Page last updated at 07:59 GMT, Sunday, 26 October 2008

Jefferson's hidden slave legacy

By Allan Little
BBC News, Monticello, Virginia

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. Copyright: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and third US President

Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello is a place of pilgrimage for Americans of every political stripe.

Thousands come every day.

They stand on the terrace and look down on the forested green plains of Virginia.

They gaze in awe at Jefferson's little chess set, where he sat, 200 years ago, with his friend and apostle James Madison.

Between them, these two men in effect dreamed a new nation into existence.

Jefferson designed Monticello himself.

Thomas Jefferson's house

It is true to the man - the elegant proportions, the white domed roof above pillared porticoes, the bricks so brown they are almost ebony - the colour of the Virginia soil from which they were hewn and baked.

Huge sash windows bring light flooding in. This is the aesthetic of the rational eighteenth century mind - the Enlightenment in architectural form.

But slave hands baked those bricks and stacked them, and throughout his life time more than two hundred slaves - Jefferson's personal property - worked the fields of his estate.

Slavery and equality

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

The words of the American Declaration of Independence are Jefferson's own.

In the US the natural ruling coalition since Jefferson's election in 1800 has been a coalition of Southern Whites and Catholics in the North East and Mid West against their common enemy: white New England Protestants
Michael Lind, New America Foundation

All men, he goes on, "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" and among these are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

How did the author of that ringing declaration of universal human rights reconcile himself to the ownership of slaves?

It is one of the great contradictions of Jefferson's life, of his age, and of the America that he and the founding generations conjured into being.

Jefferson's wife, Martha, died in the 10th year of their marriage.

Present in the room at the moment of her death, with Jefferson himself, was Martha's half-sister, a young slave girl called Sally Hemings. She was the daughter of Martha's own father and a slave called Elizabeth.

Slave Mistress

Years later, in Paris, Jefferson began a relationship with Sally. Together, they had six children.

Jefferson's enemies accused him of misconduct and tried to use the scandal against him when he ran for president. It didn't work. Jefferson said nothing, neither confirming nor denying it.

For 200 years, Jefferson scholars for the most part dismissed what came to be known as the "Sally Question" as implausible.

The Jefferson that Americans had written into their national mythology - the Jefferson who is carved into Mount Rushmore - could not have had such a relationship.

It could not be allowed to stand.

New evidence

Recently, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed rescued Sally and the entire slave population of Monticello from the shadows and gave them flesh and blood, names, characters, personalities and life stories.

Author Annette Gordon-Reed on Jefferson and his family of slaves.

DNA evidence establishes beyond doubt that Jefferson fathered Sally's children.

Her remarkable research challenges a certain conception of America, an idea of the Republic that has prevailed for 200 years.

Why, I asked her, do so many Americans continue to resist the idea that Sally was so intimately involved in the life of the greatest of all the founding fathers?

"I think it points to contemporary racial attitudes," she told me.

"They are very much like past racial attitudes. Jefferson is seen as the embodiment of the American spirit. It is absolutely about ownership of the story of the Republic, of the Republic itself.

"If you founded something, you own it. And the founding story is of a group of white men who come together with high ideals and found this new nation."

Jeffersonian Democracy

Jefferson is so identified with the founding ideals of the Republic that he gave his name to great American experiment itself.

Republicans or Democrats, northerners or southerners, black, white Hispanic, recent immigrant or settled for generations, Americans are all children of "Jeffersonian democracy".

It is a democracy in which the citizen is free to live a life without interference or instruction from government; a democracy of small, weak, unobtrusive government.

Jefferson's great rival, his near contemporary Alexander Hamilton, dreamed a different America into being, an America that sat alongside Jefferson's ideal in a relationship of dynamic tension.

Hamilton's America needed a strong federal government, a standing army, a national currency and a central bank.

Jefferson thought all that smacked of the European - and specifically British - monarchism and imperialism he despised.

Jeffersonian America was conceived as the alternative to all that.

Jefferson's United States is spoken in the plural - "the United States are…" he thought of, and referred to, Virginia as his "country".

Hamiltonian America is emphatically singular.

Defender of states' rights

Jefferson the Virginian, the Southerner, the defender of the rights of the slave-holding states, believed in an agrarian America of free and independent gentlemen farmers, living their lives unmolested by government.

He believed the likes of Hamilton, the New Yorker, and the Northern states in general had been lured away from that ideal by urbanisation, industry, commerce, banks, finance and the accumulation of money.

Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, believes the fault line that opened up between Jefferson and Hamilton two hundred years ago still operates in America's two-party system:

"You can make the case that in the US the natural ruling coalition since Jefferson's election in 1800 has been a coalition of Southern Whites and Catholics in the North East and Mid West against their common enemy: white New England Protestants."

Look at America today - its powerful federal government, its enormous army, its commitments overseas, the still-mighty US dollar.

America may be a Hamiltonian country.

But its heart, both nostalgic and aspiring, still belongs to Thomas Jefferson.

Allan Little's programme on Thomas Jefferson, America's First Principles,will be broadcast on BBC World Service radio from Sunday 26 October.

You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer.

And you can find out more information about the programme here America's First Principles.

Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
McCain - Republican
Select from the list below to view state level results.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific