Thomas Jefferson is a controversial American hero. He was one of the authors and signers of the Declaration of Independence, a framer of the Constitution and the third President of the United States of America. He led a versatile career as statesman, architect, scientist, educator, inventor and planter. He led early efforts to abolish slavery but was a slave owner himself.
How could the man who wrote, that "all men are created equal" own slaves (Wilson 111)? Thomas Jefferson's happiness began at his home in Monticello, his whole "art of avoiding pain," came at the cost of inflicting pain on others - the pain of slavery. When we think about the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson, an American hero, we have to weigh the good and bad choices that made him a controversial American citizen.
Despite having grown up in slave-holding society, one where his family and friends also owned slaves, and having inherited a fortune based on the labor of slaves, Thomas Jefferson came to the decision at an early age that slavery was wrong (this is a fact that often goes unnoticed) (Wilson 112). However, Jefferson felt freeing his slaves would only endanger them, because if he had freed them they'd have been penny less and had no place to live. Some people say he had financial difficulties, but the freeing of his slaves would not have caused him to fall any more deeply in debt than he already was (Encyclopedia Britannica 300). Jefferson only took his best interests when considering the emancipation of slavery. If it didn't benefit him, then it wasn't the 'right' choice.
Is Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite? The facts that have been presented here certainly make it appear as if he was. He did not act on what he believed, and denounced people who committed the same acts as he did. He wanted to end slavery, but didn't free his own slaves. If change doesn't begin at home, where does it begin?
Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover, 1969.
Jefferson, Thomas. "The Declaration of Independence." Adventures in American
Literature. Ed. Milton Stern. Chicago: Harcourt Brace, 1989. 99-103.
---, "Notes on the State of Virginia." Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York:
Literary Classics of the United States, 1984. 122-324.
Wilson, Douglas L. "Thomas Jefferson and the Meanings of Liberty." Portrait of
America. Ed. Stephen B. Oates. Boston: Houghton, 1995. 107-116.