Thomas Jefferson and liberty

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 on April 13th, a date that also saw the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in 1943, 200 years later. He was the chief author of America’s Declaration of Independence, and served as his country’s third President. As President, he doubled the size of America by the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, which added over 825,000 square miles at a cost of $15 million.

Jefferson was a remarkable and versatile man, a planter, a lawyer and a statesman. He was also an architect, an archeologist and an inventor. Monticello, his home, has many of his inventions, including the swivel chair he invented, a revolving bookstand, and a great clock with heavy cannon balls as pulleys.

His philosophy was based on liberty, which he took to mean a God-given right to do what you wanted provided it did not stop others doing likewise. He wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He was proud of the law for religious freedom that he drafted as a Virginia legislator.

Paradoxically, while writing that “all men are created equal,” he was a slave-owner. He inherited about 175 saves, but owned about 600 over the course of his life, most born on his plantations. He is reckoned to have treated them benignly, and he did campaign unsuccessfully for the abolition of slavery. As President, he signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807. But he thought that to push too hard for abolition might break up the Union. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he called slavery a moral evil, and later wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

More controversy surrounds the fact that after his wife died, he fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. Although his supporters have denied this, in recent times DNA tests on their descendants have established an unmistakable link to him. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation accepted Jefferson's paternity in a 2000 report, and his black descendants are now welcomed at family gatherings at Monticello.

Despite these inconsistencies, common in his day, he is rightly regarded as one of the great architects of liberty, and is honoured on Mount Rushmore, as well as in his memorial in DC.