Should we rethink Jefferson’s role in history?

Was he morally unfit to be president?

We always knew that racism was bone deep in America.

The first slave ship arrived in 1619, beating the Pilgrims by a year. But getting here first didn’t seem to give any advantage to the passengers.

Certainly not to the First Nation peoples either, who were already here by the millions.

A well-documented program of genocide soon thinned that group to the point that European settlers thought of the New World as uninhabited and ready for occupation. 

Which they did.  

A visit to Monticello this past winter underlined that racism.

Just outside the infamous Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson’s hilltop estate is a tourist attraction, along with nearby estates of James Madison and James Monroe.

All owned many slaves, and their working farms fed and supported them.

We picked up a booklet entitled “Sally Hemings” that detailed the history and controversy about Jefferson, his relationship with a slave, and their children.  

Much has been written about this relationship, beginning when it was happening. 

The overwrought “defenses” of Jefferson about the stories were varied, ranging from hair-on-fire denials to moral pronouncements that it couldn’t possibly be true.  Historians still argue about, and are ignorant of, the details. 

A column in this paper recently stated that “Jefferson held many slaves, raping and reproducing with at least one.”

Raping? No evidence of that anywhere, though it was probably not unusual on plantations. 

Forcible sex with white women probably wasn’t all that unusual either, but that’s another story.  

The sanctimonious hypocrisy of moral judgments about Jefferson’s family with Sally Hemings is easy if you know little about it.

The Monticello Association is an organization of the descendants of Martha and Mary Jefferson, his daughters.

They do not accept Sally Hemings’ descendants because their constitution only accepts Martha and Mary’s offspring.

And you know how binding constitutions are. So sorry, guys, you’re not eligible.  

This from descendants of the man who wrote the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.”

I guess the word “men” in there means only white males. 

Try these facts on for size.

Sally Hemings was the daughter of John Wayles (white plantation owner) and Elizabeth Hemings (slave). 

Wayles was also father to Martha Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s wife. So Sally and Martha were half-sisters.

Sally was a third-generation offspring of white male/black female. So by Virginia law, after “three crossings,” she was legally white.

We have no pictures or written word by Sally Hemings, but a contemporary described her as “mighty near white and very handsome, with long straight hair down her back.”

She was known as “dashing Sally” for her beauty. She came to Monticello with Jefferson’s wife as a house slave with her mother Elizabeth and other siblings.

After wife Martha’s death in 1782, Jefferson (aged 41) was sent to Paris, taking his daughter Martha and Sally’s brother, James.

He sends for remaining daughter Mary (age 9) accompanied by Sally (age 14 or 15, and the girls’ aunt) in 1787, and they lived in Paris until the French revolution in 1789. 

The story is that Sally bore a son soon after their return, named Thomas.  

Why did Sally and her brother come back from France, where they could have been free? 

The Hemings family story is that Jefferson promised her he would free her/their children if she did.

In 1801,  Jefferson became third president of the United States.

Sally bore five more children, all traceable to Jefferson’s times at Monticello, and when these children reached 21 or so, all were freed by Jefferson. They were the only slaves he ever freed. 

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, (50 years after the Revolution and the same day as John Adams) and in 1828, his daughter Martha freed Sally Hemings, who died in 1835. 

So was Jefferson morally unfit to be president? White supremacists say yes. Anti-slavery folks say yes.

What do you think?

Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion pages.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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