Autobiographies from the Dead – Jefferson the Founding Father

For the next several weeks, my blogs are going to consist of “autobiographies” written by some very special people.  They have one thing in common.  They are all dead.  Some have a burial place and some were simply discarded like pieces of trash.  Their stories will be told by the deceased themselves.  They cry out from the fields, rivers and graveyards to speak.  I have heard their cries.  They want me to tell their stories to you.  They want you to know what their living and dying was for.  This week, Jefferson will tell you the story of his life and death.

Jefferson the Founding Founder

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800My name is Thomas Jefferson.  I am one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America.  I almost single handedly wrote the Declaration of Independence.  I was the third President of the newly united colonies and one of the most influential and famous Americans who ever lived.  Many people equated my skills and abilities with those of Leonardo Da Vinci.  I was considered a Renaissance Man.  My quotes and writings are ubiquitous throughout the world.  My name is synonymous with the concepts of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Yet, here I am today looking down at my grave in sadness.  I would never have thought that the day would come when I would be scorned and spit on and called a hypocrite.  Of course, even in my lifetime, I had many critics and people who attacked my position.  But it is different today.  Now, they are not doing it for political gain or to thwart my plans for building a great nation.  Today, I am being criticized because they honestly believe that I was a hypocrite and that I deserve to be denounced for it.

The sad part is that they are right.  I was a hypocrite.  I was also a coward.

I want to explain why I did not free my slaves.  I suppose I could make a few good excuses that would have to do with the economic realities in which I was faced.  I can’t deny that I knew slavery was wrong.  I often talked about how evil the entire enterprise was.  Our “peculiar” thing was, as we called it down South, not simply peculiar, it was fundamentally cruel and malicious.  Nevertheless, I was never a very good business man and I teetered between bankruptcy and solvency on a daily basis.  There was no way I could have freed my slaves and still run an economically viable business.  I was caught between making a living and living my ethics.  I choose to eat and continue my privileged life style.  In the South, I was not condemned for this choice.  I received no accolades either.  This was the way we lived.  We owned slaves and slaves were inferior beings born and bred to work for the White man.   I lived in a strange world.  I could not accept these beliefs but neither could I break free of them.  I do not justify my acquiescence and I do not seek to be exculpated for my failures.   If I were in a dock today, I would plead guilty.  My soul could not rest without such an honest admission.

sally hemingsNow we come to Sally.  I loved her like I never loved any other woman in my life.  I started a clandestine affair with her when she was only 14.  Was I taking advantage of her?  Maybe so, I do not know.  I never forced her or threatened her or coerced her.  Perhaps it started out as an affair of passion when my wife was sick and I was not able to have sex with her.  Soon though, it grew into much more than that.  Sally was witty and smart and fun.   She had none of the pretenses of the typical Virginian lady.  In bed, there were no rules and anything went.  If I could have imagined heaven, it would have been being in bed with Sally.

People started to suspect that something more than slave master and mistress was transpiring between us.  I could not afford to let anyone think it was anything more than that.  In 1790, in Virginia, it was permissible to sleep with a slave.  It was not permissible to love a slave.  My reputation, my entire life would have been destroyed if it had been shown that I was openly consorting with a Black woman.  I had six children with Sally.  Each of these children was kept secret from everyone around us.  I took the secret of these children to my grave.  One hundred and fifty years later, my family are still attempting to deny my lineage to these children.   I am sorry that I had to deny them.  I was worse than Peter with Jesus.  They were my children but they were raised in my house as domestic servants.

I freed Sally and her surviving children when I died.  I could not afford to free all my slaves as this would have left my heirs with a large debt.  My lands, house and slaves merely paid off the mountain of bills that my creditors were clamoring to be paid for.

Did Sally love me?  I don’t know.  I would like to think that it was more than simply serving her master.  But who can tell?  In the warped and perverted system that we called our “peculiar” thing, how could a Black woman have a normal relationship with a White man or vice versa?  Suspicion, fear, prejudice, uncertainty and opportunism were all pervasive in Black-White relationships.  Sally may have seen me simply as a way to have her children freed.  I might have indulged a younger beautiful woman simply to satisfy the narcissism of “old” age.  Who knows?  There is no sense wondering what I would do if I could do things over again.  I am sure I would do the same thing that I did before.  I would indulge in cowardice and hypocrisy because I could do no other.

