Thomas Jefferson lecture
Location: University of Charleston
Most people carry Thomas Jefferson around with them in their pockets and purses.
If they have nickels, that is, which feature the face of America’s third president (1801 to 1809) and the chief author of one of history’s most influential documents about enlightened government, the Declaration of Independence.
But Annette Gordon-Reed does more than carry Jefferson around. He has effectively moved into permanent lodgings inside her head.
The Harvard University history professor won the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (2009), a subject she had previously written about in “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997).
Her most recently published book, written with Peter S. Onuf, is “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination” (2016).
Gordon-Reed will be in Charleston to give the West Virginia Humanities Council’s annual McCreight Lecture in the Humanities on Thursday at the University of Charleston. Her talk, “The Enigma of Sally Hemings: Race, Gender, and Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
There is a lot to cover in talking about one of the most accomplished and complex political figures in American history.
“His life brings together all the kinds of things I’m interested in,” said Gordon-Reed in a telephone interview from Harvard in advance of her visit. “The formation of the country, the issue of race, slavery as an institution. Through Jefferson, you can study a lot of different things.”
And, of course, there is the tension between the high-flowing principles of the Declaration of Independence and the slave-holding principal author of that document. More specifically, his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and the six children who resulted, according to DNA analysis and a near consensus among historians.
“In a way, he sort of embodies the American spirit and the American dilemma on race and slavery and freedom and liberty,” Gordon-Reed said.
Jefferson, after all, wrote what has been described as one of the best-known sentences in the English language:
“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.”
In 1787, the 14-year-old Hemings, along with Jefferson’s youngest daughter, joined Jefferson, age 44 and a widower at the time, in Paris, where he was serving as the Minister to France. She spent two years there, and historians believe she and Jefferson began a relationship either there or soon after their return to Monticello in Virginia.
Hemings was a slave in Jefferson’s house until his death. How to look at this relationship, given the wildly different status of each of them, has been a source of endless scholarly wrangling.
“There’s definitely a power relationship because he was the person who owned her and her family,” Gordon-Reed said. “This is a fraught question. It’s a difficult question. When this connection began, Sally Hemings was in France, where she had a chance to be free, to take her freedom. And Jefferson convinced her to come back home with him, and she decided to do that.”
So Hemings can also be seen as making a choice of her own.
“You can’t forget the power differential, but you also can’t forget that she accepted his offer of what life would be like at Monticello if she came back from France to live with him. And that she would have a good life and her children would be free when she was 21.”
Jefferson’s views on slavery and slave-holding are held to a higher standard as someone who chiefly authored the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence. Like other Founding Fathers, he believed blacks were inferior to whites but that the best course was “emancipation and expatriation,” sending them out of the country to their own lands.
“So, as a young man he had announced himself as anti-slavery,” Gordon-Reed said. “He attempted with a cousin, another legislator, to introduce an emancipation plan that went nowhere. He turned his back on that once he became a revolutionary and became completely consumed with the idea of protecting the American experiment. Not really understanding that slavery — which he thought would eventually die out — was going to be the cause of the dissolution of the Union.”
From our vantage point in the 21st century, Gordon-Reed said, “we obviously know what slavery means and we understand the problem of racism. And he didn’t understand that, so he suffers, we think, because he wrote the Declaration, which is so hopeful and which is a beautiful statement of universal principles. But he did not live his life in that way.”
As for the current state of the American experiment, how might Jefferson view the current election?
“He would be stunned to see a woman running as president and being ahead at the moment,” Gordon-Reed said, laughing.
She said she thinks he would be interested to see how the vote had been extended to women and blacks.
“Although I don’t think he would be surprised blacks would be enfranchised,” she added.
She said she thought he’d be dismayed at the anti-intellectualism that is part of American political life, to the point that when John Kerry ran for president his opponents tried to catch him speaking French “as a way of putting him down,” Gordon-Reed said. “That kind of thing would have really displeased him.”
He would be greatly pleased at the prosperity Americans enjoy, yet he would likely not be surprised by the rough-and-tumble politics of the political season.
“Oh, man, they were really rough in his time period,” she said. “People in New England, you would have thought he was going to take their Bibles away. People were thinking of burying their Bibles because they thought he was atheist and anti-religion and if he won the presidency, incest and adultery would become common.”
He would also have been surprised at the nature of campaign funding and the idea that lobbyists write legislation for legislators or give money to candidates, she said. “That would have been seen as bribery.”
Ultimately, Jefferson is a touchstone for so much that is complex about the story of America’s creation and growth.
“Jefferson is used as the standard, the person who is the example of the slaveholder when there are others who had the same views as he but did not give us the Declaration of Independence, which has been incredibly useful for African-American people, women, LGBT folk — not just in the United States, but around the world for the equality of mankind,” Gordon-Reed said. “He is held to a higher standard because of that.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at
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