Thomas Jefferson

The Civil War and the Question of Jefferson's Racism

The period surrounding the Civil War saw a decline in Jefferson's prestige. It seemed that his formula for a new republic based on the sovereignty of the individual, of localities and of states had failed and that a strong centralized government, instead, was needed for the preservation of a democracy. With the triumph of the Union, Jefferson's image faded into the recesses of American political and social thought, while Hamilton emerged for the moment as the more pragmatic and realistic of the two Founding Fathers, the one who seemed to have had the truest sense of how a republic must function.

What became clear in the heated political rhetoric surrounding the Civil War was that Jefferson, as author of the Declaration of Independence on one hand, and Virginia planter on the other, represented two conflicting impulses in America: the preservation of a free democracy and the preservation of states' rights. Jefferson himself recognized this ultimately disastrous contradiction when he commented on the Missouri debate: "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation is in the other."

The Jefferson image proved to be a malleable political talisman, passionately wielded by abolitionists and slavery advocates alike. While Robert Toombs of Georgia was able to proclaim that, no matter his words, Jefferson's actions had always been in support of slavery, abolitionists took up the Declaration of Independence as their battle credo. To this day, Jefferson's life symbolizes the struggle with issues of race and society with which every American must grapple. 11

In the years preceding the Civil War, two important books about Jefferson appeared, one a vilification and the other, a redemption. Memoirs of Aaron Burr, by Matthew L. Davis, 1836-37, sustains a lengthy attack against Jefferson's vindictive spirit toward Aaron Burr. In the hands of gleeful Federalists, it opened Jefferson to charges of political conspiracy and dishonesty, and did more to harm Jefferson's image than any other work of the period. Henry S. Randall, in his Life of Jefferson, undertook to restore that image with a considerable amount of previously unpublished material regarding Jefferson's private life--Randall helped to humanize the distant, inscrutable philosopher-on-the-hill. Though Randall borders on unprofessional idolatry in his exuberance, his vindication of Jefferson, according to Peterson, "represented the pinnacle of Jefferson's reputation in historical literature in the nineteenth century." 12 Despite Randall's efforts, however, chinks had been revealed in the armor of Jefferson's image, opening the Sage of Monticello to even more damaging attacks regarding his views on slavery.

Why did Jefferson hedge so on the slavery issue? It has been argued that Jefferson feared a public endorsement of abolition would do more harm to the cause than good, if the majority of the country was not prepared to embrace abolition. This interpretation allows for a flattering depiciton of a man torn between his principles and political reality. But David B. Davis reminds us of the following facts: Jefferson himself at one point owned more than 200 slaves; he failed to promote gradual emancipation in the Northeast; and as President, "he expressed no regret over the extension of slavery into Louisiana."

What was most attractive to Jefferson was the idea of colonization. In the South, the American Colonization Society served as an attractive conduit for anti- slavery movements, i.e. it was not racism, necessarily, that was driving the colonization efforts, but a feeling that Blacks, through no fault of their own, were ill-equipped to adjust to democracy, and their needs would be better served apart from white society. The colonization movement seemed more humane, but cloaked the stark prejudice that lay underneath, for example, Jefferson's "strong suspicion" that Blacks "are inferior to the whites in endowments both of body and mind" and further, that "this inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life."

And of course today there still persists the question of Sally Hemings. According to the Old and New Establishment historians, the evidence simply does not exist to substantiate the claim that Jefferson fathered children with his mulatto slave; and given his horror of miscegenation, it is even less conceivable that he had feelings of genuine affection for her, as Jane Brodie argues in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Birography (1974) Though Peterson asserts that "no serious student of Jefferson" credits the Sally Hemings story, he concedes in the same breath that "important" historians like W.E.B. Dubois record the alleged affair as true or probably true.

Winthrop Jordan states the case against Jefferson strongly. The (in)famous Query XVIII in Notes on the State of Virginia "constituted, for all its qualifications, the most intense, extensive and extreme formulation of anti-Negro thought offered by any American in the thirty years after the Revolution." Whatever his true feelings towards Blacks, what is important is that Jefferson's hesitance--his defenders would say "pragmatism"--provided a model for the less-than-radical abolitionists to follow. And his seeming uncertainty regarding slaves and their role in society has helped to propel not only the political conflict leading to the Civil War, but the rhetoric of the civil rights movement and the inquiry of Early Republic historians today. 13

Jefferson was born, raised and educated in the plantation society of Virginia; though he firmly believed--and eloquently articulated--the sanctity of individual rights, he felt the tenets of his society too restrictive to allow the productive pursuit of abolition. Perhaps he was motivated by principle, seeking the most astute political avenue to advance gradual emancipation; perhaps he hoped that colonization would provide the answer; perhaps he was, ultimately, too cowardly to brave the censure of society; or perhaps he was an abominable racist--the answer to these questions will never be resolved to anyone's satisfaction.


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Credits

Thomas Jefferson, Vice President

Sir Moses Ezekiel, 1889, 29"

Senate Chamber Gallery

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