He reminds us we should not judge the poet of the Declaration of Independence by today’s standards. Still, it is a harsh reality to hear a president recite “all men are created equal” in his Inauguration Address, knowing Jefferson meant all white men.
He was making his case for the tenets of a new nation and for the cause of separating from the constraints of British rule.
Jefferson’s role as owner of hundreds of slaves is confounding since, as a young legislator, he believed slavery should be abolished. His struggle with freeing African-Americans centered on what to do with them.
He believed white Americans and freed black slaves could not live in peace and harmony in the same country. Finally, in middle-age, he looked at his career, knowing the cost of freeing slaves would derail it and labeled full citizenship for black servants “a cause whose time has not yet come.”
Today, down the road at the Atlanta History Center, the centerpiece of an exhibit is a life-sized bronze statue of Jefferson, standing in front of a wall of names of slaves, more than 600, whom records show were owned by the master of Monticello.
He freed only a few, and four were his flesh and blood. Their mother, Sally Hemings, a slave, was owned by Jefferson. She was also the half-sister of his wife, who died far too young.
Jefferson promised his dying wife he would never remarry, bowing to her fear her daughters would fall prey to the whims of a tyrannical step-mother.
At 14, Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s younger daughter to Paris where he served as this country’s representative, seeking to secure an American and French alliance, necessary because of the strength of the British army.
Hemings was pregnant by the time the American delegation returned home. She left France only after Jefferson agreed to free their child as an adult.
He honored her request in his will, and their children were freed along with their mother. After a 40-year relationship with Jefferson, Hemings lived out her life in Virginia as a free woman, leaving her children small fragments, (a shoe buckle, eyeglasses,) from their father’s life, but no legacy of money from him.
He was deeply in debt when he died and his slaves and properties were sold, but time is a great leveler of circumstance, and in the 1950s, his former home, Monticello, now an historic property, saw excavation on Mulberry Row, near the big house, a lane where slaves lived and worked when they weren’t in the fields.
That look at life in the neighborhood where slavery was a fact of life uncovered the pulse of a plantation class system and glimpses of a people who kept Monticello afloat.
It was against the law for slaves to be taught to read and write.
For a man whose spirit was uplifted by the written word, it is hard to reconcile Jefferson’s acceptance of illiteracy as a limitation for his own children, whose mother was Sally Hemings.
In his book, “Thomas Jefferson -— The Art of Power,” Meacham seeks to fathom the inscrutable side of the man who helped to carve out a future for this country.
“What suited Jefferson was the code of denial that defined life in the slave-owning states,” Meacham writes. But entering in a farm ledger the birth dates of his and Hemings’ children and then ignoring their lives was more than denial, it was shameful.
Meacham’s Jefferson “left the world a definition of human dignity that has endured,” but our third president’s written witness to equality fell short at Sally Heming’s door. As the old song reminds us: “He done her wrong!”
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta