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.