Thomas Jefferson’s Contradictions: The Great Democrat and Slave Holder

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How is it, that in a nation enthused by inalienable rights, liberties, and equality under the law, one person could own another? With the help of the words of Jefferson, “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal,” Americans were declaring their nation’s freedom in 1776. However, when Americans declared their freedom and adopted the Declaration of Independence guaranteeing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness there were 539,000 African-Americans being held as slaves. Thomas Jefferson, a leading figure in America’s early development, had his inconsistencies between his life and vision, while struggling with core issues of his era including slavery, women, and political philosophy. However, these inconsistencies can be understood while maintaining his integrity as a Founding Father through analyzing his contradictions from being a famous advocate of freedom and also being one who was a lifelong slaveholder. These contradictions can be seen through Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his statements about race in his book Notes on the State of Virginia.

Is it important to understand when analyzing the contradictions of Jefferson, that to an extent these contradictions are ones of our own era that we associate with Jefferson. What we see now as contradictions in his life, and others hypocrisy, was a simple conflict between his social position and his political philosophy. Jefferson could not have been an natural-rights theorists, if he didn’t come from a wealthy background in the first place. This then being the fundamental contradiction in his life. Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and wrong for profiting from it, however could see no way to renounce it in his lifetime. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson argued that slavery degraded black slaves. He wrote, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” Jefferson looked greatly to the younger generation to step forward and deal with the problem of racial slavery, but in no means could effectively enforce it in his time. The young Virginians had “sucked in the principles of liberty as if it were their mother’s milk,” as Jefferson said. Although it appears Jefferson’s greatest achievements were his words and great work of literature, not by any means should these be overlooked. In effect there is no Jefferson the great democrat without Jefferson the slave holder. When a person is perceived as a hypocrite, consequently one devalues his or her message.

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