The Enigma and Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson

Nov 7, 2016

For an Election Day broadcast, we go back to our country's founding with a recent book on Thomas Jefferson that challenges some of the cliches about our third president.  We talk with Annette Gordon-Reed, co-author of "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs," about Jefferson's life at Monticello, his sojourn in Paris, and his views on slavery and race. 


GUEST:  Annette Gordon-Reed, co-author with Peter S. Onuf, of "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs".  Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School.  Gordon-Reed won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for "The Hemingses of Monticello."

Highlights from today's show:

Americans continue to be fascinated with the personal lives of such political figures as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Hamilton, says Annette Gordon-Reed. 

Thomas Jefferson is often seen as a globe-trotter and is known for his time in France and for his appreciation of French culture, diplomacy, and economics. However, says Gordon-Reed, Jefferson's experiences with French aristocracy led him to appreciate American values.

The [French] social life, French families, women, who are sort of nesting in politics, who are sort of 'out in the streets by themselves': all those kinds of things really shocked him. He began to say, 'you know, we have problems in Virginia and we may be rustic, but we are not like this.' He saw [French aristocracy] as decadent.

Exchange listener Warren from Wolfeboro asks about Jefferson's alignment with France during the Haitian Revolution, when Haitian slaves revolted against French slave-owners. Gordon-Reed says that Jefferson initially saw the revolt as part of an age of revolution, but when he learned of slaves killing white slave-owners in large numbers, he feared similar revolts in America.

The fear is that the enslaved people in Virginia, blacks in Virginia and other parts of the South, when they hear about this, are going to be influenced. And the contagion would come to America and there would be violence.

Exchange listener Amy, a history teacher in Exeter, says she struggles to explain to her students Jefferson's line in the Declaration of Independence: "...all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."  Did Jefferson include slaves when he wrote this?

I do think he believed that enslaved people were people. That was why he believed that slavery was an injustice, and that, in the fullness of time, it would be eradicated as people became more enlightened. That is a difficult position for us to accept, because we think that if you believe that, you should go out and do [something about it] immediately. 

Gordon-Reed says that Jefferson did not believe that slavery could be abolished during his time.

The people of Virginia, the white people of Virginia, were not going to vote to end slavery...and I think he was right in that assessment of it, that what would happen was that people had to be educated, and with enlightenment, people would recognize that slavery was not only wrong, but it was an actual threat to Republican society. That it could not exist in a truly Republican society. 

Find more information about Gordon-Reed's book, co-authored with Peter S. Onuf, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination."