Dear Mr. Jefferson,
Today on many calendars in America your birthday is noted. Sorry you weren’t born in February to enjoy President’s Day between George and Abe’s day, but hey, you made the calender right? Millard Fillmore, you aren’t. Side note: does Fillmore have to flash ID to enter the Dead Presidents VIP lounge in the afterlife?
I digress… I write you to share why your place in the annals of America is a challenge for my fellow History teachers to address.
On the one hand is all the glory: The Declaration of Independence, our first Secretary of State, second Vice-President, third President and the deal of the millienium: he Louisiana Purchase (a better author of the Art of the Deal?).
But on the other is the painful understanding that while you held those truths to be self-evident, “all men” weren’t exactly equal at your time. You don’t have to look upon the furled up, questioning expression on the faces of students in a clasroom when they learn of your keeping of slaves. “Did he mean everyone was equal or not?” is the rejoinder. For older students, the legacy of a relationship, forced or otherwise, with your slave Sally Hemmings further clouds the discussion.
There are those who think we should lessen your role because of these tarnished happenings. Others brush by these as trivial because, after all, this was the way it was back then.
I take a wholly different view, one that does not deify you, but instead underscores your humanity: we are all conflicted beings.
His speculative and practical sides were frequently confused. Few men took into account that Jefferson’s private self, as expressed in his letters, might not coincide with his public self. Or that his opinion at one time might not represent his opinion under different circumstances.
- Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind
There are no pure idols to worship — nor should there be in a democracy with unalienable rights. By the way, thank you for expressly saying we have these God-given rights. You should have trademarked that phrase, it might have helped pay off your later debts.
Too often in our teaching of the History that you were so integral in starting, we want to place our Founding Fathers on a mountain, high above the rest of us. Oh… actually we
really did that on some of the land you purchased for us… bad example perhaps. The point is that some seek to create American Idols, of God-like stature that we can point to as pure patriotism.
So why, then, woud I want to hold you in esteem to my students? Well, you, like us, were faced with conflicting thoughts. And sometimes you didn’t do what today we w0uld see as the right thing. You wrote, originally in the Declaration of Independence, that the slave trade was a British abomination — and then again proposed it’s demise at the end of your presidency. Yet a few hours drive today from that Philadelphia court house puts you amongst slaves in your own back yard. As the youth of today might share in a form of print of their “slates” where they communicate with each other:
You held tight to the idea that there should in no way be a national bank, because it wasn’t in the Constitution. Your “strict constructionist” views, though, became problematic when you wanted the Louisiana Territory (for so many good reasons) and the power to obtain new land was missing from the Constitution. So you did what was politically prudent in the interest of your country, and dropped your guard on this issue. The extreme descendants of your political party would never yield such a point and instead put the government into gridlock and skewer you as a Republican-in-name-only (RINO) for compromising on your views. Incidentally, you doubled the size of the country with that move and set a precedent for more land acquisition to allow us to be from sea to shining sea. Thanks, man!
You didn’t stop your underlings from the mudslinging nastiness that was the Election of 1860 and allowed your former friend John Adams to be the target of some sophsticated verbage that might even raise eyebrows with the presidential campaigning going on right now. I doubt you would want those words to follow you in posterity.
But perhaps your singular modern flaw is that of slave owner who fathered several slave children on the side with Sally Hemmings. Your own descendants took a long time to even admit that such a thing occurred, even in the face of scientific evidence — which, ironically, you would likely have accepted with the capacity and openness of your learning and intellect in matters of politics, literature and science.
You were not a perfect man. You made your mistakes and had your very human flaws. But that should never stop of us from loving the document you primarily crafted, which was not only revolutionary for its time but set a standard for all time. You showed the common man that their voice was important, that government is — as one of your presidentials forebears will say — of the people, by the people and for the people.
And if a flawed human being is so capable of great intellect, shows the ability to lead and to learn and alter his views, then perhaps so can the rest of flawed not-so-founding fathers.
J. a teacher of American History to adolscents with other things on their minds