I am looking at my grave stone now.  It reads:

HERE WAS BURIED
THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

These were my most important accomplishments.  Please remember me for them.  Forgive me for my failings as a human being.  I never claimed to be a god or to be better than my fellow man.  I ask forgiveness from my children and my descendants.  I hope someday my ancestors will acknowledge the patrimony and lineage between the Hemings and the Jeffersons.  Ironic, that in some ways, this lineage is a more fitting tribute to the principle that “All men are created equal” than anything I have ever done with my life.

I never believed in a God of judgement or a God of human like characteristics.  My belief was in some kind of a higher power that created the galaxies but was not necessarily sentient.   I wander now through these galaxies looking for the god of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.   If I should find him, I will ask him why?  What was it all for?  What did I accomplish?  Would I have left a greater legacy if I had not been a hypocrite?  How could I have done this?   Would he forgive me for my hypocrisy and cowardice?  How do I get rid of the sadness and pain I feel?

Time for Questions:

Do you admire Thomas Jefferson?  What did you find most admirable about his life?  What would you have done if you were in Jefferson’s shoes?  Why?  What do you think he should have done with his slaves?  Why?  Do you think it was wrong for him to have a relationship with Sally Hemings?  Why?

Life is just beginning.

1789 “As far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children. Many quakers in Virginia seated their slaves on their lands as tenants. They were distant from me, and therefore I cannot be particular in the details, because I never had very particular information. I cannot say whether they were to pay a rent in money, or a share of the produce: but I remember that the landlord was obliged to plan their crops for them, to direct all their operations during every season & according to the weather. But what is more afflicting, he was obliged to watch them daily & almost constantly to make them work, & even to whip them. A man’s moral sense must be unusually strong, if slavery does not make him a thief. He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own, can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force. These slaves chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work; they became public nuisances and in most instances were reduced to slavery again. But I will beg of you to make no use of this imperfect information (unless in common conversation). I shall go to America in the Spring & return in the fall. During my stay in Virginia I shall be in the neighborhood where many of these trials were made. I will inform myself very particularly of them, & communicate the information to you. Besides these there is an instance since I came away of a young man (Mr. Mayo) who died and gave freedom to all his slaves, about 200. This is about 4 years ago. I shall know how they have turned out. Notwithstanding the discouraging result of these experiments, I am decided on my final return to America to try this one. I shall endeavor to import as many Germans as I have grown slaves. I will settle them and my slaves, on farms of 50 acres each, intermingled, and place all on the footing of the Metayers (Medietani) of Europe. Their children shall be brought up, as others are, in habits of property and foresight, & I have no doubt but that they will be good citizens. Some of their fathers will be so: others I suppose will need government.” – Letter to Dr. Edward Bancroft, Paris, January 26, 1789; “The Works of Thomas Jefferson,” Federal Edition, Editor: Paul Leicester Ford, (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5) Volume 5

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carolyn Wedin
    Sep 07, 2015 @ 01:07:16

    I distinctly remember my shock when I first learned these things about Thomas Jefferson in an African American History class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973. Most horrifying was looking at his farm journals, where he recorded the careful breeding of his slaves–like animals–to create more profit. As an attempt at mitigation, Jefferson is frequently said to have included in his composition of the Declaration of Independence a failed article on eliminating slavery–even the musical, “1776” makes this claim. But what he wrote was a failed clause on eliminating the slave TRADE, something which would have only increased the value of his growing number of slaves. How to think about him with both his flaws and his achievements? I continue to have difficulty reconciling these things, though it certainly does make him more human in my regard.

    Reply

  2. johnpersico
    Sep 07, 2015 @ 03:37:18

    Thanks Carolyn, hard to say what went through his mind. It certainly puts a tarnish of sorts on his reputation and legacy. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I always think comments help to bring out more sides to an issue than any one person can do.

    Reply

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