Jefferson: Defender of liberty, slave owner

From a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800).
From a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800).
Call Thomas Jefferson the nation's third president, a statesman, an intellectual and, most of all, author of the Declaration of Independence. But he was also a slave owner, and experts believe that he fathered the children of slave Sally Hemings.

     "He lives and will live in the memory and gratitude of the wise and good, as a luminary of science, as a votary of liberty, as a model of patriotism and as a benefactor of human kind," said his friend, President James Madison. This, of course, describes the Jefferson that we have placed on a pedestal overlooking the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.
     But Jefferson, the man, was complicated. Historians doggedly study his legacy while also becoming tangled in the perplexing details of a life that began April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, and ended July 4, 1826, at Jefferson's home, Monticello.
     For all of Jefferson's accomplishments, it is difficult to get through a sentence about him without veering into an oxymoron: a strident advocate of liberty who held slaves. These conflicting aspects of his personality were interwoven throughout his life. Here are the basics:      

      Coming of age: Jefferson enrolled at the College of William & Mary in 1760 at  age 16, according to the school's website. A student in the college's philosophy school, he was able to read Latin and Greek and was known for his ability to study 15 hours a day. One of his professors was William Small, a Scotsman who recognized Jefferson's ability.
     Under Small's instruction, Jefferson read Locke, Bacon and Newton, the school website recounts. He graduated in 1762 and then studied law under George Wythe, a distinguished judge considered the country's first great law professor. Well thought of, Jefferson often had dinner with Wythe, Small and Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, who had a good relationship with Colonial leaders and promoted education, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767. 
     In 1772, Jefferson, 28, married Martha Wayles Skelton, 23. One year later, Martha's father died, and the couple inherited slaves, among them, Betty Hemings and her children, one of whom was Sally Hemings, according to  Monticello's website.
     Martha Jefferson died Sept. 6, 1782, after suffering complications from childbirth.

      Slavery and The Declaration of Independence: Jefferson represented Virginia as a member of Continental Congress in 1775-1776. By this time, he had established a reputation for muscular prose. He was appointed to the committee charged with writing a declaration of independence, and  other members quickly agreed that Jefferson should write the draft, according to The Complete Book of Presidents, By William A. DeGregorio and Sandra Lee Stuart, (Barricade Books; 2013).
     In drafting the declaration, Jefferson drew on such documents as the Virginia Declaration of Rights and his own draft of a Virginia constitution, the Library of Congress recounts, adding, "Jefferson was critical of changes to the document, particularly the removal of a long paragraph that attributed responsibility of the slave trade to British King George III."  

     Jefferson's principled stand as vice president: In 1796, John Adams was elected president and Jefferson, vice president At the time, the country's relationship with France was spiraling downward. Congress readied for war and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which basically limited free speech, changed the residency requirement for citizenship and allowed the expulsion of aliens. (See Quick Study: The Complicated John Adams.) Jefferson and Madison authored the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in an attempt to block implementation of the acts. In the book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Vintage; 1998), historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that this was "the one significant act of his [Jefferson's] vice presidency."

      His relationship with Sally Hemings: Her birth year is believed to be 1773, and she was a small child when brought to Monticello. 
     Her mother, Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings was a slave and the daughter of an English sea captain and an enslaved woman, according to a biography on the Monticello website.
     Similarly, family members said that Sally's father was Thomas Wayles, the lawyer and landowner who also was the father of Jefferson's wife, Martha.(See: Sally Hemings, a brief biography,
     While there are no portraits of Sally Hemings, the website said that she was described by Isaac Jefferson, who had been a slave at the plantation, this way: "mighty near white. . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back."
     In 1787, Jefferson, who was the country's minister to France, sent for his daughter, Mary, 8.  Sally, then 14, went along with the girl. She returned with the family in 1789.    
     Jefferson defeated Adams and became the third president in 1800. (See Insults: Part of the American Campaign.) There had been rumors about Jefferson's relationship with Hemings, and claims that he had fathered children by her surfaced one year after his election, according to Journalist James T. Callender wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had kept a slave as a mistress.
     In 2000, after DNA linked a member of the Jefferson family to the Hemings children, scholars at Monticello concluded that there was a high probability that Jefferson fathered "all six of Sally Hemings's children."      

     Jefferson's other slaves:  Jefferson was an opponent of slavery, but he owned 600 slaves during his lifetime, according to He inherited 40 from his father's estate and 135 from his father-in-law. Others were born on the plantation. Jefferson acknowledged that the birth of children to slaves profited him:
     “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.”    
     In the Smithsonian Magazine article, The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, writer Henry Wiencek sums up: "Jefferson’s 4 percent theorem threatens the comforting notion that he had no real awareness of what he was doing, that he was 'stuck' with or 'trapped' in slavery, an obsolete, unprofitable, burdensome legacy."
     Jefferson freed only two men during his lifetime and bequeathed freedom to five others in his will. Three others were allowed to leave -- two of Sally Hemings' children, along with Sally's nephew, according to
     Jefferson wrote that he wanted slaves to be well-treated and motivated with rewards. But the website points out that he was often absent, and slaves were beaten and abused.  




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     Quick Study: Virginia, the mother of presidents

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