Source: Consortium News
President Thomas Jefferson in a portrait by Rembrandt Peale.
(image by Consortium News)
Thomas Jefferson, the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, may be the Founder who most influences -- and bedevils -- modern times, a hero to progressives for penning rhetoric to express the young nation's noblest ideals and an icon of the Tea Party for redefining the U.S. Constitution to incorporate the Southern slaveholders' hostility to a strong federal government.
Beyond his ideological influence on modern America, Jefferson comes across as the most contemporary Founder: skeptical of organized religion, committed to revolutionary politics, fascinated by how art can enhance public places, interested in the scientific method, advocating the value of higher education, and torn by the complexities of life.
But there is another way to see Jefferson: as an epic phony whose true modernity was most apparent in his talent for manipulating language. He was a master of propaganda, a before-his-time genius at "branding." He was a wordsmith who could wrap even his most depraved actions in pleasing or confusing words.
If Americans were ever to take off their rose-colored glasses through which they have viewed Jefferson for generations, they would see a man who believed few of the words he wrote, particularly in regard to freedom and slavery but also on a range of other topics, such as his lectures against personal debt and for a modest republican lifestyle.
Though the young Jefferson did make modest stabs at reforming the South's barbaric slave system -- and he would occasionally revert back to calling it a "hideous blot" on the new nation -- Jefferson built his post-Revolution political career as a protector of Virginia's plantation structure, albeit behind the shield of innocuous or opaque words like "states' rights," "Missourism" and anti-"consolidationism."
Beyond politics, Jefferson's hypocrisy served his own personal interests. His consistent actions on behalf of slavery helped his own net worth, as he battled creditors who had helped him finance his penchant for luxury goods. At Monticello, he carefully calculated the monetary value of his scores of slaves, had the lash applied to boy slaves as young as 10, and apparently sexually exploited at least one and possibly other slave girls.
But perhaps the most devastating indictment of Jefferson's hypocrisy is that his action and inaction set the United States on course for the Civil War by creating the ideological rationalization for secession.
Further, his invention of "states' rights" -- by willfully misinterpreting the Constitution's clear language -- laid the groundwork for the persecution of African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow and, indeed, to the present day as America's rightists continue to cite "states' rights" to curtail voting rights and pass other laws that disproportionately target blacks.
It was Jefferson, not South Carolina's Sen. John Calhoun, who devised the states'-rights concepts of "nullificationism" and even secession. It was also Jefferson, not President Andrew Jackson, who established the policies toward Native Americans that led to their expulsion to west of the Mississippi, the Trail of Tears and decades of genocide.
Yet, Jefferson is best known for writing in the early days of America's War for Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Yet, at the time of those words, Jefferson was a major Virginia slaveholder who considered African-Americans to be anything but equal to whites. As he explained in his Notes on the State of Virginia and other commentaries, he considered blacks profoundly inferior to whites, a conclusion that he supported with subjective analysis and pseudo-science.
Jefferson judged African-Americans inferior because their skin color and other features were less pleasing to the eye and because they allegedly didn't write poetry (which would have been a difficult and risky task for them since slaves were kept illiterate and could be severely punished for learning to read and write).
Jefferson further argued that blacks could not be allowed to remain in the United States if freed because black males would be a threat to rape white women. Fancying himself an early anthropologist, Jefferson placed blacks somewhere between orangutans and whites, and he believed that male orangutans raped black women in Africa in an attempt to rise up the evolutionary scale.
In Jefferson's view, black males would be driven by the same base instinct to rape white women if blacks were emancipated and permitted to live among whites. He argued that black people would seek sex with white people "as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species."
Jefferson apparently failed to recognize the cruel irony in his pseudo-science, given that while it was rare for black men to rape white women in the slave South, the prevalence of white men sexually imposing themselves on black women -- including at Monticello -- was common.