Blog #5 – The Paradox of Liberty.

Throughout history, Thomas Jefferson has been revered as a good, honest, All-American man.

He wrote the Declaration of Independence, pushed to emancipate slaves, was elected for 2 terms as President of the United States, and bestowed upon us the well-known line, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Sounds like a great guy, amiright? Well, many people have their doubts about Thomas Jefferson.

Now, I don’t know about you, but before I got to high school I did not know much about Thomas Jefferson. I mean, I literally went to a school called Thomas Jefferson Middle School and all I really knew about the guy was that he was President at one point in history.

Apparently, even though he was this big shot, loved-by-all, politics guy, he was more or less a complete loser. He sucked at public speaking, got nervous in front of large crowds, had a bit of a speech impediment, fell in love with a girl who was already married, wrote poems, and his literal only goal in life was to be accepted. Not the image you had in your head, right?

However, lets not let this description of Jefferson paint a permanent image of how you feel about him.

A 1997 film by Ken Burns about the life of Thomas Jefferson takes a very interesting take in its directing. It uses juxtaposition of Jefferson’s views on topics and his personality to challenge the way the audience thinks of him. For example, one scene would discuss the fact that multiple of Jefferson’s daughters died very young, along with his wife a few years later, which would gain him sympathy from the audience. The next scene, however, would discuss the fact that Thomas Jefferson was one of the largest slave owners in Virginia and thought of Blacks as completely inferior to whites.

Yes, he lived a very hard life and yes he was a very shy and quiet man, but keep in mind that Jefferson was one of the largest slave owners n Virginia at the time and that he was pretty racist. He himself stated that Blacks were inferior to whites literally just because of their skin color. He even said that, “the Roman slaves were better than the black slaves because the Romans were white.”

So yea, there’s that.

But on the other hand, Jefferson pushed multiple times for the emancipation of slaves!

But he did so while he simultaneously was one of the top 10 largest slave owners in his county…

But he treated his slaves fairly! He even called them his FAMILY!

But he also said that Blacks are “smelly” and “unpleasant” and inferior because of their skin color…

But he literally wrote the Declaration of Independence! He even said it himself, “all men are created equal”!

But maybe he only meant that in regards to white people…

Seems as though Jefferson couldn’t really make up his mind about how he felt.

This brings on the interesting discussion of, what makes a person bad? Sure there’s the whole agreeable, “murder is bad, drugs are bad, stealing is bad” blah blah blah, but aren’t there instances in which those things can be seen as good?

If a guy is trying to escape from an ax wielding maniac and kills him because that’s the only way he can make it out alive, that doesn’t make him a bad guy, right? But he killed someone! But it was self-defense…

So what makes a person so bad, huh?

Our favs from the Enlightenment may have some answers for us.

Thomas Hobbes believed that people were evil by nature and that you had to control them.

John Locke believed that people we naturally good, reasonable, and moral.

and Jean Jacques Rousseau said that, yeah people are good by nature, but society corrupts them.

So which do you believe?

It is admittedly difficult for even me to choose a side on how I feel about Jefferson.

“The Paradox of Liberty”. National Museum of African American History and Culture.

One thought on “Blog #5 – The Paradox of Liberty.

  1. Interesting post here. First thing worth mentioning, which I am sure you are already aware of, is that many of the one-liner moments in this post can be pulled together into larger, more coherent paragraphs with further explanation (it almost seems as though you lost your mind for a moment there). This juxtapositioning you do is interesting but a bit erratic. That however, is a simple fix. The next issue may not be solved so easily. It is clear that you are torn over how you should judge Thomas Jefferson (your not alone). This conflict becomes especially clear at the end of this post when you begin to probe into what makes someone good or bad. It is clear that Thomas Jefferson wrote and accomplished some pretty good things throughout his life. It is also clear that Thomas Jefferson wrote and did some pretty immoral things throughout his life. Instead of painting him as all bad, or painting him as all good, perhaps we should “recognize his transgressions against humanity” as historian John Hope Franklin suggests and live better than he did; live out the true color of the creed Jefferson so eloquently wrote in the Declaration of Independence- “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Beyond the back-and-forth moment you had I am not exactly sure how the enlightenment thinkers can help us resolve the conflict you are raising in the paragraphs above either. If anything, the Enlightenment thinkers you mention probe into human nature, suggesting a dual nature – one that is capable of both good an evil. They differ on which they think is primary, but they are all getting at that central, dual nature idea. It appear as though Jefferson embodies exactly this (as do we all). What would be interesting to do at this point in your post would be to run an analysis of the parts of Jefferson’s life that align with the philosophies on the nature of man presented by the Enlightened thinkers you mentioned (that would really be an entirely different post). I still don’t know if this will lead you to any specific conclusion but it would be an interesting analysis nonetheless.


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