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The Character Of Thomas Jefferson Essay, Research Paper

The character of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: The Man, The Myth, and The Morality

Thomas Jefferson was a man of the greatest moral character who has been

excoriated routinely over the last 30 years by historical revisionists

and presentists. His commitment to America and his vast contributions to

the framing of society as it is today are overlooked in favor of base

analysis of his character that, while not flawless, is that of a morally

upright person who has deeply held convictions and lives by them.

Jefferson was born to a prominent family of Virginia tobacco growers.

Plantation life is based largely around the work of slaves, so Jefferson

was surrounded by them from the time of his birth in 1743 until the day

he died. One of the harshest criticisms of Jefferson comes from the fact

that, while he vehemently opposed slavery, was indeed a slave owner

himself. As historian Douglas L. Wilson points out in his Atlantic

Monthly article ?Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue?, the question

should be reversed:

?…[T]his was of asking the question… is essentially backward, and

reflects the pervasive presentism of our time. Consider, for example,

how different the question appears when inverted and framed in more

historical terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holding

society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a

fortune that was dependent on slaves and slave labor, decide at an early

age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought

to be abolished?? (Wilson 66).

Wilson also argues that Jefferson knew that his slaves would be better

off working for him than freed in a world where they would be treated

with contempt and not given any real freedoms.

Another way that Thomas Jefferson shows his moral character is in his

most famous achievement, the drafting of the Declaration of

Independence. This document is probably the most important document in

the history of the United States, and one of the most important in the

history of the world. Jefferson writes that ?all men are created equal?

and argues that every man has the right to ?life, liberty, and the

pursuit of happiness.? Jefferson?s document shows not only his strongly

held beliefs in freedom, but his acceptance of and belief in the views

of the Age of Reason. He believed himself to be a person who was doing

what was morally right, not for the fame that would eventually accompany

it. In fact, he didn?t want to write the Declaration to begin with. In

1776, the song ?Not Me, John? shows how Jefferson was pushed into doing

it, despite the fact that he would have actually rather gone home to see

his wife. When nobody else would do it, he acquiesced and agreed to

write it. His quote, ?What will posterity think we were — demigods?

We?re men — no more, no less? (1776), shows how as a contemporary of

such philosophical greats as Voltaire and Mill, he did what he did

because it was what needed to happen — not in any way, shape, or form

because he wanted to be remembered as a demigod, a status he actually

had anyway, according to Wilson, until the 1960?s.

Another thing that Jefferson?s character is criticized for and blown

out of proportion is his liaison with a slave, Sally Hemings. Historian

Fawn Brodie argues that it was ?not scandalous debauchery with an

innocent slave victim, but rather a serious passion that brought

Jefferson and the slave woman much happiness over a period lasting

thirty-eight years.? True, their affair started when she was only 14

years old, but to criticize this is terribly presentistic. In colonial

times, especially in the middle and southern colonies, girls were

married off between the ages of 13 and 16; it was not considered

defilement and abuse like it is today. In fact, his relationship with

Hemings could actually be considered to be a positive thing for him on

two fronts: Since she was 52 when he died, Jefferson obviously did not

lust after her solely on a physical basis; also, he promised his wife

when she died that he would not remarry. He fulfilled his promise only

because he found a woman to love whom he was not expected, indeed not

allowed, to marry. This is a weak front on which to criticize Jefferson.

Given Jefferson?s contributions to American society, it is almost

impossible to find him to be morally weak and coarse. Those who do are

presentists, cynics, and nay-sayers who are simply looking for a way to

criticize one of the greatest Americans who has ever lived.


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