Random Thinky Post: It’s Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday! What Are Your Thoughts on People Who Do Public Great Things and Private Evil Things?

I think this is universal, the bigger question. Jefferson in particular is an American issue, but every community has someone who is a public hero and a private criminal. What’s the best way to deal with that?

For non-Americans, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, was one of our first Presidents, and just generally helped shape the philosophy of our country. The good philosophy, the “all men are created equal” parts of it. He also invented a ton of stuff and designed his own house and played music and was just generally very very intelligent. For almost 200 years, he was sort of the “thinking person’s Founding Father”. If you identified more with the thinkers and dreamers and inventors than the doers, you loved Jefferson. My grandmother loved Jefferson!

And then the stories about his second family with his wife’s half-sister who was enslaved started coming out. There were always sort of vague somethings, but as America changed those vague somethings started getting louder and louder, and finally were confirmed by DNA tests. Jefferson had a long term relationship (multiple children) with a woman he “owned”. There is no way, at all, that such a relationship could be considered consensual. And the part that, for me, makes it an unimaginable sin is that he let his children be raised in slavery. In America at the time, it was common for men to impregnate their slaves. And it was also not at all uncommon for them to then free their children, often paying for them to learn a trade, setting them up in life, etc. It’s a human thing to do, and also was sort of the “gentlemanly” thing to do. So Jefferson made a daily choice to rape this woman for years, and then calmly accepted watching his children grow up in one of the most unhuman systems in history. He had absolute power and could have done so many things differently, and did not.

So, how do we deal with this? Do we throw out the Declaration of Independence? Large parts of the founding concepts of our country? Or do we pretend we can set aside the personal and only look at the ideas?

For myself, I say that people can be very smart and have good ideas, and still be inhuman people. So I will hold on to those ideas, but I will also acknowledge that they came from a bad person and I will not turn that person into a hero.

I will also say that Jefferson is a really special case. I mean, he MADE THE COUNTRY. We can’t throw out the constitution, the Declaration of Independence, all these basic things. It’s not like just canceling a TV show.

I guess what is special is normally in this situation I balance the Bad of the person against the Importance of their creation when making the decision. Queen is a great movie, but I have given up on ever being able to watch it again after knowing what I know about Kangana and Vikas Bahl. On the other hand, I will continue to watch Lagaan knowing that Aamir Khan was possibly cheating on his wife on set. Because Lagaan is a good movie and cheating isn’t that bad. But what do you do in a case where the bad is unimaginably bad, but the creation is unimaginably important?

Very curious to hear from my Americans about Jefferson in particular, what did you learn about him in school? What are your kids currently learning about him?

And from my non-Americans, have you heard this story before? Is there something similar in your country’s history?

For everyone, how do you deal with this sort of situation?


19 thoughts on “Random Thinky Post: It’s Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday! What Are Your Thoughts on People Who Do Public Great Things and Private Evil Things?

  1. With the ideas and other important things it’s easy – if the ideas are good and work, who cares who made them e.g Gugliermo Marconi was in National Fascist Party. It sucks but we won’t stop listening to the radio because of it.
    But with the art it’s different. A bad person can make a good movie, uncontaminated with his/her sick mind , just like Vikas did with Queen, but it doesn’t give us the joy anymore since we know he is a pervert, so why watch?
    I have all 3 the most famous Polish directors on my black list: Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland. I don’t care how good their movies are, I can’t stand this people and won’t watch their work.


    • I was in a film group that watched Chinatown a few months back, and the leader of the group made it clear she didn’t know the details and didn’t care about Polanski’s personal life, she just wanted to talk about the movie. I should say, she’s a very film savvy person and knows a ton about the film. But I just couldn’t do it, especially with a movie that was about incest and pedofilia and so on, how can you not think about his personal life as part of understanding the film????


