Thomas Jefferson would have been 273 years old on Wednesday, April 13. For most Americans, Jefferson’s birthday is a day of celebration. But for many writers and activists, the day Jefferson entered this world is a day of shame.
Daveed Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” used an obscenity to describe the author of the Declaration of Independence. He was also quoted as saying, “I think if you embrace all of his contradictions, you can end up with a lot of things about him that are great – but you still have to remember that he was a slave owner.”
Michael Coard at the New Pittsburgh Courier was far more direct, calling Jefferson “despicable.” He went on to characterize him as a “hypocrite,” a “rapist,” a “racist” and an “incestuous pedophile.”
And even at the institution of higher learning Jefferson helped create, the University of Virginia, several organizations are described as working to “make the community more aware of the darker aspects of Jefferson’s life.”
David Barton, a historian who has specializes in writing about Thomas Jefferson and is the author of “The Jefferson Lies,” said the abusive language used about Thomas Jefferson today is based on lies and misunderstandings.
“Most articles today aren’t written on the basis of truth; they are written on the basis of perception,” said Barton. He said prior generations would have been astonished at claims Jefferson was a racist and a defender of slavery.
“Over the last few centuries, it was black leaders who praised Jefferson,” said Barton. “Martin Luther King Jr. praised Jefferson. Benjamin Banneker and Henry Highland Garnett praised Jefferson. Frederick Douglass praised Jefferson. They knew what Americans today don’t know, which is that Jefferson was a tireless advocate for abolitionism and civil rights.”
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Barton admitted Jefferson was a slaveholder. However, he argued Jefferson was unable to free his slaves because of the laws of his state, which prohibited emancipation by a master who was in debt.
Barton also argued it is simply untrue Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings.
“Americans don’t know the truth about Sally Hemings,” charged Barton. “What they know is that in 1998, there were hundreds of articles saying DNA evidence supposedly ‘proved’ Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave. They don’t know a few weeks later, they pulled that story back. They don’t know that Jefferson’s DNA was never actually tested. They don’t know that the evidence isn’t there to say Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings.”
The idea Thomas Jefferson was a racist bigot and the supposed fact of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave are two of the “lies” Barton confronts in the new edition of his New York Times best-selling book. Barton believes Americans today desperately need to understand the truth about Thomas Jefferson, because he thinks Jefferson introduced the principles which built the nation itself.
“The lessons he delivered for us are timeless,” said Barton. “And that’s the cool thing. He delivered us some principles that will work today. They will work 200 years from today. They will work 1,000 years from today.”
Barton says Jefferson’s character was defined by his fearless search for truth.
“Jefferson was dedicated to truth,” Barton said. “It caused him to do whatever it took to help other people see truth. Truth is absolute. There were times when he saw the truth, and he would change his mind. And there were many other times when he would show others they were wrong and change their minds.”
Barton used the example of when Jefferson had an entire moose skeleton shipped to France to show a naturalist who had argued with the Founding Father about North American wildlife.
“Jefferson would sometimes go to what we would say were extreme lengths for the truth,” joked Barton. “But the love of the truth is a great character trait that we can point to.”
Barton said the best thing Americans can do to remember Jefferson on his birthday is to read his writings and create a kind of “living memorial.” He suggested starting with those quotes displayed at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Most of those quotes, Barton observed, are “completely centered on God.”
Barton believes Jefferson’s writings are possibly more important today than ever before.
“We need to know what Jefferson said about Islam, and it wasn’t about how it’s a religion of peace,” said Barton. “We need to know what Jefferson said about not permitting a secular society and how it should be God conscious. And we need to know about the principles of government Jefferson laid out in the Declaration of Independence. The best way to honor Jefferson on his birthday isn’t something passive, it’s by returning to what he wrote and understanding how those principles he defined are the same things our country needs to follow today.”
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