Jefferson the Contradiction
By ORLANDO PATTERSON
November 2, 1998
[C]AMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The age of innocence is over, and none too soon. DNA evidence strongly suggesting that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child by his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, has seen to it. For centuries, through schools of clashing revisionist historians, the way Americans viewed themselves, their heritage and their times has been dominated by a simplistic vision that sharply distinguished between good and evil, freedom and slavery, heroes and villains, the noble of character and the hopelessly flawed.
Our memory and treatment of Thomas Jefferson is the most extreme example of this purist vision. For the 196 years since a Richmond newspaper first claimed that Jefferson had a slave mistress, generations of ordinary Americans and icon-worshiping historians have twisted and denied the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that it was true. It was considered inconceivable that a man of Jefferson's character could do such a thing, notwithstanding his well-documented contradictions on the subjects of slavery and other matters.
Hardly a year ago, Joseph J. Ellis, a leading Jefferson scholar, dismissed the compelling circumstantial evidence marshaled by the scholar Annette Gordon-Reed in favor of the relationship with the assertion that she was playing "the race card." We now know that Ms. Gordon-Reed was right.
Nonetheless, another problem with the simplistic vision of the past is that it has encouraged both African-Americans and Caucasians to underplay or misinterpret the role of "race" in the nation's past.
For many African-Americans and multicultural critics, Jefferson's contradictions were proof not that he was human, but that he was a hypocrite without redeeming qualities, another reason to dismiss attempts to become engaged with the history of their nation and more reason for a separatist interpretation of America's past and present.
For many white historians attempts to arrive at a more truthful and nuanced view of Jefferson by African-Americans were dismissed as racially motivated. This is what happens when we refuse to acknowledge contradictions in our past and present lives and in the behavior of those we admire.
Jefferson was no saint, but his racialist reflections on African-Americans must be understood within the context of his times and his relationship with an African-American woman. Nearly all Caucasians of his day, including most abolitionists, simply assumed that African-Americans were racially inferior. Jefferson was unusual in the degree to which he agonized over the subject. He was overtly inclined to what we would consider today to be racist views, but he also held out the possibility that he might be wrong. In this regard he was ahead of his times.
The worst aspect of the African-American condition in the past was less the intellectual attention of racists and more the simple denial of their humanity in the refusal to recognize them at all. This is the social death that Ralph Ellison had in mind when he described African-Americans as invisible people in their own country.
For Jefferson, African-Americans could not really be invisible. His relationship with Hemings was almost certainly no one-night stand. It is not possible that he could have had a relationship with an African-American that likely lasted more than three decades and deny the very human reality and presence of her being, her progeny and the people with whom she was identified. The longevity of the relationship not only humanizes Jefferson for us, but suggests that his doubts about his racialist theories may have been far more serious than he let on in his writings. Today, I feel less alienated from him, as I suspect will most African-Americans eventually. He is part of the family, a family with a ghastly, contradictory past, to be sure, but a family nonetheless.
Knowing that the greatest of our Founding Fathers was a practicing miscegenist should energize the recent shift away from the either-or definition of "race" that has historically underpinned the caste-like segregation of African-Americans, toward a more blended and self-chosen definition of group identity. No society has ever solved its ethnic problems without intermarriage, and America will be no exception.
Acknowledging the role of contradiction also allows Americans to recognize and accept painful paradoxes in their history like the fact that Virginia was, not by accident, both the cradle of slavery and of our democracy. Above all, it will allow us to accept that in the course of their forced and often brutal embrace over three and a half centuries, African-Americans and European-Americans both wittingly and unintentionally influenced each other, in the process creating a civilization that is neither purely "black" nor "white," but an ecumenical synthesis that drew its energy and its greatness from the very contradictions of the past and the mighty struggles to overcome them.
Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming "Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
Questions to consider while reading:
1. How does the title inform the piece?
2. What is the thesis and where is it?
3. What introductory technique(s) did the author use? Is the technique weaved through the essay? How?
4. Mark the transitions. Are they all mechanical?
5. Identify the methods of development.
6. What is the tone of the overall piece? Did you note any tone shifts? Where?
7. Comment on the conclusion. What can you learn from this method of closing?
8. After studying this piece, what, if anything, would you like to emulate as a writer?