It is now known that three of the initial suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing claim Jeffersonian inspiration. In an article about the second man charged with the bombing, Terry Lynn Nichols, Serge F. Kovaleski wrote in The Washington Post last year, "[Nichols] read the works of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and was particularly inspired by Jefferson's maxim 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.'"
CNN, on January 31 of this year, broadcast a news item about Timothy McVeigh that was accompanied by the teaser "McVeigh's Shirt Expected to Be Key Evidence." In the course of a discussion of the shirt, the following remarks were made:
Susan Candiotti (CNN correspondent): "Sources tell CNN when Tim McVeigh was arrested driving away from Oklahoma City on the day of the bombing, he was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with words of rebellion and bloodshed. McVeigh's shirt bore this quotation—'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.' The words were written by Thomas Jefferson shortly after the American Revolution, when some people felt threatened by their new federal government." (The words were actually written in November of 1787, before the federal government came into existence, and they were about a rebellion against the State of Massachusetts.)
Dr. Steven Hochman (identified as a Jefferson scholar): "What Jefferson is saying is that it is a fact that in order to preserve freedom, you're going to have a situation where there is violence—as a wake-up call, you might say, to the leaders."
Susan Candiotti: "At the jail in Perry, Oklahoma, where McVeigh was first taken, the FBI asked for the clothing he was wearing but described the T-shirt in a way that kept the wording secret until now. CNN has been told the words are visible in McVeigh's mug shot taken at the jail. The FBI seized the only copy of that photo and will not release it. McVeigh's lawyer brushed aside any concern over the T-shirt slogan when we asked him, How incriminating is this?"
Stephen Jones (McVeigh's lawyer): "Well, if Thomas Jefferson said it, I shouldn't think it would be incriminating at all."
Among revisionist scholarly threats to Jefferson's place in the American pantheon is the work of William Cohen. His 1969 article "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery" is valuable principally for its analysis of Jefferson's position on free Negroes and escaped slaves and of the solution Jefferson proposed—"colonization"—but especially for Cohen's final summation of the contradictions in Jefferson's position on race and slavery. Cohen considers some 1776 legislative proposals of Jefferson's, of which the most significant were those that introduced new restrictions and penalties applying to free Negroes and to "miscegenation" involving white women. He writes,
In November 1776, Jefferson was chosen as a member of a committee whose task was to revise, modernize, and codify the statutes of Virginia. Among his assignments was the job of drawing up the legislation dealing with slaves. He later described this bill, which he completed in 1778, as a "mere digest" of the existing legislation on the subject, and to a certain extent this was true …
Nevertheless, the bill was more than a digest of earlier codes and it contained some significant additions which were designed to prevent the increase of the state's free Negro population. It was to be illegal for free Negroes to come into Virginia of their own accord or to remain there for more than one year after they were emancipated. A white woman having a child by a Negro would be required to leave the state within a year. The individual who violated these regulations would be placed "out of the protection of the laws." This would have left them subject to re-enslavement or even to murder at the whim of their neighbors and was, therefore, a most severe punishment.
As eventually passed by the Virginia legislature, in 1785, the revising act did not contain Jefferson's "significant additions." It would seem that Jefferson's abhorrence of the presence of free Negroes, and of white women who gave birth to children of mixed race, was stronger than was normal among contemporaries of his own class. Jefferson probably treated his slaves somewhat better than other slaveowners did, but he seems to have been at least as harsh as other landowners in his treatment of slaves who escaped and were recaptured. Cohen writes,
When he dealt with runaways, sales of slaves, breeding, flogging, and manumissions, his behavior did not differ appreciably from that of other enlightened slaveholders who deplored needless cruelty, but would use whatever means they felt necessary to protect their peculiar form of property.
During Jefferson's adult lifetime, more than forty of his Negroes attempted to escape …
In early September 1805, Jame Hubbard, a stout Negro who worked in the plantation nail factory, ran away, but was soon apprehended and returned. About five years later he escaped again. A year passed before Jefferson learned that Hubbard was living in the area of Lexington and dispatched Isham Chisolm to retrieve the bondsman. It was too late, however; Hubbard had departed only a few days earlier for parts unknown. When Chisolm returned empty-handed, Jefferson offered him a bonus of twenty-five dollars to go after the man a second time. This time Hubbard was caught and brought back in irons, and Jefferson reported: "I had him severely flogged in the presence of his old companions …" He then added that he was convinced that Hubbard "will never again serve any man as a slave, the moment he is out of jail and his irons off he will be off himself." Before Jefferson could implement plans to have him sold out of the state, Hubbard disappeared again.
In theory Jefferson's "solution" to slavery consisted in "colonization": the deportation of all the freed blacks from the United States, preferably back to Africa. Cohen:
The entire body of Jefferson's writings shows that he never seriously considered the possibility of any form of racial coexistence on the basis of equality and that, from at least 1778 until his death, he saw colonization as the only alternative to slavery.
Late in his life, however, Jefferson began to admit the impracticability of this solution, at least in its widest sense, while reiterating his faith in an attenuated form of it. Cohen writes,
In 1824 Jefferson argued that there were a million and a half slaves in the nation and that no one conceived it to be "practicable for us, or expedient for them" to send all the blacks away at once. He then went on to calculate:
Their estimated value as property, in the first place, (for actual property has been lawfully vested in that form, and who can lawfully take it from the possessors?) at an average of two hundred dollars each … would amount to six hundred millions of dollars which must be paid or lost by somebody. To this add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado [the west coast of Liberia], a year's provision of food and clothes, implements of husbandry and of their trades, which will amount to three hundred millions more … and it is impossible to look at the question a second time.
Since African colonization seemed an impossibility, Jefferson suggested a plan which entailed "emancipating the afterborn, leaving them, on due compensation, with their mothers, until their services are worth their maintenance, and putting them to industrious occupations until a proper age for deportation." The individuals who would be "freed" immediately after their birth would eventually be sent to Santo Domingo which, according to the newspapers, had recently offered to open its doors to such persons. In effect, Jefferson was proposing that the federal government buy all newborn slaves from their owners (at twelve dollars and fifty cents each) and that it pay for their "nurture with the mother [for] a few years." Beyond this, the plan would not cost the government anything, for the young blacks would then work for their maintenance until deported. Santo Domingo had offered to bear the cost of passage.