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'Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs' Digs Into Thomas Jefferson's Hypocrisy


Thomas Jefferson is one of America's founders. And even after all these years, he's still a mystery. How could this most eloquent apostle of liberty own slaves? How could a man so learned and worldly be so blind to a crime on his own front porch, even in his own bedroom? How could a man so sensitive to injustice be unmoved by the outrage of slavery which he was a part? Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf are two scholars of Jefferson and his times who collaborated on a book that searches for some of those answers by examining Jefferson's extraordinary and capacious mind - "Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of The Imagination." And Annette Gordon-Reed, who is professor of law and history at Harvard, joins us in our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Good to be here.

SIMON: Most of the book is set in Monticello, as opposed to the White House when Jefferson was president or Philadelphia when they were writing the Declaration of Independence. I'm struck by a phrase you use, Monticello's morally ambiguous geography. Set that for us if you could.

GORDON-REED: Well, it's a place where Jefferson was thinking great thoughts. It's a place where he developed his Enlightenment values - well, he actually developed them as a young man at the foot of the mountain in Shadwell where he was born. But it continues as he thinks and reads about - on the Enlightenment. But at the same time, it's a slave plantation. So in my book, "The Hemingses Of Monticello," I describe the place as where we have been the best and the worst.

SIMON: You read some significance into the fact that the house is on a hill.

GORDON-REED: Yes, Jefferson wanted to be separated from his neighbors. He wanted privacy. And it was a good prospect for him. I mean, his high ideal sort of mixed - he could sort of do this physically, that he's up above everyone in the clouds and set apart so he could read and think.

SIMON: He had slaves in the house, of course.

GORDON-REED: Yes, he did.

SIMON: He had slaves in the house with whom he had relations and children, we know. But I'm wondering if his distance in the house on the hill enabled him not to have to look slavery in the eye every day.

GORDON-REED: Well, certainly the people who were up on the mountain, members of the Hemmings family were cast apart from the people who were down the mountain. Jefferson rode about his plantation, his farm, on a daily basis, mainly to get exercise and to see, you know, what was going on. But for the most part, the closest people to him, the Hemmingses, were the face of slavery for him.

And he saw himself and his dealings with them as who he was. And six of them were the children of John Wayles, who was also the father of Jefferson's wife, his wife Martha. So he had a different connection to them. So this - his understanding of himself as a slaveholder was shaped by his connection to these people whom he treated differently than the people down the mountain who were probably much more of an abstraction to him.

SIMON: Yeah, he thought of himself as benevolent.

GORDON-REED: Yes, of course. I mean, he thought that he was doing this - he did think that slavery was evil and he thought that slavery was going to die away. He thought that along with the Enlightenment, as people became more enlightened, they would see that this was a retrograde system. But while slavery was continuing, he thought of himself as a benevolent slaveholder. That's a problematic category for us...

SIMON: Yeah.

GORDON-REED: ...Because it just doesn't go together. But in his time and in his world, there were gradations of how people conducted themselves as slave owners.

SIMON: You must realize...

GORDON-REED: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...That in - at some level in the popular mind now, Jefferson is the bad guy. In part, it's a tribute to your scholarship. You opened that door for a lot of people.

GORDON-REED: Well, he was getting to be the bad guy. If that was...

SIMON: But your establishment that, in fact, Sally Hemmings and the family line...

GORDON-REED: Which always struck me as odd that somehow the fact that he owned slaves and, you know, bought and sold people, that was OK. But when you find out that he had children with a slave and a slave woman, that all of a sudden he becomes a bad guy I think is - there's a lot to unpack there.

If that has been the result, that was certainly not my intention because I don't really think that it's useful to look at good guys and bad guys because each one of them contributed something to, you know, the founding and the growth of the nation. I mean, they fought amongst themselves. But we don't how to fight amongst ourselves on their behalf.

SIMON: In the end, how impressed are you by Thomas Jefferson's mind?

GORDON-REED: Enormously impressed, enormously impressed. I think to ask the question how could someone who is a slave owner write the Declaration of Independence, you know, how could he own slaves when he did this other thing, how could he know that slavery was wrong, I mean, that's a problem for us. But there were many, many, many more people who didn't think that slavery was wrong. I mean, the real question is how did somebody who grew up the way he grew up - I mean, the story we tell and, you know, of him - his first memory of being handed up on a pillow...

SIMON: The pillow, yeah.

GORDON-REED: ...To an enslaved person, this institution bounded his life. And yet he thought that it was wrong. There were many, many more people who did not think it was wrong and never thought anything at all about it. So I am impressed with his mind. I'm impressed with the life of someone who wanted to - you know, who was this person who sort of thought that he was going to, you know, be on the world stage and go out there and, you know, be a - be the governor.

He didn't want to be governor actually (laughter), but to be a leader of his society, be a governor, ambassador, vice president, president and then found a university after it's all over. I mean, just think of this. He thought people were going to come to the middle of nowhere in Virginia from Oxford and Cambridge because he had this idea. And we're going to make this great university, and it is.

SIMON: Annette Gordon-Reed with her co-author Peter Onuf, they have written "Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of The Imagination." Thanks so much for being with us.

GORDON-REED: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.