Lessons From Thomas Jefferson's Failure on Slavery

Why did the author of the Declaration of Independence fail to attack slavery as president? In large part because he was a politician.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

When Jon Meacham published Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, The New York Times situated it in what it called the “flawed giant” school of biography, explaining, “Books in this mode usually present their subjects as figures of heroic grandeur despite all-too-human shortcomings—and so, again, speak directly to the current moment, with its diminished faith in government and in the nation’s elected leaders.”

On Monday, returning to Jefferson and his legacy in an hour-long lecture at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Meacham was most engaging on the subject of our third president’s biggest shortcoming: a posture toward slavery that contradicted his finest words. “With Jefferson’s brilliance and accomplishments, he is immortal,” Meacham said. “Yet because of his flaws, sins, and failures, he strikes us as mortal too—a man of achievement who was susceptible to the temptations and compromises that ensnare all of us, when we're being honest. He was not all he could be.”

But despite his shortcomings, “he left America and the world a better place than it had been when he found it. That he did not live a perfect life, that he failed to deliver on the promise of the Declaration, that he has been condemned as a hypocrite in the eyes of history, are to my mind reasons to engage with him, not excoriate him.”

Of course, Americans have been engaging with Jefferson’s legacy since his death, and even before: His contemporaries, antagonists included, couldn’t help but see his historical import. For Meacham, as for most Americans today, engagement with Jefferson’s legacy means rendering the judgment that he “failed to do the right thing on slavery, full stop.” And he failed, Meacham added, “because at heart he was a political creature. He allowed himself to be constrained by the limitations of the political life he led. His imagination failed him ... He admitted that he simply could not see how America could practically redeem itself from its original sin.”

Despite this, he argues, we should avoid sanctimony.“The moral utility of history lies in seeing that even the finest in past generations were capable of horrendous moral error,” Meacham said. “Arthur Schlesinger Junior once observed that self-righteousness in retrospect is easy and also cheap. Instead of feeling morally superior in retrospect, we should address the cares and concerns of our own time, in real time.”

He is correct that retrospective moral superiority can blind us to the world as bygone generations experienced it and the limits of what its politicians could achieve. I’d only add that the limits of politics, the fact that it always reflects rather than remedies at least some grave ills of a given era, suggests that we should be wary of the reflex to treat our politicians as if they’re natural fits as national heroes.

In this respect, Jefferson is a tricky case.

In my view, the political philosopher and revolutionary who wrote the Declaration of Independence was indeed a hero and deserves monuments and a place on our currency: He achieved radically more than any politician could have within the existing system.

In contrast, Jefferson the establishment politician was a power-seeking hypocrite, as the profession all but demands. As president, his occupation was such that he wound up thwarting those working outside the system (as he once had) to remedy grave ills. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson may well have been America’s foremost hero. In the years 1801 to 1809, many abolitionists would be a better choice. Perhaps Lincoln was a hero while in officecertainly he was a man of unusually farsighted moral wisdom who guided the nation through a near revolutionary change––but while I admire all sorts of subsequent political accomplishments, I cannot agree that a sitting president has since been America’s leading hero. Among other things, heroism is the art of achieving what politicians regard as impossible.