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discussion replying

Professor requires “You are required to read other students replies and then reply to at least three students in the class. When replying to another student you must do more than simply agree. You must address that students comments in a meaningful way.”

I am posting three students’ discussions

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1. After reading the many different materials about Thomas Jefferson, it is clear his impactful influence on shaping our countries early government has allowed many to forgive his shady personal affairs. As Pearl M Graham, stated in his paper Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hennings, “He sacrificed much for his country, and he did her great service. And for these things, his country-and I think his descendants-have long since forgiven him for the evil that he did.” While I cannot deny his instrumental impact on the American revolution and independence, I don’t feel that should warrant his complete exoneration. Therefore it is important to separate this man into two distinct categories. One as a political and revolutionary leader, and the second as a man who felt the superiority of his own race should allow him to enslave and impose his will upon both Native Americans and Black slaves alike. We cannot simply “forgive and forget” his wrongdoings, but instead we must try to understand the good as well as the bad in order to properly learn from his actions.

It’s interesting to me that on the surface many paint Thomas Jefferson as a charming and optimistic figure. However, as Baylin points out “He disliked personal controversy and was always charming in face-to-face relations with both friends and enemies. But at a distance he could hate, and thus many of his opponents concluded that he was two-faced” As I read further into his dealings with Native Americans this “two-faced” character started to become even clearer. Jefferson was actually fascinated with Indians and their culture, he even had many Indian artefacts at his home in Monticello and denounced the idea of “environmentalism” which classified the Native Americans as inferior to Europeans in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. On the surface he appeared to hold the Indians as equals, however in a personal letter to Wiliam Henry Harrison in regards to taking over Native American lands in the West he wrote this;

“In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi. The former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves; but, in the whole course of this, it is essential to cultivate their love. As to their fear, we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only.”

It becomes clear that there is a real distinction between his public rhetoric and the actions he was willing to take in order to enforce his own private agenda. He was willing to defend the Indians as a people just as long as they assimilated into his own ideals and culture.

Further evidence of this lies in the phrase that has made him such a famous figure during the revolution “All men are created equal” This sentiment had enormous power and was in fact instrumental in ending slavery. However, it is well documented that his own actions involving the use of slaves at his mansion in Monticello went largely unchanged. The fact that he slept with and fathered some of his own slaves shows just how deeply entwined he had become with slavery, almost like an alcoholic warning others not to start drinking. Ironic that the man largely known for emancipating an enslaved race couldn’t put his own principles to use. I believe the Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway said it best, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

In conclusion, I believe the many ironies between the man and the political leader Thomas Jefferson is something that needs to be understood before we can make a defined judgement. It makes me think of the old phrase “actions speak louder than words” So while his famous words have resonated throughout history and shaped our country, perhaps we also need to remind ourselves of his character and learn a more difficult lesson about humanity, power, and greed.

2. My opinion of Thomas Jefferson as a person and President after reading the material is that he was a man who was experiencing some major cognitive dissonance in his daily affairs. He was hard-working and educated, supposedly striving to live an honest, decent life while improving the lives of others, yet his support for slavery and his belief that white people were superior to other races isn’t in line with those values. It’s a nice, heart-warming thought to read that, “In a day when schools were still a luxury and education the privilege of the few, he proposed universal elementary training at the public expense, and went so far as to advocate in connection with his university a public dispensary where the poor could obtain competent medical service without charge 10 (Wiltse 845)”, but the warm feeling fades when you realize that generosity was not extended to black people. He may have been kind to the slaves he owned, but at the end of the day he still owned slaves. It’s hard for me to reconcile that anyone would feel like that is acceptable while simultaneously professing that “All men are created equal”.

I think his efforts in creating a new nation and drafting the Declaration of Independence are admirable, but that does not excuse his personal behavior. If it’s true that “Our heritage is his faith that an informed and intelligent people can and will work out their own salvation” (Wiltse 849), then it’s imperative that all of the people of a nation are thusly informed and given the educational tools to become intelligent regardless of the color of their skin. Excluding people of color from education and political representation displays an in-congruency in Jefferson’s ideas because if all men are created equal then they should all be free and have access to education.

While I won’t go so far as to say he was a “good” or a “bad” person, I will say that all human beings are dynamic and our behaviors are intrinsically linked to the cultural structure of the time and place we live. He was a citizen of the New World and it was a wild, experimental place not quite sure of who it was yet and the people of this nation no doubt were a microcosm of this. He may have not believed some of the things he said, considering his long and intimate relationship with Sally, but we can no more than speculate because his actions and political choices did not illustrate otherwise. However, he did provide us with the foundation for the type of government that allows for adaptability, and as our social constructs have evolved, so have our laws to reflect them. If we give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that he only feigned his racist beliefs, then perhaps he would have done so to maintain political popularity and gain the opportunity to have some positive influence on the nation’s future. However, his decision to allow his beloved Sally to remain a slave after his passing doesn’t help to support that idea. He said he’s opposed to slavery and yet he was so deeply involved in slave culture that it’s impossible to deny that he was, unfortunately, a racist liar. It’s rather confusing to imagine a man being so complicated, but many brilliant people are.

3. I knew full well that Jefferson was a slave owner. This was just common among the founding fathers. But what I didn’t realize until the reading/lecture is that he was very heavily influenced by European ideals. In one of his books he clearly laid out that he believed there physical and moral differences between black and white people. He said black skin makes black people different and white people were beautiful because they were white. Thomas Jefferson was largely responsible for bringing this European idea of black people to the Americas. My opinion of him as a political leader remains the same. He was a key figure in establishing this nation and this nation probable would not have worked without him. That being said I did not really take into account how much racial damage someone with that amount of influence can cause. It is easy to forget the double-edged sword that came with being a founding father. On the one hand you are looked upon to lead the nation and make sure it thrives and on the other hand you have the power to advance whatever kind of racist, sexist, or xenophobic views you may hold. So I believe it is important to paint the full picture of the kind of person that Thomas Jefferson was. Not just as a patriot, but also as a slave owner who held a racist view of black people as a whole.

The line “All men are created equal.” Comes off, to me, as a line that came back to bite the founding fathers. If you look at the context in which it was written, there is no redemption. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that line, neither he nor anyone else involved even considered black people to be human. They considered them to be livestock or just property in general. Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner and rapist, did not even entertain the thought that “All men are created equal” would one day apply to non-white people. Luckily the constitution was written in a way that it should be reinterpreted as the times change. “It is the fundamental law, constituting the form of the society and preserving it against too rapid change, yet allowing at the same time ample room for growth.”(Jeffersonian Democracy) As time went on as the nations values began to change, so did people’s interpretation of “all men are created equal”. This line started to apply to more than just white men. Black people were freed from slavery because of parts of the constitution like this, in spite of Thomas Jefferson.

In my opinion, Jefferson’s efforts to create a new nation do not justify his actions. However, I think it is important to separate Thomas Jefferson, the statesman from Thomas Jefferson the slave owner and rapist. Both have their places in history and they both are necessary to help us understand the full picture that is Thomas Jefferson. At face value Thomas Jefferson offers great ideals to strive for. “Only in a community in which there is no political coercion of any kind can the individual enjoy complete freedom.”(Jeffersonian Democracy) It is strange for a slave owner to describe freedom but the thought in and of itself works. It is just important to know exactly what kind of man was proposing these ideas.

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