Liberty Matters

Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Race

The shift in attitudes in the 21st century toward Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers reflects the rise in consciousness of what has for so long been repressed in American conversations: race and racism. While historians have evaluated Thomas Jefferson on his contributions to freedom and individual rights and acknowledged his participation in slavery, they have rarely been straightforward about the depth and influence of his racial views. Furthermore, historians have seldom acknowledged the role that these views have played in the creation of systemic racialism that is at once invisible, differential, and often denied. To understand the impact of Jefferson on both the legacy of individual liberty and racial distress, we must examine the ways in which these opposites materialized in American culture.
In his support of the Enlightenment principles of individual rights, free trade, and democracy, Jefferson believed that the success and perpetuation of a free society depended on the regard for these principles by the people. He doubted that this could ever be the case for the people of France or Spain. But Jefferson believed that the American people had absorbed these principles in their struggle and forging of their society. Having fought a revolution and presided over the formation of a democratic republic, Jefferson seemed always plagued by the possibility of the union dissolving. Indeed, this became one of his excuses for not eliminating slavery immediately, for entertaining the colonization of free blacks, and for failing to recognize St. Domingue (Haiti) as an independent nation. Thus, Jefferson's concern for the nation's survival supplemented his skepticism about the compatibility of blacks and whites as social equals.
But if historians attempt to judge or even to interpret the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, they must first address the problem of race, which has been excluded from most discussions of Jefferson and his legacy. Race is gotten at indirectly through discussions of slavery or of Notes on the State of Virginia. But in looking through the indexes of many books about Jefferson, the terms "race," "racism," "racial," or "racial discrimination" are not even indexed. The absence of race as a primary category attests to the fact that outside of the discussion of slavery, the concept of race or racism (or any of its other derivative terms) does not enter into interpretations of Jefferson.
As Annette Gordon-Reed has stated (2021:63-67), leaving race out of American history (which also entails leaving black people out of the history) has been a major factor impeding our understanding of the effects of race on the country itself. Historians need to examine the way that slavery and race were intertwined and how race became a major feature of American culture.
2. Culture and Consequence: Slavery, Race, and Mythology
The first African in the Americas came with Christopher Columbus and other European explorers. "Juan las Canarias was a black sailor who served on Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, during the first transatlantic voyage in 1492" (Deagan & MacMahon 1995:9). The initial slaves were introduced by the Spanish. However, eventually the English adopted chattel slavery in their American colonies as well. One of those colonies was Virginia.
"By the end of the seventeenth century the outcome of quite considered decisions taken by eminent planters in the southern mainland and the English Caribbean was not simply slaveholding societies but slave societies. What differentiated them from the slaveholding colonies of New England and the Middle Atlantic was the extent to which an ideology of racial difference was fast becoming deeply entrenched. Racial slavery had become central and, from the elite perspective, an indispensable institution. By 1700 there was no longer any uncertainty, let alone any serious misgivings, about the status of Africans anywhere in English America" (B. Wood 1998:8).
Into this environment, Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 to an elite Virginia family whose predecessors had immigrated from southern regions of England and were what Fischer called "distressed cavaliers" (1989). Indeed, Beran tells us: "We shall not get far in understanding Jefferson and other high Virginians of his day if we do not grasp that they aimed always to be cavaliers..." (2003:38). The planter class of the Virginia tidewater was patriarchal, family-oriented, and agrarian at its base and dedicated to the institution of slavery, justified by the Athenian model of democracy and slavery (Fischer 1989: 207-418).
After being schooled in French, Greek, and Latin by tutors, Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary where he encountered the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment through William Small. At the same time, his presence in Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia, meant he also became acquainted with Virginia's political elite and studied law for five years with George Whyte. His incessant studies of British history and debates with other intellectuals prepared him to write A Summary View of the Rights of British America in 1774 (Eicholz 2001: 31-36).
