Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence was perhaps the intellectual mastermind behind the American form of democracy. Despite ideas about democracy that were radical at the time, much more so than contemporaries like Hamilton and Washington, he also owned slaves. Many historians say he personally struggled over the slavery issue.
But not Paul Finkelman in this NY Times op-ed, who destroys Jefferson as a “creepy, brutal hypocrite.” While many of his contemporaries like Washington freed all their slaves in their will, Jefferson didn’t even free his mistress Sally Hemings.
Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.
Finkelman goes on to point out Jefferson’s explicit views on blacks being inferior, claiming they lack emotion, reason and imagination. According to Finkelman, any concern Jefferson had with the future of slavery was born out of the fear of a Haiti style revolt, not empathy.