History vs. Thomas Jefferson - Frank Cogliano
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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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