The genius of Thomas Jefferson
There’s no doubt what the finest creation of Thomas Jefferson was. It’s the thing with the words.
You know… these 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.”
That’s right – the United States Declaration of Independence, probably the most famous piece of American writing.
When it comes to deciding on his second finest creation, you would be misguided to look beyond Monticello, the house he built on a hill in Virginia.
Over many years he developed the plans for the residence, helped build parts of it himself, changed the designs, and expanded it.
Originally based on the neoclassical principles of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, it was later influenced by his time in France.
These days it’s the only private home in the country that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These two creations of Thomas Jefferson are held up of great examples of the man’s genius and of American history. Rightfully so. But there is a darker side to both of them.
Either together or in isolation, they both demonstrate the hypocrisy and highlight the most controversial aspect of the man who is often lauded as one of the greatest Americans to ever live.
Let’s just go back to the declaration and the words “all men are created equal”.
Then let’s pop into his home at Monticello and have a look at the hundreds of people who he kept there as slaves.
The two don’t seem to fit together comfortably.
Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello
At Monticello, Jefferson built two ‘pavilions’ to accommodate the slaves and their work. They stretched out from either side of the main house and were hidden underneath terraces.
Down here, the workers cooked, cleaned, stored food, kept horses and tended to domestic chores.
Everything was linked by a system of tunnels that met underneath the house, where the slaves could then bring things up to the residents. It was quite an ingenious design for the time.
Downstairs was in contrast with upstairs from a design point of view, though.
In the main house, Jefferson had built all sorts of architecture quirks, like an eight-sided guest room, a bedroom where the bed was in an alcove (to save space), and the famous dome, which had a small apartment inside it.
Of course, slavery was widely accepted in this part of the America and it could be argued that Jefferson was merely trapped in the standards of contemporary society. But he tangled his own web.
It’s now accepted knowledge that one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, became his lover after his wife’s death and he was the father to most, if not all, of her children.
Inside Monticello, more hypocrisy was born.
In more recent years, Jefferson has been criticised by historians for not doing more as President to end slavery. And on a personal level he has been criticised for freeing less than ten of his hundreds of slaves (and it’s believed that four of the slaves he freed were actually his children).
His writings show that he believed Africans were inferior to whites, and this influenced his views on the issue of slavery.
He was clearly a man who was prepared to be revolutionary – the declaration of independence proves that.
And he was clearly a man of intellectual enlightenment – this is demonstrated through the University of Virginia which, after his presidency, he designed and founded. (It is included with Monticello in the World Heritage listing.)
For a man of worldly experience, ideals of liberty, a love of free thought, personal relationships with slaves and (to use his own choice of word) happiness, it’s a pity he didn’t do more to bring America’s shameful policies to an end.
Still, he has left a legacy to be proud of and ultimately created the document which helped it happen.
29 thoughts on “All men are created equal”
I was at Monticello years ago. My parents stopped while we were on a summer road trip. I think if I went back now, I’d be able to appreciate it a lot more!
I wonder if it would be quite boring as a kid. As an adult it was interesting to see the house itself, and to think about Jefferson a bit more.
I think it can be tricky to judge folk from history against our standards of today. What we take entirely for granted now for example (such as the world being round), would have been seen as totally heretic five hundred years ago. In a few hundred years, the thought of a president having to believe in an imaginary being in the sky before he can be considered electable may also seem entirely insane. I’m not saying Jefferson was right of course, just thinking out loud. He did more than others achieve with their lives. Not as much maybe as he could have done.. but there we go. He did at least leave us with a nice house to look at 😀
I think you’re right in some respects – the culture of the time certainly dictates who you are and how you behave in public office. But, having said that, he made personal decisions about keeping slaves and how many he kept. If he truly believed that slavery was wrong, he could have changed his behaviour at home.
Complicated man, for sure. But definitely on my “Dream Dinner Party” guest list. For many, Jefferson’s imperfections (even failings) in a time when a new country was struggling to define itself make him even more American. Monticello remains a powerful place–every fourth of July, for example, a special swearing in ceremony is held on the lush front lawn to bestow US citizenship on a group of immigrants.
