Idolizing Thomas Jefferson, Brutal Slaveholder and Racist Thinker

Law professor Paul Finkelman has an important commentary piece in the New York Times on two recent books on the “democratic” icon and famous founder Thomas Jefferson. Much of what most Americans believe about Jefferson’s everyday life in regard to racial matters is fictional or distorted in the direction of our “good” founders are “great liberty and equality advocates” in both thought and everyday practice.

A leading scholar of slavery and our “founding fathers,” Finkelman has much to say about this matter, especially in regard to the very interesting new book by Henry Wiencek that presents much data on Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery and abuse of those he enslaved, including his sexual coercion of the young Black teenager Sally Hemings (see here). Finkelman argues that even Wiencek–who argues the younger and more egalitarian Jefferson becomes more of a hypocritical and money-oriented slaveholder as he ages — is too kind to Jefferson, especially in his early decades:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views . . . he tried to justify through pseudoscience. . . . when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves.

Finkelman adds that Jefferson was not the supposedly “good slaveholder,” the oxymoronic phrase often used for numerous slaveholding founders and other white slaveholders:

He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.

And Wiencek’s book provides much more evidence of Jefferson’s brutality toward those he enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson is still a top democratic icon for a great many Americans, especially white Americans — with little critical recurring or public attention being given by whites to his everyday practice of extensive and often brutal slaveholding. Jefferson is also a founder (with intellectuals like Immanuel Kant) of early Western “race” framing that aggressively celebrates the white “race’s” superiority in most areas and puts down “inferior races” such as (enslaved) black Americans. You can see this most dramatically in his famous and only major book, Notes on the State of Virgina (see my analysis of Query 14 in that aggressively white-racist-framed chapter of his book here).

Well into the 21st century few Americans, especially few white Americans, know this bloody founding history, and remarkably few seem willing to learn it and examine its implications for our contemporary and still systemically racist society. Why is the historical truth on systemic racism so hard for most whites to accept and publicly discuss in this society?

Note: Paul Finkelman has a very good book, Slavery and the Founders, that I can recommend to you if you want to know more of the hard truths of our founding, slaveholding era and about the slavery-protecting US Constitution crafted by famous founders.


  1. Earl Smith

    Nice overview of the column. Surprised that the New York Times published it.
    All of this has been known about Jefferson for years but the dominant ideology simply
    plowed over the truth
    I like the title – THE MONSTER OF MONTICELLO

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