What was Jefferson really up to?
As Jefferson biographer Joseph J. Ellis puts it, Americans are in the throes of a "Jefferson Surge." From Bill Clinton's 1992 inaugural festivities at Monticello to a 1994 mock trial of Jefferson led by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, we have developed something of an obsession with the Enlightenment thinker who articulated our basic principles of liberty, the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Now we have a three-hour television movie on our third president by acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns (it airs Feb. 18 and 19 on PBS) and three new books about the man: Ellis' American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed's Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, and Conor Cruise O'Brien's The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. These works vary widely in quality: Burns is touchy-feely, Ellis is careful, Gordon-Reed is methodical, and O'Brien is hysterical. But all four take on something few treatments of Jefferson would have dared to take on even a short while ago: his ownership of some 200 slaves, and his alleged 38-year affair, as a widower, with one of them, Sally Hemings.
These debates have already grown tiresome to many historians, who have been grappling with them for decades, but for those outside the guild, they're irresistible. The Hemings story, for example, recently inspired Steve Erickson's novel Arc d'X and the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris. On the defensive are the keepers of the Jefferson flame, many of them old-line Virginia gentlemen-scholars such as Dumas Malone and Virginius Dabney. These apologists tend to play down Jefferson's ownership of slaves and crudely racist opinions. They recoil with indignation at the suggestion that he miscegenated with a slave. Their opponents are mostly younger historians. Animated by the revisionist impulses that swept the historical profession after the civil-rights movement, they try to square the Founders' declarations of liberty with the monstrosity of slavery. As the author of "all men are created equal" and the owner of more than 200 human beings, Jefferson has understandably emerged as a lightning rod for revisionist scrutiny.
Just a few years ago, biographers such as Noble E. Cunningham and Willard Sterne Randall could dismiss with a sneer the idea that Jefferson could have possibly slept with a slave girl (even though, as it happens, she was his late wife's half-sister). The notion had long since been discredited as the allegation of an early-19th-century equivalent of a tabloid journalist, James Callendar, who first aired it in 1802. But now, according to Annette Gordon-Reed, a lawyer and professor at New York Law School who has given the subject its most exhaustive treatment in An American Controversy, it's Topic A. Whenever she told people she was researching Jefferson, she writes, "Not one of them launched into a discussion of the Kentucky Resolutions or the Louisiana Purchase. Almost instantly each of my friends asked, 'What's the story with Sally Hemings?' "
Could the affair have taken place? O'Brien weighs in with a vociferous "yes," Ellis a tentative "no." If a dominant view is emerging on the subject, it's the one expressed in Ken Burns' documentary: a sort of skeptical "um, maybe." Burns plays into doubters' hands by having Callendar's words read by an actor with a cartoonishly sinister voice. And by raising the question of the affair at the point in the narrative when Callendar first alleges it--not when it supposedly commenced--he implies it matters more as a political scandal than as an event in Jefferson's private life. On the other hand, Burns interviews a black man named Robert Cooley who tells us how his grandfather informed him at age 10 that Jefferson was his ancestor. Somehow, Cooley's talking head makes the affair seem, if only for a moment, vividly plausible.
It is Gordon-Reed, however, who provides a methodical, judicious review of almost every shred of evidence about the affair. She purports to be arguing not for the affair as historical certainty (which, like a good lawyer, she knows she can't prove) but simply against those who would deny it. While this diminished goal lets her appear agnostic throughout, it's easy to guess where she stands. She begins with the testimony of Madison Hemings, Sally's son, who told an Ohio newspaper in 1873 that Jefferson was his father. Gordon-Reed claims that this account was denied wider credence only because white historians assumed the black Madison was a pawn of "Northern carpetbagger[s] out to make Southerners look bad." To the claim that the unscrupulous Callendar started the rumors, Gordon-Reed responds that the journalist was merely the first to go public with stories of the affair that had circulated earlier. And so, one by one, Gordon-Reed reviews the exhibits, marshaling factual evidence (that of all his slaves, Jefferson manumitted only Sally's children), compelling reasoning (that it's fallacious to think Sally's age at the start of the affair--14--would have made Jefferson a pedophile, since older men in those days often married teen-age girls), and an occasional Perry Mason-style flourish. She paints a picture of a Jefferson who, after his wife's death, sought the intimate and long-lasting company of another woman--a second marriage, in effect. With this insight, she turns the Hemings relationship from a scandalous affair into a poignant romance that makes Jefferson not more barbarous but in fact a little more human.
If Jeffersonians have been squeamish about the benign Hemings affair, they have been unabashed on the slavery question. Burns, for instance, brings up the issue in the opening minutes of his film--and not perfunctorily, but repeatedly, as an integral part of the story. Again, he refuses to take sides, leaving it for the viewer to reconcile Jefferson's Enlightenment liberalism with his participation in, and perpetuation of, an institution he knew to be unjust.
O'Brien, on the other hand, gleefully asserts that Jefferson's crimes disqualify him from heroic status. Quoting freely from other historians, he rehearses the indictments: In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson compulsively detailed the ways whites were superior to blacks. As a legislator, he wrote a slave code for the state of Virginia and introduced bills to penalize white women who slept with black men. As a slaveholder, he was, while more humane than some, still vicious--flogging slaves, for instance, when he felt it necessary. And even as Jefferson fiercely denounced slavery in principle, he chose--unlike, say, George Washington--to keep his own slaves in perpetual bondage, because he wanted to sustain his life of pampered luxury: his taste for French wines, fine clothes, and hours of carefree reading and writing.
O'Brien's iconoclasm, while refreshing, turns out to be as simplistic as the hagiography he rebuts. Jefferson, after all, did seem genuinely to loathe slavery (even though he never got around to lobbying for its abolition). And it's hard to conclude that his passionate and intelligent thoughts about the importance of liberty were empty rhetoric.
It is Ellis' American Sphinx that makes most satisfying sense of these and other paradoxes in Jefferson's life. A book of cautious and informed psychological guesswork, American Sphinx portrays a man who, for all his love of science, was at heart a misty-eyed utopian, who preferred the world of his imagination to the real one around him. For Ellis, Jefferson was a man whose life was characterized by his ability to resolve in his own mind what others might view as glaring inconsistencies. Jefferson's slaveholding, according to this interpretation, was "more self-deception than calculated hypocrisy ... a disconcerting form of psychological agility that would make it possible for Jefferson to walk past the slave quarters on Mulberry Row at Monticello, thinking about mankind's brilliant prospects, without any sense of contradiction."
As Gordon-Reed transforms the Hemings scandal into a virtual marriage that makes Jefferson seem more accessible to us, so Ellis converts the gross hypocrisy of Jefferson's slaveholding into a fully human trick of denial. This ability to banish or finesse inconsistencies was perhaps Jefferson's tragic flaw, the root of his greatness and the explanation for his unforgivable crimes. It is a quality Jefferson scholars would do well to keep in mind before they go around declaring him a hero or a villain.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.