The title of this post is not, primarily, a historical question. It is primarily a moral question. We should keep the complexity of the past in mind as we celebrate Independence Day.
Here is his conclusion:
Where does this account leave today’s historian or citizen trying to assess Jefferson’s legacy? Simply disparaging or dismissing him has its satisfactions, but the act of rendering moral judgment comes all too easily when we scrutinize the past. The great challenge of thinking historically is not to find heroes and villains but to explain why previous generations acted as they did and to understand their complexities and contradictions.
Here Jefferson remains a fascinating figure because, even while accepting and participating in the evils of slavery, he was a genuine and visionary egalitarian. Like other members of the Virginia planter elite, he profited from the wealth he inherited from his father and gained through his marriage. Yet he also wanted to use Virginia’s extensive public lands to give free men and women alike enough land to lead the lives of freeholders. In his taste for literature, music, architecture, food and wine, he was a cosmopolitan aristocrat, but he devoted himself to establishing the nation’s first statewide scheme of public education. He wanted to bring learning to all the state’s free children and to enable the brightest of them to join the governing class.
Tragically, Jefferson’s egalitarian sympathy never crossed what Frederick Douglass would later call “the color line” of embedded racial prejudice. His views on race and his actions as a slaveholder rightly upset modern Americans. But many of the questions that he was struggling to confront in the 18th century continue to vex us today. Reckoning with his difficulties, as we celebrate Independence Day, may help us to confront our own.
Read the entire piece here.