  2. oooh I have SO MUCH to say. Do I start with the most controversial? Nah I’ll start with the basics. One of the most banned books in US schools today is Stamped – Racism, Antiracism, and You. When the 14 year old was reading it in class last year a child’s grandmother complained and the Principal removed it, until the Superintendent said he couldn’t do that the next day. So I bought my own copy of the book and opened it randomly to THOMAS JEFFERSON – and it had the BEST description of him. I wish I could quote it directly but I can’t seem to find it within 5 minutes. Anyway Stamped referred to Jefferson as a CONTRADICTION. They pointed out all these laws he championed to diminish the impact of slavery and then they pointed out how all the laws were totally ineffective. When I was in AP US history class in high school one of the quotes that most stuck with me was “We have a bull by the horns and we can’t let go” -okay I looked that up and the internet says my memory is wrong, it is “wolf by the ears” full qoute from the internet:

    But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

    – Jefferson to John Holmes, (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), April 22, 1820.

    But what Stamped did acknowledge, is that Jefferson’s charisma has lasted beyond his life. As a human was he flawed – YES! – As a human was he great – YES!

    In AP History we also learned about Sally Hemmings, Jeffersons slave and long term lover. I don’t remember if it was in that class or later that I learned she had gone to Paris with Jefferson, and didn’t initially want to come back, because blacks were treated better in France. But he convinced her to and she returned. There are not stories of him binding her up and forcing her onto boats. But somewhere, probably in letters, there is some evidence that she was hesitant to return but did. And that probably plays into my controversial thoughts.

    At this moment it is politically correct to say that all sex within an unequal power structure is rape. I feel like this diminishes the sexual desires and power of the females who are typically those with less official power. S&M is a thing, people all over the world enjoy being in and out of power within a sexual relationship. Maybe Sally was miserable her whole life and felt like a slave. Maybe she felt like a mistress. Maybe she felt like a partner who wasn’t able to walk the streets. Her family was treated better than his other slaves, they were the indoor slaves. Some of her children were pale enough to pass, and did so. I can’t say that Thomas Jefferson was raping Sally Hemmings throughout her life. This woman chose to come back to the U.S., she could have left, it would have been hard and she wouldn’t have had a place to go, but she was not placed in shackles in France and dragged back. Only she can say wether or not she was raped repeatedly, and she did not say anything in a way that survived the ages.

    Now the logistical reasons Sally Hemmings may have decided to return to the U.S. are perhaps similar to the reasons why Thomas Jefferson kept his own children in bondage. Fear of poverty, fear of losing what they had. Thomas Jefferson was poor, the only thing he really had of value was his slaves. He was not a wealthy slave owner, if he freed them all he would have been penniless without any money to hire people to work his land. So rather than be penniless with nothing to provide his family, he kept them in slavery. I might disagree with the decision, but I cannot pretend it was an easy one to make or live with. For anyone, child, parent, owners, and obviously slaves. He was living with is wolf, and he didn’t let go of those ears.

    Flawed, oh hell yes, but oh so charismatic. And as for Sally and his kids, I feel like assuming they felt totally victimized may diminish some of the power they were able to exercise over their own lives. But I have no idea what that power might have been. Maybe they did feel totally victimized by this man, their lover and father, and maybe the relationship was more complex.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yaaaay! I was hoping you would have good thoughts, partly because I figured you were in the thick of current modern day teaching about him.

      When I first learned about Sally Hemings, I had a similar thought of “we don’t know”. But that not freeing his kids thing really bothered me. I can see your argument, that by not “freeing” them he essentially kept them safe and close and fed and so on. And I just looked it up and learned he did free them in his will, so after he would no longer be around to protect them. This is from the official Monticello website, which is another aspect to the story. For all the rumors and forgotten families and everything, here is one instance where the Hemings-Jefferson family has been fully added to the historical record, and acknowledged as descendants of a founding father.

      Which brings up another question. We can’t really know everything about historical figures. Having a slave “mistress” was so common, how can we know that any other historical figure did not do the same thing? And it just hasn’t come to light? So maybe I am wrong, and instead of focusing on Jefferson, I should have the same feelings about all the slave owning founding fathers?

      I grew up in downstate Illinois which is a little bit Southern. What I was taught in elementary school was that slavery was “a way of life” and no one realized it was wrong and so on and so forth. It was wrong, yes, but we shouldn’t hold the historical figures accountable because “times were different”. A kind of softened version that hated the sin but loved the sinner. As a result, as an adult, I am really nervous about falling into that trap. Like, I know my early training was “falala, hoop skirts” and I don’t want to let that bubble up in my brain again.

