Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reframing the Duality of Jefferson’s Understanding of Race

Many of our class discussions have revolved around the obvious contradictions that existed in the white, slave-owning mind. On the hand, these people professed and argued the belief that the humans that they were enslaving were in fact not human, but rather subhuman. Rationalized by arguments by making false conclusions about the African cultures from which the slaves originated and what they saw as a lack of intelligence. While at the same time making laws to prevent natural human actions that the slave owners realized would occur. Preventing slaves from learning, form gathering ect. Still, despite this they also had to confront the slave narratives and arguments that reasoned for abolition. And so this inherent acknowledgement of the humanity of slaves and belief in their inhumanity existed and best represented by one of America’s founding fathers Thomas Jefferson. His contradictions, at least in what he wrote and said is undeniable, but understanding Jefferson’s point of view on slavery can also be understood in a different context, a context we are very familiar with today. Politicians who lie, or mislead, in order to advance their own political self-interest.
When most American’s think of the founding fathers, they like to believe in the America myth that has come out of that time period. For a moment, just consider Jefferson a politician. Undoubtedly smarter and wiser than most today, but as President Richard Nixon showed that does not make him above the pitfalls of power and political life. Thinking of Jefferson as one would think of a politician today, a contradiction of thought, which he clearly expressed, does not necessarily and always mean a contradiction in actual belief. Think of this idea in a more current context. The Republican Party has endured numerous “scandals” that involved members of the party who are not openly gay and often explicitly anti-gay, soliciting gay sex. This comparison is meant to sharpen the point; those politicians are not always truthful and often simply act in what they believe to be in their best political self-interest. For a Republican Party member hoping to gain the support of a party that opposes gay marriage may very well understand that it is in his/her best interest to also be anti-gay in order to gain that support. Similarly, is it hard to think that a man as prominent and respected as Thomas Jefferson, a resident of Virginia would realize that no matter how he felt for Sally Hemings and if that changed his real prospective on slavery, that in order to maintain his status and relevance that he had to as they say it now “tow the party line”.
This argument is not to say that it is not the case that Jefferson had a conflicting understanding of race and slavery. It is meant to simply point out that there may be another layer to that story and that as great as we may choose to remember him as Americans, he may have had the personality flaw of being unwilling to stand up to slavery and his peers. It is important to remember as we have brought to light in class, no American hero is exactly who we like to think they were. You do not need to diminish his greatness, but just except his weaknesses.


  1. I think Carson brings up a great point when analyzing Thomas Jefferson's views on slavery and racism in America. Thomas Jefferson was a politician conflicted with the dominant ideals and values of his time. He was a contradictory man who was a slaveholder and in love with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Although some of his writings blatantly points out the inhumanity of slaves, other parts of his writing liberates slaves. Many grapple with the fact that he helped write one of the most important works of our history, the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration famously pronounces: all men are created equal, a quote that helped conquer white supremacy and end slavery. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Jefferson is a hypocrite. However, we need to carefully to peel back the layers of history and culture that surround his time period. I do not think Jefferson was simply towing the party line when not acting in favor of this equality that he so proudly declares in the Declaration. While maneuvering his way through political values of his party, he was also attempting to reinterpret a dominant set of values with which he had grown up. He understood what it would take to change such concrete notions of racism and turn these values upside down. I believe his weakness was not being politician but it was believing that this inherent racism and inequality was not worth war. His weakness was not believing in the unthinkable: both Blacks and Whites giving up on each others' prejudices.

  2. Throughout our class discussion of Thomas Jefferson, Carson's position was always at the forefront of my mind. For me, the claim that Jefferson was conflicted or a complex character did not really suffice. It seems to be deeper than that. While reading "A Hideous Monster of the Mind", I was convinced that Jefferson's writing was a calculated, overcompensation for his true feelings. Similar to a person that has to keep telling himself, “I am not a liar. I am not a liar,” out of guilt and denial, Jefferson’s writings seem to be his attempt to reason and deny himself of what he knows is true- Blacks are not inferior. The politician analogy really captures it all. In writing, Jefferson attempts to present one thing, while his relationship with Sally Hemming conveys another. He has to put up a front; to abide by the social norms while suppressing his personal views. The commentary at the end of the article states it best: “If perhaps a slave to his passions, Jefferson proved master of his reactions. The Jefferson of Notes… was not naturally cool but thoroughly air-conditioned.”

    Like politicians today who manipulate the public by appearing calm, cool, and collected while delivering a message that goes against their personal beliefs, Jefferson does the same through his writings. Jefferson’s arguments were thoughtfully and eloquently phrased, with everyone point seeming to intentionally go against what he held as truth. I am not convinced Jefferson’s writings reflect his personal beliefs, but instead, that they are an attempt to mask these beliefs. Just because a person can eloquently convey a point does not mean he or she holds that idea as truth.