August 21st, 2017 .

Hands Off My Hero

Pat Morden

I admit it, I’m a groupie.

My favourite rock star has been dead for nearly 200 years, but I still think he’s pretty hot.

It all started when we first visited Colonial Williamsburg years ago, and attended a presentation by a reenactor playing Thomas Jefferson. He was handsome, smart, thoughtful, passionate, eloquent, and elegant. (I love a man in knee breeches.) And as I learned more about the real Jefferson, I realized it was a remarkably accurate depiction.

So, when the 45th President started suggesting that we should be pulling down statues to the first and third Presidents to justify his position on the violence in Charlottesville, I took exception. Bigly.

Jefferson hated slavery – he called it “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” — but he was a slave-owner. He believed “all men were created equal” but at the same time suggested that black people were inferior in mind and body. It was complicated. Really complicated.

Before the Revolution, he attacked the British for sponsoring the slave trade to the colonies. He led the move in 1778 to ban slave importation in Virginia. As President, he led the effort to criminalize the international slave trade. In 1779, he suggested a system of gradual emancipation, training, and colonization, believing that releasing slaves with no means to support themselves would not be helpful. In 1784, he proposed legislation banning slavery in the New Territories after 1800, but it failed to pass Congress by one vote. He correctly predicted that slavery would eventually tear the union apart.

He had a long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, who was the child of his father-in-law and a slave. Hemmings and Jefferson had six children together, and he kept the relationship secret.

He was a “good” slaveowner – keeping families together and instructing his overseers not to whip slaves (although they probably did). Living conditions weren’t bad, compared to those of poor whites in the same time.

But that doesn’t change the fact that his position was morally ambiguous. Slavery is wrong, no matter what the living conditions. He knew that, and yet he owned 607 slaves in his lifetime, and benefited from their enforced labour. He freed only five slaves in his will: the rest were sold to clear his debts.

Jefferson wasn’t perfect. He was a product of his time and class. Like most of us, he failed to align his principles with his way of life. But he embraced the idea of equal opportunity, an incredibly radical concept in his time. He thought and read deeply. He believed in reason and science. He wrote beautifully. He was passionate but courteous. He risked his life to help build a new nation. He was a visionary.

So Mr. Trump, if you must defend White Supremacists and neo-Nazis, leave Thomas Jefferson out of it. Keep your tiny hands off my hero.


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