Should We Judge Thomas Jefferson by His Ideals or His Actions?

Written by on June 6, 2022

Thomas Jefferson continues to inspire and divide Americans. Even though he still ranks in the top 10 in C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey, recent years have witnessed Jefferson’s name and image removed from schools, libraries, and the halls of government. Jefferson’s statue at his own University of Virginia served as a rallying point for white supremacists during the summer of 2017. All the while, Daveed Diggs’s flamboyant portrayal of him in the musical Hamilton was winning acclaim on Broadway.

Much of this controversy stems from Jefferson’s dual identity as the author of the Declaration of Independence and his status as one of the nation’s most prominent slaveholders. Add to this the unsettling reality that Jefferson fathered at least six children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, and it’s little wonder that many Americans find themselves wondering how such a man could have penned the words “All men are created equal.” With the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution looming, it is difficult to predict if and how Jefferson’s name will be invoked.

For many, Jefferson’s life is nothing but a testimony to his own hypocrisy, while others see Jefferson as a visionary bound to the conditions of his time. The latest book from historian Thomas Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, attempts to shed light on Jefferson’s puzzling philosophy and problematic past.

Dilemmas and dramas

Kidd’s goal is not to write a new life story of Jefferson, but rather to illuminate and grapple with his ethical and moral universe. Because of this, Kidd’s biography is amazingly (and mercifully) succinct, at least compared to the mammoth accounts produced by other historians. Whereas political battles frame most Jefferson biographies, moral tensions and intellectual conflicts dominate Kidd’s telling.

Using a loose chronology of Jefferson’s life and times, Kidd situates readers to the dilemmas and dramas defining his thought at any given time, from christian orthodoxy to romantic pursuits to slavery. Mapping out the main influencers on Jefferson’s thought—such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney on the Declaration of Independence, Montesquieu on colonization and racial separation, and the trappings of the South’s honor culture—Kidd helps readers understand the makeup of Jefferson’s brain on any given subject.

In short, A Biography of Spirit and Flesh is devoted to following Jefferson’s intellectual and religious development, both in terms of its sources as well as its evolution in different spaces and situations.

Given Kidd’s status as one of today’s most popular and preeminent christian historians, his take on Jefferson’s religious profile also serves as a vital corrective to the pseudohistory produced by figures like David Barton, who promote an uncomplicated synthesis between Christianity and the American founding. Granted, Kidd’s Jefferson is no secularist champion, and this book rejects the easy pigeonholing of Jefferson as a mere deist. Though he was surely heterodox in rejecting doctrines like the Trinity, he truly saw himself as a follower of Jesus and was devoted to a “naturalistic” vision of Christianity.

Likewise, Kidd pushes back against the idea that the Declaration was intended as a purely secular document and that its references to God were added later by the Continental Congress. As he highlights, “Nature’s God” was already in Jefferson’s draft of the document, a reference to his belief in a creator god. Kidd is at his best when probing Jefferson’s soul searching, illustrating his doubts, and mapping his beliefs.

If one word has haunted (and been hurled at) Jefferson more than any other, it would be hypocrite, a word Kidd is not afraid to employ when appropriate. Naturally, Jefferson’s status as an enslaver with antislavery sentiments is the most perplexing paradox, but as Kidd demonstrates, Jefferson was capable of a multitude of ambiguities and contradictions. For example, despite his antipathy towards many conventional forms of religious devotion, Jefferson maintained that traditional religion had its benefits for society. And notwithstanding his disregard for the Bible’s miracle accounts, Jefferson was deeply conversant with its stories and even attempted to produce his own version of the Gospels, known today as the “Jefferson Bible.”

Another area of hypocrisy was the financial realm, where Jefferson was truly duplicitous. He indulged in lavish wines, a steady supply of new books, and ambitious architecture, all while advocating the virtue of frugality to family and friends. Though he neared financial ruin on several occasions, Jefferson seemed incapable of heeding his own wisdom. Acknowledging this shortcoming, Jefferson confessed to James Monroe that “I had rather be ruined in my fortune than in their esteem.”

But it is precisely this financial recklessness that further entrenched Jefferson into slavery. Although he called slavery a “moral depravity,” his mounting debts and his genteel pride made escaping it improbable. Kidd compares Jefferson’s attitudes on slavery to a “high-wire act,” rightly pointing out that even by the standards of his own time and in the eyes of many of his contemporaries, his views on slavery were often strained and frequently contradictory. George Washington, who bore financial burdens of his own, took at least modest acts against slavery within his own estate. Measured against them, Jefferson’s inaction appears all the more indefensible.

Yet, as Kidd chronicles, Jefferson’s language in the Declaration was used almost instantly to denounce Black bondage by figures like James Otis and Lemuel Haynes, and by various antislavery societies. There is even evidence that Jefferson’s message of liberty may have inspired Gabriel’s Rebellion, a slave uprising planned for Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. Nevertheless, while he could sympathize with enslaved people who sought their freedom by any means necessary, Jefferson viewed the Haitian Revolution with horror, not as a continuation of his own revolution.

Willing spirit, weak flesh

No doubt accusations of hypocrisy will continue to hound Jefferson, and rightly so. After reading Kidd’s biography, another epithet that comes to mind is cowardly. In another display of contradictions and tensions, the revolutionary Jefferson was mindful of his peers and cautious of unknowable outcomes. His spirit may have been willing, but his flesh was abominably weak.

Kidd’s Jefferson isn’t a moral monster, but he’s certainly no saint either.

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