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I recently returned from visits to Scranton, Williamsport, and Wellsboro, PA, and from 4th of July at Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota and opened up the internet to see the following headline and article from the Washington Post writer, Britni Danielle
Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.
After portraying Mr. Jefferson to these various audiences, then reading Ms. Danielle’s expression of outrage towards historians and commentators who did not share her anger on behalf of “the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children,” I felt sorry for the younger generation.
I do not criticize Ms. Danielle’s perspective. Mr. Jefferson’s historic persona has been justly modified to highlight his failure to personally back up his lofty rhetoric with action, a process that has been going on since 1802, and intensifying over the last twenty five years. Jefferson’s image, more than any other figure in American history, constantly changes, being reshaped by the particular needs and desires as dictated by the events of the day.
No, her comments were not what saddened me. What does is the fear that because of our focus on his personal failures we fail to grasp the enormity of what he and his fellow “Founding Fathers” did accomplish in the face of odds that exceed modern understanding.
The audiences that I spoke to, as Mr. Jefferson, were not unsparing of his hypocrisy, and he “had to get out of the scrape” as he could, to use his words. Nevertheless, they did not “disavow” the gifts that he did bequeath to this country, foremost them, the ideal of a government based upon the equality of people.
But perhaps I am being too pessimistic about the Internet headline generation. Perhaps Ms. Hemings has done us all a great service. Scandal always sells, keeping Jefferson in the headlines, and her timeless story is particularly appealing to those who feel mistreated. Maybe there will be some among the younger generation who do get curious as to why this slaveholder continues to command so much attention. His failures and successes have contributed to the American character, and if we are to follow the old adage, “know thyself,” digging beyond the headlines will be more useful than simply enjoying the passing thrill of scandal.
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
–Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57
“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
–Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.