      Your description of the Sally-Thomas relationship seems reasonable to me, especially because she was raised as an educated person with privileges in the household. But I can’t get past the slavery aspect of it. If it were the exact same relationship, and she were a lower class servant, still with a massive power imbalance and so on, it wouldn’t feel the same. I can’t quite articulate why, but the mere fact of slavery, and that it was the reality of the whole world she lived in, makes their relationship feel different, and I just can’t see a “in private they were equal” possibility. And there’s also the age power imbalance, she was his daughter’s friend/servant, he was 44 and she was 14 when their relationship started. The whole thing falls into the category of “how could he could wake up in the morning and look into the face of this person and not feel icky about what he is doing? What kind of person could do this without feeling icky?” Like, different society blah blah blah, but 14 and 44? Your daughter’s friend? And you “own” her?

      Liked by 2 people

    • I really enjoyed reading your response, Genevieve and Margaret’s comment as well.

      Most of my perspective comes from a combination of what I learned in AP History and from my visit to Monticello. According to Monticello, Sally Hemmings negotiated the education and freedom of her children as a condition of moving back to America from France. This is all according to her son. She was pregnant in France, she did not want to come back to America but then decided to do it if Jefferson agreed to her conditions. The whole narrative being, she came back to the U.S. for a better future for her children.

      But that doesn’t make sense to me. If she gave birth to her son in France, wouldn’t she have procured a better lifestyle for him? Jefferson had to go back to the U.S. She could have stayed and raised a child in France, which had much better protections for black people. Why would she come back to the U.S. where she would be constantly subjected to rape, likely get pregnant more times, and have kids born into slavery?

      Again, this is where I struggle. Yes, there was a horrible power difference between them. She was his slave by definition she could not say no. I can completely understand everything Margaret is saying, and yet, I also agree with you that feelings and emotions are complicated. She was not forced to come back from France. Logically speaking, she could have secured a better future for her child in France. Why did she go back? I also do not want to diminish the sexual desire and agency of women. Yet with the age and power difference, was it due to grooming? Did she actually have any agency? I don’t have any answers. But these are the thoughts that circle in my brain.


      • I can believe that they believed she “negotiated”. But I can also believe that options like “maybe you stay in France and I give you a small amount of money which would let you start a life” just did not occur to anyone involved in the situation. Jefferson thought of it as either he loses his new girlfriend, or promises to free their children. Sally Hemings thought of it as “woot, instead of being penniless and helpless on the streets of France, I have ensured my children will be free”. But that accepts the basic premise that Jefferson owed her nothing, and even the bare minimum is something she had to negotiate for.

        I don’t want to take away the pride she and her children (rightfully) felt over her massive achievement in getting them freed. But at the same time, I don’t want to take away from how unjust the system was, and Jefferson in particular, in making this into a massive achievement instead of a basic human right. And he was literally the MAN WHO WROTE “ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL”!!!!


        • I don’t disagree with you on the facts. The system was horribly unjust. Nothing that Jefferson did in terms of Sally Hemmings or any of the slaves should be considered an achievement. It was despicable. And we all know that Jefferson’s definition of “All Men are Created Equal” was deeply, ridiculously, flawed. There is no excuse for what he did. Nothing he did in terms of Sally and the slaves is even remotely justifiable.

          However, I think my struggle comes from her decisions. Not my struggle to justify Jefferson. My struggle to understand Sally Hemmings and their relationship. And here is where I see Genevieve’s point of view. She had her brother in France, who by the time she came to France was a respected French trained chef and the head chef at the American Embassy in France. They were both “free” there. They had the option to stay here. She learned French and mingled with French society. I guess I don’t see her options as “penniless and helpless on the streets of France.” Her option was to continue to stay in France with Jefferson’s daughter for the time being. It would not have been uncommon for her to think she could have gotten married in France. Her son would have been free in France. Yet, she chose otherwise. Her brother didn’t want to come back either, but chose to come back with her. She must have had her reasons. I don’t want to take those away from her. But I also acknowledge that she was a very very young teenager, just 14 and pregnant.