I didn’t know about the swearing-in ceremony. That would be quite a way to become an American – very cool!
Great point – thanks for an interesting post!
That´s the trick about idealism – it isn´t easy to live like you talk. I believe we should be judged by our actions more than our words, but the judgement of Jefferson must take into consideration the times he lived in.
I´m glad the house is still here, while the slavery is long gone! It is beautiful!!
Yeah, you’re right about the house. It’s definitely possible to not think about any of the politics and just admire it for its unique architecture.
A fascinating insight into the man with a great place in history, a man of his times and slavery was commonplace during this period. He could undoubtedly have done more thankfully this form of slavery did come to an end. One day hopefully all forms will do too.
Good point – this is history for the US now but not for everywhere in the world!
Isn’t that the same problem we encounter today, though? Many brilliant men and women, just in the rat race and not doing more to solve the world’s problems. Instead, they complain and keep buying more and more things for themselves (and sometimes their families). I guess it’s more of the human race problem, eh?
Sadly, I think you’re right. It’s the case in countries all around the world. The leaders say one thing and do another.
This house looks fascinating. Definitely a dark history but the design of the tunnel system is really interesting.
It’s really quite a clever design. There’s a whole network below the house that the slaves could work in, sleep in, and get away from the main building. Meanwhile, above ground, you don’t even notice it exists!
Great post! Love the pics of the house for sure. I have to agree with Laurence though. It’s hard to judge against history. Not to be a flag-waver or have a pity party, but we call America the Land of the Free today but I am not allowed to bring Dani there and marry her and even if I were (in the case that we were both from the US) voters might repeal that right to vote in the future. I think maybe we should look at just how ‘free’ the US was ever intended to be in the first place…(dismounts from *high horse*).
Ha ha – I love it when you’re on your high horse! And, of course, you’re right. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the way things are set up. It’s very easy to talk about ideals (and even put them in a declaration) but it’s an entirely different thing to make it consistent for everyone!
Another excellent post, Michael! As a Southerner, I’ve always been of two minds on Jefferson for the reasons you mention here. It’s hard to defend a man who kept other human beings as slaves, but it’s also impossible to ignore his great contributions to our nation and the ideals of democracy on the whole. But I think his contributions vastly outweighed his sins and, from what I’ve read, he was as benevolent as you could hope for a slave master to be. Loved the shots of Monticello, and would love to see it for myself someday.
Well, he was certainly ‘benevolent’ to one particular slave, who he had a number of children with!! 🙂
I guess that we cannot really question Jefferson for not doing something more substantial to end slavery. People in that time has a very different mind set compared to what we have now.
Yeah. you’re right. But a truly great man would have stood up for what he believed in!
Wow never realised he had all his own slaves as well. What a ridiculous concept that he wanted equal rights but didn’t believe them himself.
It seems that way to us now, indeed. But like some of the others have said, I guess that was just the way of the times. Sadly.
Like Bret, I am a southerner as well. I grew up in one of the most controversial states in the country when it came to issues of black and white – slavery. Unlike many of my friends and family, I don’t take a lot of pride in my southern heritage as it regards the Civil War and Confederate years. I hate that the flag has been such a controversy and dividing line for people of our state.
With that said, I think Jefferson really did believe that all men were created equal. I just don’t think he believed that blacks were really “men” and were included in that.
On a more humorous note, seems like Jefferson was Bill Clinton before Bill Clinton was Bill Clinton 🙂
Ha ha… I like the Clinton comparison!
Enjoying your take on the USA, Michael.
Thanks, Sophie. It’s a fascinating country. It obviously doesn’t have as long a history as many of the other places we can visit, but it’s packed a lot in to a short time!
Michael, I have never been to Monticello, and, did not know that Jefferson was actually buried there. Am just curious on the google maps where his actual grave site is. Secondly, Jefferson felt that to have a strong mind a person needs to have a strong body too. He used to run five miles a day.
Hi Bob. The exact GPS co-ords for Jefferson’s grave are +38°0’30.48″, -78°27’20.85″
There’s a large gravestone there for him so it’s really easy to spot.
Boo!!! Jefferson was a genius- nothing needed to be added in this about the hypocrisy or slaves considering that time in history. Shame