Jefferson's political participation, first in the affairs of Virginia and later as a member of the Continental Congress led him to his future legacy as a revolutionary and founding father of a new nation. His major contribution was as a member of the committee of five charged with composing The Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson drafted, albeit with changes by others, and which was finally adopted on July 4, 1776, the beginning of a revolution that changed the world by bringing the idea of individual rights and democracy into being. This founding moment would become the origin story of the United States of America.
But in contradiction to the values put forth in the Declaration, the plantation owners of the southern slave societies created false myths about Africans designed to rationalize and justify the institution of slavery itself and, in doing so, cemented the association of these myths with blacks. In her book, Race in North America (1999), Smedley traces the development of this mythology or worldview into a belief system about race and blackness that would be internalized deeply in the South and spread across the United States, becoming a fundamental part of American culture.
"Jefferson's life exemplifies the agonizing ambiguities and contradictory impulses that came to warp American thought. Indeed, he was central to the formulation and dissemination of American attitudes about race...Specifically, he was instrumental in casting the whole question of racial inferiority into the arms of science. But Jefferson represented a great deal more than that. He articulated better than almost anyone else the concepts of human rights, individual liberty, and justice - an enlightened ideology diametrically opposed to the growing ideology of race. As a slave owner, he vividly reflected and internalized these opposing forces" (Smedley 1999:189).
3. Confronting the Problem of Race in the 21st Century
The lingering problem of race in the United States has managed to stay beneath the surface of history, even among historians of slavery, although scientific theories about race were clearly present in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Even though genetics has shown that race has no basis in biology, Americans still cling to racial identities as if they did. Books, such as Ivan Hannaford's Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996), represented a rising interest in race that has continued into the 21st century. That books by Kendi (2016) and Stovall (2021) should call out Thomas Jefferson for his complicity in the racism that has been pervasive but effectively kept under wraps can be considered the contextualizing of this problem of race.
The principles of individual rights - unalienable rights - on which the United States of America was ultimately founded are contrary to the slavery that existed even as they were being declared. It is unfortunate that new ideas often enter an existing society imperfectly and take time to become fully integrated into its operation. The fact that the men who proposed to design a country based on these principles were only able to apply them in a limited fashion at first, is not a testament that these ideas were somehow aligned with a slavery. It would be presentistic to expect that a society in conflict with the natives whose land it usurped, with each other over differing religious practices, and with the general subordination of others by class, gender, and color - a society floundering under the strictures of a monarch foreign to its shores - would suddenly change its most fundamental understandings overnight and apply these new ideals holistically. That they were encouraged by a specific group of men incensed at the limitations on their own freedom should not surprise or scandalize us. Personal interests generally motivate human beings, sometimes for the better. That Thomas Jefferson was able to find a way to live with these contradictions should also not surprise us. We can be grateful for the beginnings of individual liberty and pissed off that those same men did not abolish the institution that most contradicted it. Nevertheless, attention needs to be called to all of the elements of our national story.
Ironically, as I completed this response, a survey of historians conducted by C-Span concerning the best presidents was released. Thomas Jefferson ranked 7th in esteem, a status unchanged from several previous years. It will be interesting to see whether Jefferson's ranking is sustained as more and more historians begin to deal with the issue of race and his views about it.
Beran, Michael Knox. Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind. New York: Free Press, 2003.
Deagan, Kathleen and Darcie MacMahon. Fort Mose: Colonial America's Black Fortress of Freedom. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida/Florida Museum of Natural History, 1995.
Eicholz, Hans L. Harmonizing Sentiments: The Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Idea of Self-Government. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. On Juneteenth. New York: Liveright/W. W. Norton, 2021.
Jefferson, Thomas. A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774. Library of Congress. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence, 1776.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by Frank Shuffelton. New York: Penguin Books, [1785] 1996.
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Bold Type Books, 2016.
Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
Stovall, Tyler. White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021.
Wood, Betty. The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies. New York: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.