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History vs. Thomas Jefferson - Frank Cogliano

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Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the United States and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was part of America’s fight for freedom and equality. But in his personal life, he held over 600 people in slavery. Are his enlightened principles outweighed by his participation in a greater injustice? Frank Cogliano puts this controversial figure on trial in History vs. Thomas Jefferson.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Frank Cogliano
  • Director Brett Underhill, PorkchopBob Studio
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Senior Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was one of the most important leaders of the American Revolution. As the main author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence he articulated the creed upon which the new American republic was based. In the Declaration Jefferson asserted: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the history of the Declaration of Independence see these resources from the National Archives:

Congress made significant changes to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence (cutting approximately 20 percent of Jefferson’s version). Check out Jefferson’s draft here.

One of the most notable changes that Congress made to Jefferson’s draft was to cut the clause blaming King George III for the transatlantic slave trade. (See the clause beginning “He has waged cruel war …”) This clause suggests that Jefferson meant the Declaration’s assertion of equality to be universal as he makes reference to the “most sacred rights of life & liberty” of the Africans enslaved by the British and their colonists. Had Congress retained this clause, which it deleted because of the continued dependence of some of the rebellious colonists (including Jefferson) on enslaved labor.

Despite his condemnation of slavery and the slave trade (and implicit recognition of the rights of Africans), Thomas Jefferson depended on enslaved labor throughout his life. At the time that he wrote that all men were created equal Jefferson enslaved more than two hundred persons. This remains the central contradiction in our attempts to assess Jefferson’s achievements and legacy. To learn more about Jefferson as a slaveholder and the experiences of those that he enslaved see these resources from Jefferson’s home and main plantation, Monticello, which is now a museum (and recognized as a UNESCO world-heritage site):

While the contrast between liberty and slavery remains the central paradox in Jefferson’s life, he made significant contributions in numerous fields, ranging from paleontology to religion. Despite his varied interests his most important achievements were in the realms of politics, law, constitutionalism, and educational reform. Find a brief biography of Jefferson here.

For all of his achievements Jefferson’s views were circumscribed and limited by his beliefs about gender and race. Although he articulated the American creed, asserting universal equality as the foundation of the American republic, he failed to live up to these beliefs in his own life. He gave voice to the American creed while embodying the failure of some Americans to live up to that creed.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Frank Cogliano
  • Director Brett Underhill, PorkchopBob Studio
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Senior Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

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