Third United States President Thomas Jefferson has unquestionable merit being one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Despite this, to assert Thomas Jefferson’s historical legacy as polarizing is inadequate and vague at best. Even though he made a huge impact on the African American’s history regarding slavery as he said he opposes it and even proposed a federal law banning slavery, he himself owned 600 slaves in his lifetime. The paradox is strong in his extensive writing about his views on slavery and race in his book Notes on the State of Virginia.
Jefferson’s authorship of the American Declaration of Independence is revealing not only of unmatched political genius, but of high regard for personal liberty. Jefferson published his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia in an attempt to answer queries of a French diplomat. Frequently hailed as the most accurate portrait of the United States in its formative years, Notes on the State of Virginia also did not shy away from the issue of slavery’s future.
Thomas Jefferson’s assertions, however, while not considered racist at the time, over the course of two hundred years slowly unraveled themselves to be racist and ignorant. But to Jefferson’s credit, it begs to be stated that for all his brilliance, he was merely a product of his time, a clever yet dishonorable one at that. Still, such truth will never circumvent the stinging truth that is racism in America. The unspeakable nature of slavery, and most importantly, the hypocrisy and errors in his judgment that was instrumental in extending legalized slavery in the United States.
As insinuated earlier, the reader must be made to realize that Jefferson was not the sole possessor of these now-racist views. These now-racist views were not by-products of moral depravity, but rather, of a remarkable scarcity of perspective on other cultures other than Western. Jefferson, at his time, had no means to access the yet to be acquired scientific knowledge that would have proven him wrong to begin with.
Notes on the State of Virginia
As mentioned earlier, Notes on the State of Virginia was written and published to answer a French diplomat’s, François Barbé-Marbois, queries. Because of that, the book was largely based on the diplomat’s queries and has been reordered. The book came up to 23 chapters discussing in detail subjects in natural history, society, weather, politics, education, religion, law, and of course, slavery.
Twenty-first century readers can easily dismiss the book as a prime example of racism in American literature, lest one forget, even the most prominent philosophers whose works defined the Age of Enlightenment held similar views. David Hume theorized that Africans did not have the intellectual capacity to match whites, and Immanuel Kant more or less arrived at the same generalization, that blacks are only fit to be slaves and are significantly inferior to whites.
In addition to that, Jefferson’s unfounded theories on racial disparities did not only represent racism in American literature at the time. They sparked proliferation of absurd and destructive myths long after his death, which have become the basis of prejudice towards against blacks and other non-whites, which while already long outdated, still have the power to entice the unthinking, unenlightened American of the 21st century. The following passages are conspicuous examples from the Notes on the State of Virginia:
“I advance it, therefore, that blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
“The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.”
“Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.”
It ought to be reminded that Thomas Jefferson was a polymath, a reputable scientist in his own right. These surface observations contained in Notes on the State of Virginia do not seem to come from the lips of a polymath, but rather from a slave owner who owns six hundred slaves and is determined in maintaining their profitability.
It can be argued that these statements may have been a conscious effort to justify slavery to his fellow slaveholders. In making these remarks, Jefferson the supposed polymath and enlightened political thinker seems to have stooped down to the shameful level of a pseudoscience practitioner.
The absence of logic is appalling as well. These observations are baseless and narrow at best, for how can a Westerner, endowed with Old World education and sensibilities, be a qualified judge of intellect by mere, shallow observations of the physical attributes of a subjugated, dehumanized, and demoralized race already suffering from forced uprooting from their own civilization and culture?
Because Jefferson also discussed his proposal regarding the liberation of Virginia’s slaves. Their removal from Virginia was also explained in a political and superficial and baseless views in these passages:
"Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
"This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people."
The observations represent plain deviation from reason. Therefore, it can be asserted that Jefferson’s condescending tone is emitted by his lack of sentience, which initially propelled his racist views. The observations are simply solipsistic, indicative of a firmly held belief that only Western culture exists. These statements decidedly imply that all other cultures are not only irrelevant, but also inferior.
When discussing Thomas Jefferson’s affirmations of racism in American literature by way of his book Notes on the State of Virginia, it is inevitable not to think of Sally Hemings, the mixed race slave. In historical consensus, Hemings bore some or all of her six children by the widower Jefferson. The Hemings-Jefferson affair is the height of not only racism, but also hypocrisy and callousness, and the crash of Jefferson’s political career.
It lingered on for more than a century, with many of Jefferson’s descendants repelling speculations for fear of discrimination back in the 1940s, when intolerance and racism was at its height. However, as recent as 2012, the controversy was put to rest with an exhibit that detailed Thomas Jefferson’s life as a slaveholder, as well as scientific evidence confirming his paternity of six of Sally Hemings’ children.
That Jefferson impregnated the slave Hemings multiple times is within the realm of possibility and understanding; the effective provision of her freedom only after Jefferson’s death is beyond comprehension. Jefferson clearly showed his belief in racial superiority as his statement that slavery was an anomaly is a complete contradiction of his actions.
Putting it mildly, the potency of Jefferson’s advocacy of humanism and personal freedom, and political virtuosity is matched only by his misguided racist tendencies and unparalleled hypocrisy, a mind-numbing paradox at best. Two centuries after his death, the enigma remains: the power of his rhetoric for liberty versus his lifetime support for slavery and his humanity versus his monstrosity.
This “truth is self-evident” can be observed in his acknowledgment that slavery inflicts trauma not only on the enslaved blacks but also on whites. Jefferson recognized that slavery invariably violates the principles upon which the United States was founded. These conscious pronouncements, up to this day, cement Jefferson’s legacy as a brilliant but damningly flawed statesman and human being.
Notes on the State of Virginia, in essence, was not only an accurate portrait of young America, but also a reflection of the prevailing racist notions that permeated the minds of even the most talented historical figures, which perpetuated racism in literature in society at the time, and ultimately, led to the manifestation of racism in modern times.
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Ellis, Joseph. “Thomas Jefferson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 30 June, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Jefferson.
Forbes, Robert. “Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).” Encyclopedia Virginia, 6 May 2016, www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Notes_on_the_State_of_Virginia_1785.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the state of Virginia. Boston, Lilly and Wait, 1832. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/03004902/.