The Consummate Hypocrite
A Very Brief Note
One of the best books I have ever read about Thomas Jefferson is The Wolf By the Ears.1 The book however contains some of the most risible and absurd statements regarding Thomas Jefferson. This is because our author is an abject worshipper at the shrine of St. Thomas of Jefferson. That so many Americans and others fall down on their knees and grovel before the images of the “Founding Fathers” is of course a well-known fact. But in the case of Thomas Jefferson this idolatry is past the point of rationality into the stratosphere of groveling worship.
This we have the American worship of Thomas Jefferson. A telling indication of this is the following series of quotes from the above mentioned book. But before that I would like to make the following points.
Thomas Jefferson as always struck me as hypocrite not simply because the chief drafter of The Declaration of Independence owned slaves. What with the stuff about “All Men are Created equal” and also the stuff about innate rights including freedom in the Declaration it is not a surprise that some have accused Thomas Jefferson and others of being hypocrites. After all Samuel Johnson’s acid comment “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”2, is a pretty powerful statement and all too true. But it is also in a way misleading.
After all it is precisely a slave owner, along with a slave, who would from daily experience who knows what “freedom” means and what “tyranny” is like, because he would see it in his own daily experience. This just might lead some slave owners to regard “freedom” as precious and “tyranny” odious. Thus a slave owner believing in liberty, natural rights etc., could feel the institution was abominable and yet feel helpless to do much about it, or simply fail to see how it could be gotten rid of in the short term.
So I do not regard Thomas Jefferson’s owning of slaves to make him a hypocrite. It certainly helps to make him an ambiguous figure in terms of advancing human freedom, but not a hypocrite. What I find that makes him a hypocrite is that for all his fine words he did precious little and by the end of his life was quiet about it and talking about slavery disappearing in the far distant future. Why? Well it appears that Thomas Jefferson grew remarkably silent about the evils of slavery when he found out how much money he could make out of it. This of course made him a lot more diffident about any sort of plans to abolish it.
Further Jefferson lived a very comfortable and even luxurious life in Monticello. Jefferson would spend the best of everything on himself and making himself comfortable. He spent lavishly until the day he died. Thomas Jefferson died in massive debt so that his estate had to be sold to pay off his creditors once he died.
Now Jefferson could have worked at freeing his slaves, but between possibly freeing his slaves and his expensive French imported wines and fixing up Monticello it is clear what won. Unlike Washington who managed to eventually arrange to free all of his slaves.3 Thomas Jefferson was able only to free those he was closely related to. Thomas Jefferson would have known for years before his death that the creditors were waiting for his death and that the empty promises of manumission in his will were largely meaningless, but Jefferson continued to live his spend free life knowing his promises of freedom in his will meant little. Only a few slaves because of other arrangements were freed when Thomas Jefferson died. It is the above that makes me regard Thomas Jefferson has a hypocrite. One of those slaves not freed was Sally Hemings.
Our author says stuff like:
How can his [Jefferson] frequent assertions that his conscience was clear and that his enemies did him a cruel and wholly unmerited injustice be reconciled with the Jefferson of the Sally Hemings story? – unless, of course, Jefferson is set down as a practitioner of pharisaical holiness who loved to preach to others what he himself did not practice?
If the answer to these questions is that Jefferson was simply trying to cover up his illicit relations with Sally Hemings – not to mention the “Congo Harem” he allegedly maintained at Monticello – he deserves to be regarded as one of the most profligate liars and consummate hypocrites ever to occupy the presidency.4
Since it appears to be the case that in fact that Jefferson slept with Sally Hemings I guess Jefferson was in fact a profligate liar and consummate hypocrite.5
Then our author digs himself deep in other places:
…the Jefferson family cannot escape complicity: its members either resolutely closed their eyes to what was going on at Monticello, were completely deceived by the wily president, or deliberately lied to aid in the cover-up.
There is no instance in American History where the reputation of an American President and the honor, integrity, and credibility of his family have been impugned by such flimsy evidence.6
My our author is absolutely indignant and frothing about how anyone can insult the integrity of Jefferson’s family who by definition would never lie (snark). In the very same chapter our author can state that it is likely that Madison Hemings who claimed in 1873 to be Jefferson’s son and possibly his mother Sally Hemings had lied about this claim. So much for their “honor” and "integrity”. The author also insinuates Sally was a slut.7
Our author claims that Jefferson’s failure to show any sort of affectionate regard for his slave children, as stated by Madison Hemings, or to arrange to have Sally Hemings freed are evidence against the Sally Hemings story. There is also nothing warm or even human about Jefferson’s writings about his slaves or about Sally Hemings' children, which this author claims is evidence that the father of these children was not Jefferson. Why? Because such a warm, principled man would never have been so cold and cruel. Well it appears that Jefferson did in fact behave like that so he was in this respect cold and yes cruel. Our author writes:
While it is true that Jefferson was in residence at Monticello nine months before each of Sally’s children were born, he was not present at the time each of her children were delivered. Their births and even their deaths received only cursory notice in his journals. Two of Sally’s children who died in infancy were buried in the slave burying ground at Monticello; there is no record of Jefferson’s presence at the interment. If these were his actually his children, the conclusion is inescapable that he must be portrayed as a cold, heartless and callous man – the very antithesis of the Thomas Jefferson that emerges from the historical record.8
Well guess what it appears that the Sally Hemings story is true. So I guess your image of Thomas Jefferson has saint is wrong. I guess you preferred the plaster god you have created than a flawed man. And most definitely the Sally Hemings story does not make Thomas Jefferson look good. He does indeed come across even more so has “one of the most profligate liars and consummate hypocrites ever”. But that is what happens when you turn men into gods you end up being disappointed.
1. Miller, John Chester, The Wolf by the Ears, University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA, 1991.
2. Johnson, Samuel, Taxation No Tyranny Here.
3. Miller, pp. 106-109. For Jefferson and the profitability of slavery see Wiencek, Henry, The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, Smithsonian, October 2012, Here.
4. IBID, p. 176.
5. See Statement on the TJMF Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 2000, Here. I note that many who think this demeans Thomas Jefferson contest this but it does indeed seem to be the case that Thomas Jefferson is by far the most likely candidate for fathering Sally Hemings’ children.
6. Miller, pp. 171-172.
7. IBID, pp. 162-176.
8. IBID, p. 166.