19 February 2017


I am fascinated with Thomas Jefferson. I love him. He is my favorite of the Founders.

The first reason is the Declaration of Independence, which kicks off with two hundred words explaining liberal democracy with bracing clarity, then embodies those liberal-as-in-liberal-democracy values by submitting facts to a candid world so that he may justify an improvement to the political order. The Declaration is by my lights one of the greatest achievements in all of history. Jefferson was not truly its sole author — it is, after all, the shared statement of a committee — but his voice is integral to its greatness.

The second reason is the rest of his writing: clear, thoughtful, and inquisitive about every corner of the world. One might almost say the same of Franklin, but Franklin was earthy, practical, and grounded, while Jefferson was airy, intellectual, idealistic. The Library Of Congress began as Jefferson's personal library. In our mythology if not in fact, Jefferson is our First Nerd. And as I am an American nerd, Jefferson is my grandfather.

The third reason is that he was a monster. A profoundly and specifically American monster.

Jefferson was monstrous in owning slaves and profiting from their labor. We know he raped at least one of his slaves. (Any relationship we can imagine between Jefferson and Hemings does not make it rape any the less; she was a slave, bound to obedience by pain of death and worse.)

Jefferson was monstrous in advocating for and enacting genocide against American Indians.

And Jefferson was monstrous in hypocrisy, championing equality and liberty, calling American Indians his equals ... and yet still keeping slaves and pursuing genocide even as he wrote with conviction that these were evils.

So what is this love I have for Jefferson, the monstrous hypocritical genocidal slave rapist?

I hope my disgust at Jefferson is clear. I cultivate this disgust, deliberately summon it every time I speak his name. But I love him in his monstrosity, and I love him for being a reminder of the monstrosity to which I am heir, both in the way that all Americans inherit the consequences of those crimes and in the way that as another nerdy American White guy I inherit an ownership of those crimes.

To love truly is to embrace the whole of the beloved without delusion, to see clearly and love anyway, to know the worst and support the best. I would do that for my country, and for that there is no better symbol than Jefferson, who embodied so much of our very best and our very worst. We cannot understand the American condition or the human condition without recognizing that all of these things were the same person.

Jefferson — so much a skeptic that he took a scissors to his Bible to cut away every mention of miracles — said he trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just. As he should. As do I. Trembling in terror and in anguish and in awe and in awesome responsibility as I invoke his name.

Update: Smithsonian's The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson has an excellent deep dive into Jefferson's attitude toward slavery and the details of how slave labor maintained Monticello.

Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.

The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.


J'Carlin said...

That scissoring of the Bible cut away far more than the miracles. What was left was The Jefferson Bible, just republished by the Smithsonian which more than justifies any political and social peccadilloes that he might be guilty of.

Just as I forgive Paul nothing for giving the world Christ, I forgive Jefferson everything for giving the world Jesus.

Jonathan Korman said...

I too am an enthusiast for the Jefferson Bible.

But it does not justify slavery.