.

It is we today who have outsize expectations from Thomas Jefferson, because his most uplifting words attest to American ideals. We want someone from the receding past to be transcendent, to warrant the superlatives collectively conferred on a “greatest” generation. Yet no generation ever lives up to its ideals.  We are all rationalizers. We are all prioritizers. But here’s a great line, which Jefferson wrote to a fellow Virginian in 1816: “I wish to avoid all collisions of opinion with all mankind.”  Good luck with that, Mr. Jefferson.

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