We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… -- Declaration of Independence
The Christmas break last week afforded a family escapade to western North Carolina, where Andrea, the girls and I visited with my parents and their new dog, Sassy. This year I opted to drive, and thus we embarked on a 650-mile trek across six states and a vast expanse of the American landscape. It is on these trips that I am reminded of the physical beauty of America; of the rugged grandeur of the Shenandoah Valley, the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the lush greenery of the Virginia countryside. We ventured through old industrial cities, past small towns that haven’t changed for 50 years, and beside countless farms, valleys and rolling hillsides that seem straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. On these drives, one becomes rooted to a deeply American story, a pathway of time and history that connects us all as one nation.
At the week’s end, we chanced a stop in Charlottesville, Virginia, to walk the historic grounds of the University of Virginia, designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson. A genuine intellectual, the man who would write the Declaration of Independence and become the third president of the United States believed education essential to a vibrant citizenry, a building block for a modern democracy. “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code,” Jefferson wrote George Wythe in 1786, “is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”
Following lunch at a local produce market, we headed to Monticello, the grand and impressive setting from which much of Jefferson’s inspiration was born. It was a beautiful December day, unseasonably warm with a bright sunshine glistening from the high, blue sky above. Upon arrival, one finds the plantation situated atop an 850-foot mountain in Virginia’s Piedmont region, which in Jefferson’s time encompassed 5,000 acres of surrounding land. As I stood in front of his elegant mansion, I sensed the spirit of Jefferson on these grounds and understood immediately why he chose this setting for his magnificent house, working farms and gardens.
The view from Monticello is spectacular, the entire countryside visible from all points. Standing atop the South Terrace, I envied Jefferson who, as much as anyone, embodied the notion of a meaningful life. He recognized politics as a public duty, an obligation of citizenship, and he possessed a broad and expansive view of an intellectually engaging life. A lover of books, a prolific writer and public philosopher, an architect, scientist, and lifelong student of literature and the arts, Jefferson was a true renaissance man. And he was a rational thinker and voice of reason when America most needed one. It was an age of revolution and radical change.
Walking the grounds of Monticello, I could almost experience the daily rhythm of his life; waking at sunrise, reading and writing until noon; long afternoon walks and rides on horseback exploring and surveying his vast property. In the evening, he entertained distinguished guests with French cuisine and the finest wines inspired by his years in Paris. And through it all, he attended to the affairs of a young nation.
Jefferson envisioned and articulated the high ideals of the newly formed United States, and put into words the principles to which we as a people have aspired in our best and brightest moments. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the most uniquely American of aspirations and embody to this day the promise that is America. Through his written words, he bequeathed to the nation a lasting legacy, a progressive vision of equality and liberty for all.
To examine the life and accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson is to be impressed. Author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, founder of the University of Virginia (the three accomplishments he permitted on his tombstone), thoughtful writer and thinker on politics, philosophy, religion, and science, a man of refined tastes, Jefferson was a true national leader and admired public figure. He was all of these things and more.
And yet…there is always “and yet” is there not? To visit Monticello today requires one to reconcile the many contradictions and hypocrisies of Jefferson’s life, and to reflect on another, darker side of Jefferson’s character. This becomes immediately apparent when one discovers that the mansion he designed and built sits atop a long tunnel through which dozens of slaves, unseen, labored all day in tight quarters preparing meals, cleaning linens and tableware, and serving the needs of Jefferson and his guests. Dozens of others toiled in the tobacco fields and, later, wheat farms spread across the plantation’s acreage. The same man who wrote of equality and the natural rights of mankind owned over 600 enslaved African Americans in his lifetime.
As he began to craft the words that became the Declaration of Independence on his way to Philadelphia in 1776, he was accompanied by some of his personal slaves. In later years, when many of his contemporaries, inspired in part by the words of the Declaration, freed their slaves during and after the American Revolution, Jefferson by the time of his death freed just nine. Through his inaction, Jefferson effectively condemned to the auction block another 200 human beings.
Like all other southern plantations, violence was used at Monticello to enforce productivity and to discipline Jefferson’s human property. It was a necessity of the slave trade. And though as a young man he denounced the morality of slavery and occasionally advocated for its abolition, in his lifetime he did nothing personally to end the institution and benefited profitably from its existence.
As president, when Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory and thereby doubled in one stroke of the pen the entire landmass of the United States, he did nothing to prevent the spread of slavery into what he called the vast “empire of Liberty.” In one ten-year period, Jefferson sold 85 of his slaves as chattel so that he could raise cash to buy wine, art, and other luxury goods. And he carried on a 40-year sexual liaison with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered six children. Defender of liberty. Proponent of religious freedom. Slave owner. This is the great paradox of Jefferson and Monticello.
The view from Monticello approaches the perfection of Jefferson’s high ideals, but his life and times are a stark reminder of the imperfection of man. Jefferson was a paragon of virtue in his public life and written testaments. But history and time have exposed him also as a man of enormous vice. As Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), has explained, Jefferson “allowed himself to be trapped by the economic, political and cultural circumstances into which he was born.” It was a trap that the great Thomas Jefferson, a man of enlightened idealism, the founder of a nation and a great university, and a leading proponent of individual liberty, was unable to overcome. Whether a product of pure hypocrisy or selfish aggrandizement, it is a complexity with which we must contend, as Americans and as human beings.
Walking the grounds of Monticello, I thought of the many complexities, the shades of gray that so often permeate the human condition. Is anyone really ever the embodiment of pure goodness, or pure evil? So often, we place people and nations in black-and-white boxes, for it is easier to justify our actions when we do so. It is how nations build support for warfare and organized violence. It allows us to place on pedestals our own designated heroes. But rarely are the people who occupy the nations with whom we disagree full of pure evil, or the people who inspire us made of pure goodness. Criminals and prostitutes, businessmen and thieves, generals and inspiring leaders – all are at one time infants and children; all at some point in life long for the loving embrace of a mother or the prideful moments of a child’s accomplishments; and all are imperfect.
Jefferson was a complex man. His greatness remains, as does his legacy to America. But just as it does a disservice to our ideals to ignore the blemishes of American history and the shortcomings of our democratic tradition, so too does it ill-serve us as a people to ignore the sins of Jefferson’s past. We can never know how Jefferson’s thinking may have evolved over time. I would like to believe that, had he lived another half century, Jefferson would have been horrified by the contradictions between his spoken ideals and his lived reality. It is a testament to those who run Monticello today that we are blessed with a complete picture of Jefferson the man, Jefferson the public servant, and Jefferson the slaveholder. It is the blessing and the curse of America, and a legacy we must continue to address.