Today we celebrate the ideals of a hypocrite. Thomas Jefferson has always been controversial. During his long political career he was criticized for what some held to be his unconstitutional use of executive power in engineering the Louisiana Purchase, for his religious views (he was called a “howling atheist” by one Federalist newspaper), for the fact that he was a slaveholder, and for his sexual relations with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello. His moral character was so disparaged by some of his contemporaries that, during the presidential election of 1800, the Connecticut Courant felt justified in asserting that under a Jefferson presidency, “[m]urder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”
Nevertheless, and largely on the basis of the ideals he outlined in the Declaration of Independence, signed 240 years ago today, Jefferson has long been the object of nearly religious veneration, and remains, along with his colleagues on Mount Rushmore, one of the most popular presidents of all time.
Things may be changing, however. Gradually, over the last half century, both Jefferson’s reputation and the very ideals upon which it rests have begun to lose their luster, a process that has only accelerated during the last few years, when the manifold and enduring injustices of this nation’s grim racial history have once again inspired public outrage.
To a growing number of people, the assertion “all men are created equal” seems a blatantly hypocritical attempt to use the language of morality to enshrine the unjust privileges of white males. While the word “men” would certainly have been understood as inclusive of women by Jefferson and the other signatories of the Declaration, women’s equality was substantially unrecognized in 1776, both by the law and by society at large. Women lacked the vote and were subject to a degree of control by their husbands and fathers that would qualify as abuse today. And, of course, the vast majority of African Americans during this era were enslaved and wholly deprived of human rights, while Native Americans were being robbed of their land and subjected to genocidal extermination.
While the Founding Fathers had many great virtues, few if any of them would pass muster by today’s standards. Like Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Monroe were slaveholders; Hamilton bought and sold enslaved people for his in-laws; and John Adams had a law enacted that gave him the right to imprison his political enemies.
Alas, ideals can only be created and put into practice by human beings—weak, foolish, venal, and self-deceived creatures who have the capacity to make a mess of almost anything they touch. But it is also true that once an ideal has been created, it takes on a life and a value of its own—as evidenced by the fact that our era’s condemnation of Jefferson and his contemporaries is founded to a considerable extent on the very notions that now seem so hypocritical.
It is a simple fact that all of this country’s liberation struggles, from abolitionism through the women’s suffrage and Civil Rights movements, and right up until the recent gay marriage and Black Lives Matter campaigns, have derived much of their moral and legal force from the notion that all people are born with an equal and “unalienable” right to the benefits that flow from membership in a lawful and democratic society. The accumulated, if partial successes of all those struggles have had such a powerful effect on the way we live and perceive our world that the heroes of this nation’s earliest years now seem almost criminally retrograde.
It is essential that we not deify even the most brilliant and courageous social innovators, and—more to the point—that we remain aware of their human weaknesses. But, by the same token, it is essential that we not confuse the value of an ideal with the character or cultural prejudices of the person who articulates it.
So, yes, the man who expressed certain self-evident “truths” 240 years ago was subject to profound, even unforgivable moral failures. But as long as the ideals he rendered so memorably can help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of our own society, and inspire us to do the very hard work still necessary if we hope to guarantee all Americans their equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” then they are more than worthy of our joyful and heartfelt celebration.
Stephen O’Connor is the author of the novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings.