Thomas Jefferson is rightfully considered to be one of the most influential figures in American history. He was an advocate for democracy and stood behind the country’s foundational text – The Declaration of Independence. However, when reflecting on his views through contemporary lenses, one might decide that Jefferson should not be revered as much as he is. Making assumptions based on his own words from the historical record that is “Notes on the State of Virginia” helps clarify what he truly believed in and how he evaluated various events and occurrences.
First of all, Jefferson was seemingly a vehement supporter of liberty and equality on all fronts. For one, he stated that all human beings were created equal. However, that should not be perceived as the belief in the equality of all individuals – rather, it applied to the American colonists, who, as a people, were entitled to self-government and equal position to the other nations. Jefferson was born at the very top of the hierarchy of the American provincials, and his vision of equality, corresponding to his day and age, did not include neither women, nor slaves, nor those who were not of his social status.
Another peculiar remark concerning freedom was made by Jefferson in regard to rural life: he believed that those who worked on land were chosen by God, as they relied only on the earth and their ability to work. He opposed cultivators to industrial workers, who in his mind were subjected to servility and corruptibility. Thus, according to Jefferson, the foundation of people’s moral liberty was manual labor on the soils graciously given to them by their land.
It is to be noted that Americans’ current views are not fundamentally different from those of the founding father, though the definition of equality has been altered. Equality now means that every individual is neither inferior nor superior to any other individual – regardless of race, gender or social status. The rest of the basic values – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of choice – are still highly valued by the American people and rightly considered to be inherent in the policies of any free state.
Further on, when describing the laws of the state in Query XIV, Jefferson demonstrated his stance on slavery: he proposed the release of all slaves born after the passage of the act that specified it. Nothing was said, however, about those who had been slaves by that time: Jefferson still talked about how they by law were supposed to be bequeathed and passed as dowry and other property. Moreover, he was a known slave owner himself, and – it seems as, fairly – has been faulted for caring about the freedom of white colonists more deeply than for that of African-Americans. To sum up, Jefferson could hardly be called anti-slavery, even though he definitely was progressive on that question back in the 18th century.
Immediately after discussing his views on slavery, Jefferson speculated on why he did not see the possibility of white people and African-Americans – that is, slaves – coexisting even after the latter were to be freed. In Query XIV, in addition to noting that after a century and a half of slavery, mutual dislike and prejudice would prevent whites and blacks from living in peace and tranquility, Jefferson makes it clear that black people were not considered equal to whites. He recited being bewildered by the color of black people’s skin and gave a negative assessment of their physique in aesthetic terms, believing that nature had robbed them in all possible ways. Jefferson heavily doubted their mental and creative abilities, considered their senses as their primary guide to action, and was strongly opposed to the idea of their mixing with whites. By modern, or, more accurately, human standards, this is not just racism – it is a veritable dehumanization that should not take place under any circumstances.
At the same time, in Query VI, Jefferson countered pejorative portrayal of the Indians with his positive characterization of their morality and intelligence. Jefferson explained their inferior in comparison to white people physicality by differences in living conditions rather than natural differences between races. Thus, Jefferson concluded that the mind of the Indians, as well as the body, when considering all conditions, are created in the form of “homo sapiens Europaeus”. The practice of turning Indians into slaves was called “inhuman” by Jefferson. This incoherence towards members of different races clearly demonstrates how far back then people were from what is now considered basic respect for all members of the human race.
It is of interest to note that this text contains a rather impressive section describing the flora and fauna of the state of Virginia. One may wonder whether such a full and detailed record is necessary – and Jefferson cited his reasons in the course of the narrative. In Query VI, he sought to disprove the words of the 18th-century French naturalist Comte de Buffon, who in regard to America claimed that “nature [there] is less active, less energetic”. The invalidity of all of Buffon’s remarks about the natural and climactic conditions of the New World has been consistently proven by Jefferson. The author of Notes served as the protector of America’s reputation, which in the Old World was shaped by scientists such as Buffon – and he did not want it to be tarnished.
Consequently, the following inconsistency arises: supposing, Jefferson indeed is perceived as America’s protector and one of its greatest representatives. That means that one of the faces of the United States is the person who basically considered slavery to be permissible. Granted, he once went as far as to attempt to make the abolition of slavery a part of law – but he did not advocate for complete elimination of it at the time; much less he presumably wanted to lose his slaves, who he had no problem with having. Whether or not Jefferson truly deserves the title of the founding father one decides for themselves in accordance with their personal values.
Touching on the topic of slavery for the last time, in Query XVIII, Jefferson discussed the possibility of criteria that would define people’s manners and stumbled upon a paradox. He noted that slavery as a phenomenon had had an unhappy influence on people. Jefferson was grieving, contemplating the miserable condition of slaves who from century to century called home the land on which they were not free. He wondered whether the American people could ever be considered free if freedom was not perceived by them as a God-given gift, but was rather a right granted and taken away by man himself. In doing so, the author of Notes felt that the change was already palpable and hoped for the abolition of slavery as soon as possible.
In conclusion, the content of Notes shows how Thomas Jefferson’s views influenced America’s emergence. As a self-proclaimed supporter of democracy, he tried to advocate for what he considered universal rights and freedoms. It is difficult to argue that his views were not models of prudence on all counts – and that might be an argument against considering him a worthy American through modern lenses. What he definitely was is a decent representative of his time and culture – and for that he might be respected.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1785, Web.