02 January 2021

Thomas Jefferson's Tragic Conflict He Left the Country to Violently Reconcile

Thomas Jefferson was still in his thirties when his wife Martha died. As she lay on her deathbed, grieved at the thought of some other woman raising her children as her own, Martha made Thomas promise that he would not remarry. The way that Jefferson kept that promise illustrated the odd conflict between his - and this new nation's - philosophy and practice.

The man who penned the revolutionary words, "that all men are created equal," and also owned slaves offers us a weird choice. If we take him seriously - honoring his words - we can't take him seriously as a man who was a slaveholder. If we discount him, we're left without the words that have gradually eroded the institutionalized forms of racism and misogyny that make the US of 2021 so different from the US of 1789. His words did inspire a better world. His life, not so much.

Sally Hemings was Martha Jefferson's half-sister. It's not clear whether this was something clearly acknowledged between them or by anyone else but Hemings was the daughter of John Wayles and the slave Betty Hemings. John Wayles was also Martha's father. In marrying Martha Wayles, Jefferson also acquired her slave (and half-sister) Sally.

Modern DNA testing has confirmed old rumors that Jefferson went on to father six children with Sally Hemings after Martha died.

Hemings came to Paris when Jefferson served as ambassador to France. France had abolished slavery so there she was free. Before they left France to return to the US (she could have stayed and remained free), she made Jefferson promise that their children would not be slaves. They all lived free and all but one lived as white.

But think of how odd this was. Your father was one of the founding fathers, third president, first secretary of state, author of the Declaration of Independence and ... you couldn't tell people. What would most define anyone else in the country was instead something you could not tell people..

Some day future generations will vilify us for our carbon footprint, how casually we would drive places on a whim, the coal we would burn to generate the electricity used to power our virtual worlds. No generation immediately moves into the world they imagine or set as an ideal. But there seems to me something particularly tragic about Jefferson as this man who so brilliantly built on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke to co-create a new government - and man whose own children were born into slavery. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that we have so little remaining evidence of this prompting Jefferson to feel at all torn at the gap between the world he'd penned and the world he lived in. He was one of the most inspirational revolutionaries in the history of the world and his own children were born into slavery. Closing the gap between Jefferson's ideals and his reality would take a violent civil war. He never properly reconciled the gap and left that for a future generation, an entire nation to reconcile.

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