One way of looking at high energy particle physics is that it consists of hitting some stuff with the biggest hammer you can get, then making up stories about the resulting fragments. In human affairs, we do something similar, but the penetrating radiation consists of ideas and facts, and people’s reaction to them. In the United States, one of the big hammers is the Founding Fathers, their ideas and the facts about their lives. Modern Americans project all sorts of things on those guys, which tends to reveal more about modern Americans than the Founding Fathers.
The most recent furor about Thomas Jefferson is a pretty good experimental smashup in that regard, though the first result is one I’ve mentioned a while ago: when sex enters a narrative, the narrative becomes all about the sex. In Jefferson’s case, the burning issue of the day was whether or not he had a child by his slave Sally Hemings. DNA testing of Hemings’ descendents put the debate into the realm of the truly bizarre. The testing was “inconclusive” in that it could only say that someone in Jefferson’s immediate family was the progenitor, so it could have been either Thomas or his brother Randolf. Naturally, a lot of Jefferson scholars immediately set out to prove that it was Randolf, because otherwise, Thomas Jefferson would have had to have had sex with his slave Sally, who, it should be noted was his deceased wife’s half-sister. That would have made Jefferson no better than…his father-in-law.
Sally was also Jefferson’s property, and it’s hard for us to really grasp what that means. A southern slave owner could certainly legally have sex with his slaves. He could also beat them, mutilate them, force them to mate with anyone he chose, or kill them for any or no reason, all without any repercussion other than financial. Do you own a dog or a cat? Your pets have more legal rights now than did a slave in the Old South.
On the other hand, for Jefferson’s brother to have had sex with Sally Hemings without Thomas’ permission, would have been a serious breach of manners and ethics. If it were done with Jefferson’s permission, then, well, which is worse, sleeping with your wife’s half sister or pimping her out to your brother?
As I say, sex in the narrative tends to muddy the waters and muddle the thinking. In any case, Annette Gordon-Reed, in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy pretty clearly demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson was the only possible father of Hemings' seven children. More importantly Gordon-Reed addresses the issue of how it is that the fairly clear and compelling evidence of the relationship was ignored or explained away by scholars who were basically devaluing the evidence provided by historical sources who were black. Not to put too fine a point on it, implicit racist assumptions led to false conclusions.
Jefferson, of course, was a paragon in the founding of America. His was the language of the Declaration of Independence. As President, he arranged the Louisiana Purchase. He was the prime mover behind the founding of the University of Virginia, the first secular university in America. His is the spirit behind the First Amendment, and his aphorisms in favor of freedom of speech, press, and religion are part of the discourse to this day. He was also a major scholar and scientist. As John Kennedy once quipped at a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson’s library formed the basis of the Library of Congress. He was probably, after Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Thompson, (later Count Rumford) the most internationally famous scientist and intellectual in America at the time.
So then, how to react when confronted by something like this:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. --Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”
Jefferson’s ownership of slaves made him a part of his culture, and his racist views were also part of that culture. This is that “cultural relativism” we hear so much about. Those who decry cultural relativism must then decide whether Jefferson was an evil man, or whether slavery wasn’t so bad as all that. Since I have no quarrel with cultural relativism per se, I’m willing to give Jefferson a pass on the slave owning, though not a full pardon. Washington gets a full pardon; he freed his slaves at his death. Jefferson supposedly wanted to do the same, but he’d ran up so many debts that his estate couldn’t afford the gesture, so his slaves got sold off, families split, the whole horror show, all because Jefferson just had to add that extra staircase onto Montecello and import a few more varieties of plants for his experiments.
But those sorts of moral transgressions are transient, personal, and local. The same cannot be said for the scientific racialism that he expounded as a whitewash to his own personal good fortune of having been born white and rich in a society whose wealth depended upon slave labor. It may be asking a lot for someone to give up all those benefits of position and privilege. But to use one of the finest minds of his era to rationalize that situation, that is crime that continues to this day. Certainly scientific racism would have existed without Jefferson, but he was one of its originators in this country. And that was a crime against both free society and against science.