He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, a man at once capable of writing America’s founding creed — “all men are created equal” — while oddly blaming King George III for slavery, a passage omitted by his peers from the final document.
A voracious reader and learner, he was arguably the most eloquent of the founding generation at articulating the Enlightenment ideal of personal liberty even as he owned hundreds of human beings as enslaved chattel over the course of his long life.
He professed to loathe slavery but rarely attacked the institution head on. Moreover, it is now widely accepted that he fathered several children with Sally Hemings, his slave who happened to be the half-sister of his deceased wife. And he freed but a handful of his slaves during his life and in his will, most of whom were his own mixed-race progeny.
He was deeply suspicious of federal power and dismantled the federal government during his two terms as president, but he set aside any such constitutional scruples about executive overreach when he made the deal for the Louisiana Purchase.
And Thomas Jefferson claimed to detest political factionalism (and the ferocious personal attacks that came with it) while leading what can be considered the first opposition party in U.S. history, skewering his Federalist foes all the while.
In this episode of History As It Happens, the confounding contradictions and fascinating mind of Jefferson are the subject of conversation with one of the nation’s leading scholars of early American history, Joseph Ellis.
Although it may seem there is nothing new to learn about our third president (and more books than anyone could read in a single lifetime have been written about him), Jefferson is as relevant as ever. That is because Americans continue to argue over the meaning of our founding documents, fight over the proper role of government, and reckon with generations of racial injustice in a country founded, in part, by slaveholders.
“There is a kind of mythology surrounding the founding generation that these were demigods or that tongues of fire appeared over their heads as they were writing documents like the Declaration or the Constitution,” said Mr. Ellis, the author of “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.”
“New nations seem to require mythological heroes … and one of the themes of the work I have done over the last 30 years is to say that these are all imperfect human beings, grappling in the midst of the most consequential crisis in American history. We should not expect them to be perfect, and in fact if they were perfect, what in heaven’s name would we have to learn from them? Jefferson falls very much into that category.”
Jefferson is, of course, not the first major historical figure who means different things to different people, as he did when he was alive. So it is to be expected that Americans today will project their individual needs and biases onto Jefferson’s legacy, Mr. Ellis said. Even Franklin Roosevelt did it.
“Roosevelt embraced Jefferson as his hero even though Jeffersonian democracy was not at all compatible with the values of the New Deal,” he said.
In 1801, after a hotly disputed election outcome, Jefferson assumed the presidency with an agenda aimed at rendering “the federal government over which he was to assume control unobtrusive and politically impotent,” Mr. Ellis wrote in his 1996 book.
The new president’s stance horrified the Federalists, a harbinger of the philosophical and partisan battles over the role of government that bedevil the U.S. to this day.
“There is a legacy coming out of the American Revolution that is still very much with us… The Jeffersonian position is that any powerful federal government represents a domestic version of English tyranny in Parliament that we rebelled against,” said Mr. Ellis, the author of the forthcoming “The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783.”
To listen to the entire interview with Mr. Ellis about Jefferson’s governing philosophy, his relationship with Hemings, and the ways his complicated legacy is interpreted today, download this episode of History As It Happens.
Mr. Ellis first appeared on the podcast in February for a discussion about conspiracy theories in American politics in light of the rise of QAnon.