“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
— Thomas Jefferson
“I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.”
— Thomas Jefferson, explaining the profit per slave birth
Every person that has ever lived is a complex mixture of contradictions.
It’s almost impossible to accurately portray a person, let alone label him or her. Their actions are dictated not just by their beliefs and values, but by their circumstances, economics, politics, upbringing, education, nationality, religion, and habits. It makes no difference whether they are a farmer from Iowa or the third president of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson was a complex man – declaring that all men are created equal, yet calculated that he earned a 4% profit with each slave baby born on his plantation. He professed an aversion to brutality, yet condoned the beating of his owned slaves when his profits depended on it. Expressing a lifelong remorse at his financial binding to the slavery system, he balked when offered a trust large enough to free his own slaves. He showed compassion to a runaway slave, yet had him hunted down like a dog.
Some of the contradictions that lie within the historically benevolent image of Thomas Jefferson are found in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine article, The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson. It’s a thoroughly researched piece written for a general audience which paints a bleak picture of a man who penned the phrase, “All men are created equal.” The same man who efficiently calculated some 15 years later the percentage profit to be gained by having more slave children born.
I’d encourage you to read the article to gain some insight into a complex man. More importantly, it’s a chance to look at the dark side of a hero of modern democracy, and the economic forces which drove him to make the choices he did with his slaves.
These contradictions lead us into an interesting question – Is he a villain or a hero?
There is a lot of scholarly debate, but the useful answer is obvious – He’s both, as are we all. Everyone one of us does bad things. Every one of us is noble. There’s no escaping the fact that Jefferson is memorialized for eternity in marble in Washington D.C., yet is also memorialized for eternity in slave blood through the descendants of Sally Hemmings. Villain or hero?
It’s not just an interesting historical question. It’s applicable today in every one of us. Are we villains or a heroes? And if we are all that complex, then why is it so easy to label others?
Often, we can see only the failings of others. We see their flaws and their faults. We gossip to no end about what upsets us about someone else. Sadly, in many cases, when we are finding fault in others, we are really seeing failings in ourselves, which blinds us to opportunity to find good in others. And in ourselves.
One path to fixing this is to give our time. To family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. To people we not only agree with, but disagree with. Not just one, but all. Not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.
Giving our time will put us closer to them and in a position to recognize them as people, not labels. It will help us see their needs and struggles, which may be closer to our own than we’re comfortable admitting. Giving time is a path which helps us stop labeling and start living. It helps us see another’s humanity if we choose to see it.
Thomas Jefferson was both a villain and a hero, depending on who’s looking.
A neighbor, a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend, a stranger, an immigrant, a homeless woman, a customer, a client, a co-worker. Who do you see? Villain or hero.
Your answer may depend on what you are willing to give.
Yesterday’s gift of time … Cooked dinner for the family. Tried to see the best in everyone, even if I couldn’t always see it … in myself.