One of Thomas Jefferson’s most influential acts was penning the Declaration of Independence. The words “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” have resonated in the hearts of human beings around the world throughout the centuries since they were first delivered to an oppressive tyrant in Mother England. Yet Jefferson owned dozens of slaves, including one who bore him several children who also lived in slavery. These did not likely enjoy all the rights he spoke of.
Was Jefferson, then, a hypocrite?
Was Jefferson, then, a hypocrite? The answer would seem to be obvious. And if by “hypocrite” we mean a person who fails to live up to his own professed beliefs, there can be no doubt that Jefferson was hypocritical in this regard. (How many of us would be considered hypocritical if held to that standard?) However, if we take the word in its original meaning – the way it is used in the New Testament, for example – Jefferson does not qualify. In the first century world, hypocrites were actors on stage. They were literally people who pretended to be someone they were not. It was Jesus who began to use the word in a pejorative sense when he called out those who claimed to be godly yet had no sense of God’s justice and mercy. They were just putting on a show. They were hypocrites.
Jefferson was not putting on a show.
Jefferson was not putting on a show. He actually believed all people were created equal and that inequalities arose from the effects of one’s circumstances in life. Accordingly, he provided education for some slaves, and highlighted their accomplishments as well as those of others he heard about.
Still, disagreements over the very nature of humankind were by no means settled in his day. The best Jefferson could do was to establish ideals toward which the new nation could continue to strive, nor could he, as influential as he was, have demanded immediate all-or-nothing agreement on the issue of slavery or anything else.
Jefferson inherited slaves, and he inherited slavery as an institution. The living condition of slaves on his property were probably no better than was common. Though he was opposed to slavery, his options for what to do with those under his responsibility were limited. He was an aristocrat, but he was not wealthy. In fact, he skated on the edge of bankruptcy and, at one point, had to sell his enormous library to congress in order to remain financially viable. He also sold some slaves for the same reason. He did not, however, invest in the slave trade, as many of his contemporaries did. That is, he did not buy or engender healthy young slaves for the purpose of selling them later at a profit, and he did not divide slave families when he bought or sold.
...the demeaning of a human being...
None of these facts exonerate Jefferson. Not even the best treatment of slaves can mitigate the demeaning of a human being held as the property of another. Jefferson could have freed his slaves. Why didn't he?
Virginia law did not allow freed slaves in the state, but they could have moved to another state and started from scratch against all the challenges of a culture strange to them. There were freed slaves and runaway slaves who did exactly that with mixed success.
Jefferson definitely needed slaves to operate his farms, and perhaps he rationalized that they needed him as well. Let us modern persons judge as we will. But having grown up in the nation that has progressed so far toward the ideals Jefferson envisioned, it is difficult if not impossible for us to know what we would have done before those ideals were widely endorsed. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what hypocrisies are hidden from our own conscience by the complicity of society - hypocrisies for which we are, nonetheless, guilty.