Don’t sell Jefferson’s legacy short
The recent debasement of statues of historical figures leads me to suggest that we judge their lives by standards of their own time as well as our own.
In that regard, I stand to defend Mr. Thomas Jefferson.
Immediately, I will stipulate that Jefferson inherited slaves and took a young slave woman as his mistress. Slavery was abhorrent and the relationship “inappropriate.”
Now consider this in the context of his life (1743-1826). Born into a planter slave-owning family in the Virginia Colony, Virginia had the largest slave ownership of all colonies, Jefferson was exceptionally astute politically.
He was famous for “being able to disagree without being disagreeable” and had political aspirations.
He could have committed economic and political suicide by freeing the slaves but would have become only an obscure historical footnote. Instead, he used his considerable political skills to achieve what he could and gain office.
That Jefferson thought slave trade was morally wrong and should be abolished is well supported. In 1776, Jefferson inserted a condemnation of Great Britain for bringing slavery to the colonies in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, but his colleagues removed it.
In 1778, he led the Virginia General Assembly to ban the importation of slaves — the first state to do so. In 1784, he led Congress to ban expansion of slavery to all new territories but lost by one vote.
As president in 1807, he proposed to Congress and signed legislation to ban the importation of slaves into the United States. These are hardly actions of a pro-slavery person.
Some conflate his thoughts on the then existing slave population with being pro-slavery. As a founder, he desperately wanted the fragile, nascent republic he helped create to survive. That was his highest priority.
The Southern states made it clear they would leave the Union and form their own over slavery. War, at that time, was not a viable option. So he developed a number of ideas and schemes to deal with the existing slave population –without going to war.
It took decades, and Abraham Lincoln, to have the military resources and political will to take the country to war over slavery. We still talk about how awful that war was.
One could argue that Jefferson was wise to avoid it then — and I do. Not only did Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence at age 23, he served as the first ambassador to France and had a very successful two-term presidency.
He pioneered decentralized government and worked well with Congress — in stark contrast to his predecessor, John Adams. He completed the Louisiana Purchase without which the U.S. would not be coast to coast.
Placing Jefferson in the context of his time, one can easily conclude that he should be on Mount Rushmore and have a memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated to him.
Gable is an occasional contributor to the Mirror’s Opinion page.