Is Asking People to Forget that Thomas Jefferson Was a Slaveholder a White Thing?

I had been trying to not sound like an angry black woman and come up with a different title for this post, but I’m tired of trying to not sound like an angry black woman.

Doug Muder, in his opinion piece in the summer issue of UU World says,

So, for example, it’s hard for us today to put ourselves back into an eighteenth-century mindset and realize the full outrageousness of the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Forget that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner when he wrote those words.

Is this a white thing? Asking people to forget that Jefferson was a slaveholder I mean. Because seriously, I don’t get it.

Since the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, official America has done nothing but ignore the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, and everything that goes along with that. There are still people arguing that Jefferson did not have the six children with Sally Hemmings—that we know about—even though DNA (and the Monticello official diary) has proven that he did.

How much more willful amnesia should we sanction? How much more blindness to something fundamental to the understanding of Jefferson do we push aside in order to make him this radical that he never really was?

It took American historians a DNA test to finally start writing the truth about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings. There has to come a point where we can start asking people to not forget that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

So I’ll ask the question again; is asking people to forget that Jefferson was a slaveholder a white thing?


5 thoughts on “Is Asking People to Forget that Thomas Jefferson Was a Slaveholder a White Thing?

  1. Maybe I was trying to be too clever, but saying “Forget that Jefferson was a slave owner” was actually a way of reminding the reader that Jefferson was a slave owner, a fact that (as you point out) is usually left out entirely in discussions of the Declaration. Later on I mention how the ideals of the Declaration were “contradicted in Jefferson’s life and the lives of practically everyone else in the eighteenth century.” So if I was trying to hide Jefferson’s sins, I did a really bad job.

    In writing about historical figures, it’s always a challenge to acknowledge the debts we owe them for being ahead of their times in some ways, while not forgetting the ways that they participated in the evils of their eras. The heart of the challenge is to make that acknowledgement without completely losing sight of the point that caused you to mention them in the first place. I will happily take advice on how to do that better.

    My column is about envisioning a better world into existence. To do that, we have to (for at least a moment) stand apart from the world we live in now, and even from our own participation in it. “What if there could be a world better than I am now” is a thought we should all entertain from time to time.

    Future generations, who (we hope) will live in the better world we are trying to create, will no doubt look back in shame at the way we live today, and at our hypocrisy for failing to live up to the ideals we envisioned. I hope they also remember that we had a few virtues.

    • Thought-provoking dialogue. Even before seminary someone taught be the difference between “said” as a physical act and “said” as a magical act; they were explaining why Hebrew writers said (physical act) how God created the world with acts of speaking (acts of magic). This gets to the issue of how UUs pray, particularly about social justice matters. Too often, because we have no collective process for wrestling into a form of prayer we can use (aspirational speaking, what Doug is describing here), we fall back on anger as the only equivalent shape for verbal passion.

      As to the dialogue under discussion, I’m going to nudge both participants a little. The original piece could have invited another technical term — bracketing — rather than calling on us to “forget that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder.” “Set aside, for a moment, the fact that Jefferson owned slaves; he could just as easily have been an abolitionist, for in either case, what he was doing was framing a public prayer for the nation he dreamed we might become.”

      As to the response, lifting the inelegantly inflammatory sentence out of context not only missed the original point, it also overlooks long, hard, pained work by UUs to stand up for Jefferson’s slaves by removing his name from one of our districts. I respect that the cited phraseology causes pain, but in this case, it does not point to a moral flaw in our culture.

      Not this time, anyway. Most of the time we have more work to do.

    • Thanks, Doug. East of Midnight, please let me assure you that I NEVER set aside, for even a moment, that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, even though I agree with Doug that we need to accept the validity of aspirational speech regardless of its context. My current reading is “Empire of Necessity,” part of a complete and self-chosen immersion in the current excavation of the deep taproots and far-reaching tentacles of slavery’s economics in areas outside what was, for a brief time, the Confederate States of America.

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