I saw something curious on Facebook the other day.
It was an article about Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the U.S. and the man who penned the Declaration of Independence.
And those are pretty indisputable facts about him (for now, anyway).
But dig a little deeper and, depending on whom you ask, what is fact becomes slightly more ambiguous.
To many, Jefferson was a brilliant visionary. The union of our states was his baby, the world’s first great democratic experiment, founded upon the principles of limited government and individual liberty for all.
This article, however, painted a different picture. To the author, and I suppose to whomever it was that shared it, Jefferson was little more than a racist hypocrite, a slave owner who couldn’t possibly believe in true liberty.
This one got me curious, so I did a search and came up with yet another article, one which painted Jefferson as somewhat of a civil religious fanatic.
To some extent, I think each vision holds some truth. There are presumably other interpretations of history out there that paint Jefferson in other various lights.
Jefferson couldn’t possibly have been all good. But, in that vein, nor could he have been all bad.
Jefferson happens to be one of my favorite presidents.
He was very much a proponent of limited government power and of enlightenment of the people through education and a free press. He recognized that if the press or education became compromised, so too would our liberty – looking around nowadays, I would say he was right.
And of course, he lived in a different time. It comes as no huge surprise to me that Jefferson would have owned slaves in his lifetime.
But that does seem quite hypocritical – why would a man who so desired liberty for all own other human beings?
I wanted to do a little digging into what my historical hero actually believed about slavery.
What I found was that there is no consensus on this whatsoever.
Some sources cast a huge shadow over him. In their words, Jefferson was cruel to his slaves, and believed very firmly in the merits of human trade. He denounced abolition and felt that blacks were inferior to whites.
Many other sources, however, tell a different story.
By these accounts, Jefferson was against slavery from the beginning of the liberty movement, seeing the two as incompatible. He advocated very strongly for the slow emancipation of slaves and the abolition of the trade of humans. He encouraged his fellow Virginians to give up growing crops, like tobacco, which relied heavily on slave labor to produce.
There was some consensus on his attitude toward race. From what I read, Jefferson saw blacks and whites as too culturally divided to coexist peacefully, and felt that we should return the enslaved to their countries of origin.
So, by modern standards, it looks to me like Jefferson was, in fact, a racist.
But which racist was he?
Where I ran into problems was that all of the sources I viewed seemed reputable. Some were articles from time-honored news sources. Others were from historical societies and nonprofits.
All told different stories.
Not knowing exactly who to trust, I think what’s important here is that, by gleaning info from a wide variety of sources, I was able to form some picture of who Jefferson truly may have been.
What version of history did YOU learn?
Yesterday’s episode of The Tom Woods Show, which is an excellent podcast that I highly recommend to anyone, had the titular host interviewing a couple of history professors who discussed the nation’s standard curriculum and requirements for testing high school students on AP history.
The problem? The test is administered by one company, meaning they get to drive the narrative, to choose the history that our high school students are taught.
For example, depending on who’s in charge at the time, they could choose to paint Jefferson as some flawless American hero, or they could paint him as a purely racist scoundrel.
Neither vision seems correct – so this couple fights to center things a bit and get the curriculum to view history through a more truthful lens, free of the political aspirations and bias of whomever is writing it.
To be honest, though:
The very idea of a national curriculum taught to kids in any subject, written by some person far removed from normal American life, creeps me out big time.
I would advocate very strongly for competition in the way subjects are taught – if there really are so many different Thomas Jeffersons, why would we let one group of people decide which one kids are to be taught?
In my opinion, if the Jefferson that kids learn about in Pennsylvania differs from the one taught in Lousiana, and the one in Arizona differs from both of those and the one in Illinois differs from all of them… then why not?
Seems to me altogether most useful to keep these various versions of history alive, so that, together, we can all draw upon our collective knowledge of the past to move forward together into the future.
Of course, this could be problematic, as well… Too many conflicting views could cause societal rifts, right?
What are your thoughts? I’d love to discuss.