Advocate of equality, owner of slaves

RECONCILING Jefferson's ownership of 170 slaves (many of whom were inherited) with his passionate and lifelong commitment to the freedom of the common man, is difficult for some historians. After all, Jefferson is the man who proclaimed, "all men are created equal."

A few scholars both black and white have concluded that Jefferson was hypocritical when it came to slavery, and therefore a man unsuitable for admiration no matter what his accomplishments.

Jefferson's written statements about slavery, and his actions, suggest a man philosophically opposed to slavery in the long run of human affairs. He was bleak on the outcome of integration, but disposed to a paternalistic view of his own slaves. Monticello, as did all other farms or plantations of the time, ran on the backs of slaves.

In the original version of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson blamed King George III for the African slave trade. "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither...," Jefferson wrote.

But this paragraph and others were deleted by Jefferson's congressional colleagues in the final draft of the declaration.

Writing in "Notes on The State of Virginia," Jefferson said, "slaves are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination."

Yet he encouraged several slaves at Monticello to become skilled craftsmen and took slaves with him to cities so that they could be taught skills useful at Monticello. "To give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery," Jefferson wrote, "is like abandoning children." In his will, Jefferson freed three slaves, one his personal servant.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Jefferson, Dumas Malone concludes that Jefferson was a "just and humane master" who looked upon slaves as "not merely as workers, but his dependents."

Historian Fawn Brodie asserts that Jefferson had intimate relations with Sally Hemings, a slave woman at Monticello who bore seven children. "My own belief is that there was no such relationship," says Daniel Jordan, executive director of Monticello. "It just doesn't fit his character to have done it. We've looked at the issue here for 70 years, but in the end you can't prove it or disprove it."

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