10.26.2008

Thomas Jefferson's American Legacy

When American historians recall the arduous democratic and constitutional process of this country, they often attribute this process to the determined and tenacious founding fathers. One man in particular, Thomas Jefferson, goes down in history as the 'man behind the true democratic experiment' - unconventional, private, and paradoxical. How much do Americans really know about this man who drafted the Declaration of Independence? What were his passions, fears, and beliefs for democracy? How and why is he still looked at as the 'father of American democracy?' And most importantly, would his views on race muddy his reputation as America's leading founding father?

Jefferson was complex, a young widowed man who spent most of his presidency in his room writing and reading on science and invention. He spent most of his life at his rural Virginia manor of Monticello. His tastes derived from French aristocracy and naturalistic elements engrained in the Deist ethos of the enlightenment. Not surprisingly, he despised the industrial north to the calm, tacit, and remote landscape of southern agrarian life. Unfortunately, not even Jefferson could stop the iron horse and factory landscapes of the north from encroaching on southern life.

Jefferson held complex and disillusionary concepts on race. His "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1791 summarized the evolution of race, mirroring the ideas of the high-statured physiognomists of the day including Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Rush developed a theory that the black skin color was caused by leprosy. None of this could be proved scientifically, but that did not stop Rush and others such as Jefferson from making hasty generalizations based on race. The Negro according to Jefferson was more emotional, less intellectual, and often times more liscentious than the average white person.
But on what grounds could this be proved? Scientist and engineer Benjamin Banneker, the first African American to publish a world almanac, reacted candidly to Jefferson's "Notes", reiterating the fact that skin color had no bearing on one's personal temperment. In fact, moreso than most presidents of the day and Jefferson himself, Banneker represented the Declaration of Independence. He consistently denounced slavery as an evil institution and questioned physiognomy as a pseudo-science with little to no true scientific evidence. If Jefferson drafted the declaration of independence, Banneker exemplified it.

Should we as Americans be shocked that a former president who publicly denounced slavery, but held slaves; wrote the declaration of independence, but studied physiognomy; wrote his "Notes" in fear of growing miscegenation, but carried on a secret love affair with half-African Sally Hemings, to be known as the founder of American democracy? Perhaps that is what Jefferson's historical legacy ought to be--American paradox. This, in fact, is what America stands for-- a democracy with un-regulated capitalism; a U.S. military with a hunger for spreading humanitarianism; a melting-pot nation with undying prejudices. Perhaps there is a little bit of Jefferson in all of us.