          • Filmikudhi you know a lot more about this than I do. I didn’t know she had a chef brother in France! That does negate the idea that she was scared of being penniless. And this same brother came back with her?!? REally?

            Thomas Jefferson and Sally’s relationship sticks out over the masses and masses of slave rape because, it was a LONG TERM relationship. No one knows of other slaves he fathered children with. That says something about his perception of her. 14 to 44 is gross, but really it is the 14 that is the grossest.


    • When i think of someone like him, what i would like to happen is to acknowledge the whole truth and ensure it is brought up in every conversation. Like with the #metoo movement in academia, one of my friends talked about how people should be introduced like – hello this is xyz who led the research into blah blah. In 20XX he molested 15 students and still continues to retain his position.

      State the whole truth, don’t exalt the person blindly. Eg Winston Churchill – the one great leader of Great Britain responsible for 3 million deaths by artificial famine he created in India.


      • I just listened to a really good podcast about a groundbreaking artist who (probably) killed his wife in the heat of an argument. This is a modern story, from the 1980s, and the artist is still alive now. But what do you do with that? You can’t get rid of his art becuase it is so important, but you also don’t want to erase his victim. The conclusion of the podcast is wha tyou said, every musuem and gallery where he is exhibited, the label should say “made by so-and-so in this year, titled such and such, concept was blah blah, also he killed his wife”


          • And I on the contrary don’t like the idea.
            E. g If the painting in the gallery depicts blood and some violence and they tell me that the author killed his family, it adds more depth to the art, but if there are only some calm deers in the forest depicted, why I should know the author is a killer? I will not be able to enjoy this art as a piece of art.

            Few months ago, I was obsessed with “Ya No Somos Ni Seremos”. Man I loved this song. But unfortunately I started reading for whom it was written and that the couple had some problems, there was some public circus etc. Now I can’t listen to the song without thinking about this messy relationship. I can’t enjoy it anymore. The less we know about the artists the better.


    • oh and another interesting fact probably related to the slavery issue – Thomas Jefferson and another “founding father” John Adams were great friends. And then they were ENEMIES (Adams was very much against slavery), and then, after they both retired from politics, they became friends again.


    • And I find that interesting too, that the story is so well known to Americans but not necessarily even to folks who reside in America but are from elsewhere.


  3. I struggle with this constantly. I think first and foremost, in our education system, kids needs to be informed of the full history, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think it is okay to struggle to form an opinion and be constantly conflicted because your opinion may chance based on the person, the situation, how you were introduced to them, etc.

    I also think this is why I struggle with jurists who are strict constitutionalists. Founding fathers had some great ideas, but also some bad ideas and also omitted a great deal. They were human beings and thus fundamentally flawed and also creatures of their times. So I think, acknowledge the good and take it with you, acknowledge the bad and don’t shy away from speaking about it.

    But it is also okay to have conflicting opinions. Feelings don’t have to be linear. And so much of it is how you were introduced to the people. Thus, my strong opinion that kids should be taught the good and the bad. I can acknowledge the good and bad in Jefferson, I have a much tougher time acknowledging the good in Churchill (Naina’s example). But then again, India has a very complicated history with World War II and Churchill. And the way I learned about Churchill was in India from the Indian perspective. Where as, I learned about Jefferson in America.

    I think this gets even more complicated with art and cinema. You gave a great example with Queen, Kangana, and Vikas. I agree with that completely. I don’t think I can ever watch that movie again. Also, I have never watched a single Woody Allen movie for the same reasons Angie has blacklisted the Polish directors she mentioned. Yet, I unabashedly adore watching Salman’s movies. He has done and said some really bad stuff. I can acknowledge it and will speak to it, yet I still like and watch his movies. Again, maybe this is because of how and when I was introduced to Salman.

    I guess, I don’t really have a cohesive point here, besides don’t close your eyes to the bad stuff and yet, feelings towards the human beings and their work product can be complicated.


    • Churchill is definitely complicated. And he isn’t really taught in American schools before college. But we get his quotes, or misquotes which are witty and bungling. He is seen a bit like a charming buffoon here. And of course, India and Churchill’s connection to it aren’t taught at all.

      Liked by 1 person

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