While many associate Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and the person that had written the Declaration of Independence with the idea of freedom, his attitudes towards the concepts of slavery were dual. As mentioned in the CBC News video, Jefferson’s virtues were enormous while his vices were equally as enormous. He believed that slavery was immoral and should be discouraged despite him having up to six hundred slaves and arguing that the black people were inferior to the whites, as mentioned by Catlett. Similarly to this contradiction, Jefferson stated that Native Americans were unspoiled by the sins of the developed world despite advocating for their extinction.
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While he assigned conscience to both Native Americans and African Americans, Jefferson distinguished their levels of intelligence, stating that there was proof than “Indians of Native America” exhibited signs of genius that could put them at the same level with the whites, which he did not say about African Americans. Furthermore, Jefferson held a view that Native Americans were victims of the historical events that surrounded them while stating that African Americans did not have enough skills to adapt to different environments. He also supported the opinion that the ‘blacks’ were limiting the efforts to liberate the slaves because they were inferior to whites by all means (Catlett).
The answer to the question about whether Jefferson could become a Founding Father had he not been a slave owner is dual. Despite owning slaves, he contributed to the establishment of a governmental system that after struggles of the Civil War and the civil rights movement lead to the equal treatment of all Americans regardless of their race. On the other hand, he knew that slavery was wrong, but he did not have enough moral beliefs that could have helped him to reach emancipation. Moreover, he believed that his generation was incapable of freeing their slaves because slavery was institutionalized and accepted by society, and it was the job of younger generations to move towards emancipation (Ambrose). To some, the contradictions in Jefferson’s beliefs may seem as irrational; others may state that he was a person of great mind and limited character. However, while he did not free his slaves, his ideas about freedom contributed to the historical events that made America what it is today.
The CBS News video shed light on the personal side of Jefferson about which the general public had no idea. Historians specializing in Jefferson’s life underlined the duality of his views: while people associate his persona with the ideas of freedom, there were 600 names of slaves “behind his back” (CBS News). Interestingly, the video mentioned that Jefferson’s most profitable nail-making business involved the free work of his slaves, each of which was routinely whipped to force into being more productive. Such use of force on plantations was customary to slave owners of that time, and even though Jefferson did not share the same beliefs about slavery with others, he also prescribed the practice of violence to make a profit. Furthermore, it was concluded that Jefferson’s beliefs about how slavery could be abolished were racist: he believed that at best, there would be emancipation, and then there would be repatriation and colonization, which meant that African Americans had to leave the States since, in his view, a biracial society where the Blacks and the Writes are equal was impossible.
Ambrose, Stephen. “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders.” Smithsonian, Web.
Catlett, Lowell. Thomas Jefferson: A Free Mind. Trafford Publishing, 2004.
CBS News. “The Duality of Thomas Jefferson.” Youtube, Web.
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