What Makes Thomas Jefferson So Controversial

The article explores the complex legacy of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States. While Jefferson is known for his contributions to equality and democracy, his participation in slavery and mistreatment of Indigenous communities raise questions about his legacy and whether historical figures should be judged by modern standards.

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Thomas Jefferson: A Founding Father on Trial

Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States of America and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, is a figure of great historical significance. The document he penned established the US as a democratic republic on the principle that everyone is created equal. However, at the time Jefferson was writing, one-fifth of the colonies’ population was enslaved. Despite his enlightened principles, Jefferson’s participation in the institution of slavery raises questions about his legacy.

The Declaration and Slavery

Jefferson was one of five authors of the Declaration of Independence, and the document had to be ratified by the Continental Congress. He included a clause opposing the slave trade, but state delegates removed it. Despite recognizing slavery as an immoral institution and condemning it throughout his life, Jefferson’s actions did not match his words. As Virginia’s governor, he did nothing to change the state slave laws. In his personal life, he held over 600 people in slavery and believed Black people were intellectual inferiors who, if emancipated, should return to their countries of origin.

Contributions to Equality

Despite his controversial stance on slavery, Jefferson made important contributions to religious, financial, and gender equality. He led the charge for separating church and state, removing government funding for Virginia’s Anglican Church, and paving the way for our modern understanding of religious freedom. Jefferson also drafted laws that weakened the power of inherited wealth and pushed for the state-funded education of boys and girls. However, these reforms did not benefit enslaved people or Indigenous Americans, and his policies frequently harmed non-white groups.

Jefferson and Indigenous Communities

Jefferson authorized the military to exterminate Indigenous communities during the Revolutionary War. In peacetime, he did his best to avoid conflict with Native Americans and believed they could be equal to whites. However, his attempts to forcibly assimilate Indigenous communities and his recommendations that formed the basis for the Indian Removal Act years later have been heavily criticized.

Jefferson’s Political Career

Thomas Jefferson served as a diplomat and Secretary of State before being elected as Vice President under John Adams in 1796. In this role, he undermined the President’s authority and argued that states should have the power to overrule federal laws they deemed unconstitutional—an argument some Southern states would cite while seceding from the Union 70 years later. Despite the controversy, Jefferson’s defense of states’ rights was motivated by the president’s overreaching central government, and his efforts were so popular that he was elected as the next president.

Jefferson’s Presidency

As president, Jefferson worked to prevent the country from taking on too much debt and successfully led the US through the Napoleonic and the Barbary Wars. He also expanded the country’s territory through the Louisiana Purchase. However, he failed to stop slavery from taking hold in these new territories. Despite signing a law forbidding the importation of enslaved people in 1807, he continued to enslave those already on American soil.

Jefferson’s Personal Life

Following his wife’s death, Jefferson began a relationship with her half-sister and maid, Sally Hemings. Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings and kept the entire relationship secret while continuing to publicly denounce the personhood of Black Americans. Despite enslaving over 600 people, Jefferson only freed 10—five during his life and five in his will—all members of the Hemings family.

Conclusion: A Man of His Time?

Despite pursuing what he believed to be equality, Jefferson failed to uphold his own ideals. He was a man of his time, living in an economy that relied on exploitation and enslaved labor. However, many of Jefferson’s contemporaries opposed slavery and took action to abolish it. Even if some people considered him a great man in his time, he doesn’t have to be an icon in ours. The question remains: Can we judge historical figures by modern standards? And what responsibilities do powerful people have to the future? These are the questions we must grapple with when putting history on trial.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do Thomas Jefferson’s actions regarding slavery challenge or complicate his legacy as a founding father?
  2. Do you think Jefferson’s contributions to religious, financial, and gender equality outweigh his shortcomings regarding enslaved people and Indigenous Americans? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think motivated Jefferson’s defense of states’ rights, and how does it relate to the larger issue of the balance between federal and state power?
  4. How do Jefferson’s personal relationships, particularly his relationship with Sally Hemings, affect your perception of him as a historical figure?
  5. Do you believe that historical figures like Jefferson should be judged by the ethical standards of their time or by modern standards? Why?
  6. What responsibilities do powerful individuals, like Jefferson, have to future generations? How do their actions shape the world we live in today?
  7. How can we reconcile Jefferson’s ideals of equality and freedom with his participation in the institution of slavery?
  8. What can we learn from Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and the complexities of his character when considering the broader history of the United States?

Lesson Vocabulary

Founding FatherA term used to refer to the individuals who played a key role in the establishment of the United States, particularly in the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. – Benjamin Franklin is considered one of the founding fathers of the United States.

United StatesA country located in North America, consisting of 50 states, a federal district, and various territories. – The United States is known for its diverse culture and strong economy.

Declaration of IndependenceA document adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced the independence of the Thirteen Colonies from British rule. – The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the ideals of liberty and equality.

Democratic RepublicA form of government where power is ultimately vested in the people, who elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. – The United States is a democratic republic, with citizens voting for their leaders in regular elections.

SlaveryThe practice of owning and controlling another person, typically without their consent, and treating them as property. – Slavery was abolished in the United States after the Civil War.

Institution of SlaveryA system or establishment that supports and perpetuates the practice of slavery. – The institution of slavery was deeply ingrained in the Southern states of the United States before its abolition.

EqualityThe state of being equal, especially in terms of rights, opportunities, and treatment. – The United States strives to promote equality for all its citizens.

Religious FreedomThe right to practice one’s religion or hold religious beliefs without interference or persecution. – The United States guarantees religious freedom as a fundamental right.

Indigenous CommunitiesGroups of people who are the original inhabitants of a particular region or territory. – The United States has a diverse range of indigenous communities with rich cultural traditions.

Political CareerA person’s professional involvement and advancement in the field of politics, including holding elected or appointed positions. – Abraham Lincoln had a successful political career before becoming the 16th President of the United States.

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