Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia statesman, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and third president of the United States, was born on this day in 1743. Jefferson was a brilliant theorist and politician who, to say the very least, had an outsized impact on the course of American history. Yet Jefferson was also a deeply flawed individual, a man who could champion the idea that “all men are created equal” while at the same time owning numerous slaves. To mark Jefferson’s birthday today, and to reflect on his complicated legacy, here’s an excerpt from my take on “The Trouble With Thomas Jefferson,” an essay which first appeared in Reason‘s January 2009 issue:
Does the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves—probably including his own children—negate the wonderful things he wrote about inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence? To put it another way, why should anyone listen to what Master Jefferson (or other slaveholding Founders) had to say about liberty and equality?
It’s important to remember that the idea of inalienable rights didn’t start or stop in the year 1776. The historian Gordon S. Wood, in his superb 1991 book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, argues that “to focus, as we are apt to do, on what the Revolution did not accomplish—highlighting and lamenting its failure to abolish slavery and change fundamentally the lot of women—is to miss the great significance of what it did accomplish.” In Wood’s view, by destroying monarchical rule and replacing it with republicanism, the American revolutionaries “made possible the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking.” They upended “their societies as well as their governments…only they did not know—they could scarcely have imagined—how much of their society they would change.”