by Robert Morrison
April 13, 2010
Actor, historical interpreter Bill Barker says its the question he gets at every audience. Barker, of Colonial Williamsburg, plays the role of Thomas Jefferson. The question, of course, is: Didnt Jefferson have children by his slave, Sally Hemings? The answer, in all likelihood, is that some Jefferson sired children by Sally.
Despite the calumnies of two hundred years, it has never been proven against Thomas Jefferson. The 2001 Final Report of the Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter notes that the DNA testing done in 1998 pointed the finger at Thomas Jefferson no more than it did at any of the other roughly two dozen known male descendants of Jeffersons grandfather present in Virginia at the time.
But, as Mark Twain said, a lie can travel `round the world before truth gets its pants on. Its most unfortunate when today, even Judge Andrew Napolitano takes it as a given that Jefferson was a hypocrite and may even have been a rapist. How could she give consent, the judge asks. The Scholars Commission was composed of recognized historians, political scientists, and lawyers. The 15-member panel concludedwith but one dissentthat Thomas Jefferson was not guilty. Youd think that Judge Napolitano would consider such a verdict from such a distinguished panel before doubting Thomas.
Who cares? All of those spoken of in this story are long dead. What difference does it make? A lot. The story of Jeffersons supposed affair with Sally Hemings gained new life at the very time that William Jefferson Clinton was facing impeachment by the House of Representatives. Clinton had become involved in a sex scandal with a 21-year old intern. Many writers and talkers at the time greeted the news with relish. It was as if they could now say: See, they all do it. Well, no they dont.
The only other Presidents who were seriously suspected of adulterous liaisons while they occupied the highest office were Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. FDR was known to have discreetly visited with his former mistress, Lucy Rutherford, during the last year of his life. But it is by no means certain that it was an adulterous relationship at that point. Roosevelts congestive heart failure, his rapidly declining health suggest otherwise. Thats a pretty small number out of forty-four Chief Executives.
The reason why this story is so damaging is that it is a part of the project of contemporary liberalism to denigrate the Founders and what they founded. They held slaves. They denied women the vote. Therefore, we are constantly told, we dont need to pay any attention to what they thought. Our Constitution needs to be a living document, a thing of putty in their hands, they argue.
On slaveholding, why do we think it wrong? In the eighteenth century, most nations in the world held slaves. The horrific Atlantic Slave Trade was deplored by all, but slaveholding itself was defended by many respectable thinkers.
Thomas Jefferson was not among them. He cried out against slavery and the execrable traffic of the Slave Trade. He did more than that. He worked against slavery.
He placed a denunciation of King for protecting the Slave Trade in the Declaration of Independence. It was taken out. Not because the other Signers approved the Slave Trade, but because they recognized their own involvement with it.
Still, Jefferson gave us the ringing phrase All men are Created Equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone knew then that a nation so conceived and so dedicated could not forever countenance human bondage. Abolitionists quoted Jeffersons words from the start. The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time, was another of Jeffersons immortal phrases.
Jefferson, as a member of the Congress, advanced bills to prevent slavery from spreading beyond the Appalachians. One of those bills failed by just one vote. Jefferson cried out in anguish Heaven itself was silent in that awful moment. At least, he could claim some credit for stopping slavery in the territory north of the Ohio River. The Old Northwest Ordinance was one of the greatest accomplishments of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.
As President, Jefferson appealed to Congress to end the Atlantic Slave Trade. He asked Congress to act in 1806, letting the law come into effect on January 1, 1808, the first opportunity afforded under a compromise in the original Constitution. He didnt have to do it. The Constitution said no law could be passed before that date. It did not say such a law must be passed. But President Jefferson pleaded for its passage. In doing so, he used the strongest anti-slavery language of any President prior to Abraham Lincoln.
We all honor Britains great Evangelical anti-Slavery leader, William Wilberforce. And we should. But Wilberforces epochal effort to ban the Atlantic Slave Trade would have come to nothing if President Jefferson had not acted for the United States. Think of two blades of a scissors. How bad was the Atlantic Slave Trade? Horrific. Human beings were crowdedsometimes 600 to 800 to a ship. Naked, chained, fed barely enough to keep them alive, the slaves would be thrown overboard if their ship was approached by a Royal Navy squadron bent on enforcing the ban. Wilberforce once showed fashionable Londoners a slave ship. Six hundred souls departed West Africa. Only two hundred were still alive after a seven-week journey to the British West Indies. The worst Southern plantation in 250 years of unrequited toil never produced such inhuman horrors.
Writing those immortal words to inspire liberty-loving reformers and banning the Atlantic Slave Trade ought to have gained Jefferson gratitude. But he failed to free his own slaves. Unlike Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, he died in debt and was unable to reach their moral heights by providing a powerful example for liberty.
When I took seven different classes of interns to Monticello, I would always stand on Mr. Jeffersons lawn and disagree with the great George Will. Will had written that Thomas Jefferson lived as a free man ought to live. He meant, of course, Jefferson was constantly thinking, constantly writing, constantly creating. No, I told those young students: John Adams lived as free man ought to live. He never freed his slaves because he never owned any.
Still, on Jeffersons birthday we should reflect on what his legacy is. Freedom from monarchy and aristocracy, republican institutions, religious liberty, education open to talented students regardless of their social standing or economic meansall of these are but part of what Thomas Jefferson bequeathed to us. Do we deny the great phrase he employedthe right to life? Endowed by our Creator?
Ever wonder why a man born in Hawaii has just as much right to run for President as a man or woman born in the original Thirteen States? Its because Jefferson led the way in treating new territories as fully equal states, not as colonies. By contrast, only in 1982 was Canada permitted to write her own laws without getting a sign-off from Mother England. Today, when we seem to be giving billions in foreign aid to Muslim-dominated states, supposedly to enlist them in a war on terror, its worth remembering that President Jefferson fought Muslim hostage-takers rather than continue paying tribute to them.
No wonder that Frederick Douglass quoted Jefferson regularly in his own great crusade against slavery. Or that Abraham Lincoln was willing to say:
All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
What did these great men, these champions of freedom, born in Jeffersons own time, know about him that too many today have forgotten? I thank God for the life of Thomas Jefferson.