Charlottesville and Our Forefathers

Sally Hemings was three quarters white. She was Half-Sister to Thomas Jefferson’s wife and spent her life as a slave and Mother to some of his children. She lived out her remaining years after Jefferson’s death in Charlottesville, VA as an unfreed slave who had been “given her time”.

Due to the recent events in Charlottesville American race relations are on the forefront of everyone’s mind and social media feed. Side note: I would argue that those two things are merging much more quickly than anyone really knows.

As we hash these views out we are forced to revisit the actions of the people who attempted to build a democracy that protects the civil liberties of each individual regardless of their race or gender. Our “Forefathers”. Lately George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have come up in this public discourse. They have been compared to seccessionist Robert E Lee. I can’t remember who mentioned them. It must not have been anyone important.

I have thought a lot about our forefathers’ involvement with slavery and what that must have meant to them. As we study our history there is a glaringly obvious conflict between the human rights espoused in nearly all the eloquent writings of Thomas Jefferson and the very actions of the man. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and so did George Washington. Upon his death George Washington freed the 123 slaves living under his bondage. “Upon his death”. We can say that there is a small measure of benevolence in that act, however I would not feel that as benevolent if my human rights were kept from me one minute longer than the person in power realized he was wrong for having power over me.

“The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.” – George Washington, ca. 1787–1788 (From

He went on to own slaves until his death in 1799 when he granted them “freedom”.

Thomas Jefferson also owned many slaves. He wrote that Slavery was a “…cruel war against human nature itself…” but never freed many of his slaves. His logic, arguably from his writing, was that slaves gaining freedom in Virginia or the colonies at that time would find no home and be persecuted worse than by slavery itself. He may have been correct but we can see clearly now that choosing to protect his slaves with continuing enslavement contradicted his own opinion that they should have the same human rights as whites.

This is where I take issue with human nature. We consider our answers to right and wrong only after we reconcile the impact on our personal convenience. In what ways are we guilty of that right now?

The following is an excerpt of Jefferson’s writing. In segment 2 he tries to compare the habits of slaves with free whites not considering the impact of the daily life of a slave on their choices and approach to things like rest and love. He fails to consider how any man might react to a day filled with toil and horror once at home on his own time. He neglects to imagine the affect that a lifetime of being sold and bought would affect how you create bonds interpersonally, ie love and family or even react to danger. It is this convenient wanton blindness to the human condition that drove slavery well past it’s time and even now finds us arguing over our racial differences.

Thomas Jefferson was a very intelligent and monumentally educated man. A man who studied human history for many hours a day for his entire life, yet he still fell victim to the same intentional ignorance we see in America today. Convenient ignorance. Confirmation bias.

The following words are hard to read. They are even worse when you consider that the man writing them had the faculties to understand that the people he was writing about had a completely different life experience than the people he was comparing them to. But he intentionally turned a blind eye to these facts. Maybe he did this because the reality of his collusion would be to much to bear and could potentialy lead him to great inconvenience.

Do your actions match your convictions? Do you hold yourself and your current leaders to this standard?

“Thomas Jefferson’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, was primarily written in 1781 and first published privately in 1784. The following discussion of the African race came after a description of failed legislation in Virginia that would have eventually emancipated young, enslaved African-Americans. Although Jefferson favored this limited policy of emancipation, he strongly believed that the freed slaves would have to migrate out of Virginia, not only because of hostility between whites and blacks but also because of important differences that he perceived between the two races. Jefferson made clear that he believed that blacks were inferior to whites. It is worth remembering, however, that in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson decried slavery as a “cruel war against human nature itself,” which violated “sacred rights of life and liberty.” In other words, the evidence suggests that Jefferson believed that God created Africans with the same “inalienable rights” as deserved by whites. Nevertheless, he emancipated only a small number of his many slaves. –D. Voelker”

“[2] They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. . . .”

One Comment Add yours

  1. barryh says:

    Interesting observations on human nature and history. Thank you!


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