Thomas Jefferson Was More Than a Man of His Times

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Picking up on this notion that one of our great Founding Fathers was merely like every other white Virginian, I think people who make this defense really undercut themselves. Part of what makes Jefferson fascinating (and great) is that -- perhaps more than anyone of his generation -- he articulated in writing the moral and practical problems of slavery. 


Put differently, Jefferson's writing on slavery aren't merely a moral condemnation of the "slavery is wrong" variety. They are deeply perceptive and shockingly prescient. They are not the work of a man merely "of his time" -- but of an intellectual light-years ahead of it:

It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners of a nation may be tried, whether catholic, or particular. It is more difficult for a native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by habit. There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. 

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. 

This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. 

And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. 


This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! 

The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.--But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

This is just beautiful, beautiful writing reflecting a clarity of thought and understanding that I have rarely encountered in Jefferson's contemporaries, or beyond, writing about the problem of slavery. (Frederick Douglass is my go to. But he had the "advantage" of being a slave.)  When people say Jefferson was merely a "man of his times" they sell him short. I don't mean this as some sort of rhetorical jiu-jitsu. I find myself quoting these words when trying to explain slavery's problems. What Jefferson, the man, did doesn't make these words any less meaningful. 

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/thomas-jefferson-was-more-than-a-man-of-his-times/265850/