The Character of Thomas Jefferson: Then and Now [Part 2]

Today, the most notable character attacks of Thomas Jefferson derive from widely-circulated newspapers, campus protests, or national figureheads. But Jefferson’s character is also questioned in students’ history texts. This has not always been so.

In the mid-nineteenth century, instruction books devoted considerable space to Jefferson, casting him in a favorable light. Publications from 1835, 1842 and 1854 describe his contributions to the young nation as Secretary of State, Democratic-Republican leader and President. Yet these textbooks do not detail his private life at Monticello or the enslaved people who worked there.


At the end of the nineteenth century, students learned about similar contributions, but textbooks included more specifics about the President’s personal life, detailing Jefferson’s hobbies and even a description of his appearance. These texts praise the man with rousing endorsements, but only one of the randomly selected textbooks from this period reviewed by the author mention his connection to slavery. An 1899 textbook author, Edward Eggleston, discusses Jefferson’s slaves, but he paints Jefferson in a favorable light with the inclusion of anecdotes positively depicting the lives of enslaved people at Monticello.

Around Jefferson’s two-hundredth birthday in 1943, his public persona remained strong in school materials. Both the 1939 and 1945 editions of a high school history textbook portray Jefferson’s two terms in office as triumphant. A 1942 text depicts him as a benevolent leader that opposed slavery and upheld liberty in the early days of the nation – with no mention of Jefferson’s own slaves. While a 1948 publication discusses both the hardship of slavery and Jefferson as a slaveholder, it mitigates his actions with mention of intentions to free Monticello’s slaves and educate them for their lives post-enslavement.

During the 1980s, textbooks more frequently discuss Jefferson in tandem with slavery but still refrain from harsh criticism. A 1981 text frames Jefferson as an opponent of slavery and an advocate of the anti-slavery provision of the Northwest Ordinance even though he was unable to devise a solution to rid the country of Southern slavery. Other 1981 and 1983 publications followed suit, justifying Jefferson’s ownership of slaves with his anti-slavery beliefs – yet some still omit mention of his slaves altogether. The strongest censure came from a 1984 Boston publication that argued that Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery derived from the institution’s adverse effects on white Americans – not the enslaved.

Post-2010 U.S. history textbooks more frequently highlight Monticello’s slaves along with Jefferson’s political contributions. Of three randomly-selected College Board-approved textbooks for AP United States History, two note the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s criticism of slavery and his role as a slaveowner — without attempt to mitigate the conflict. Both mention his “relationship” with Sally Hemings (who made no appearance in prior decades’ textbooks). The 2015 text censured Jefferson for racist and misogynistic attitudes in its section “Exceptions in Jefferson’s Vision.”

Additionally, California’s 2014 Common Core Curriculum standards (grades 3-5) asked instructors to use Jeffersonian speeches and documents (among the works of other Founders) “to show how the country began on the premise of equality but has not lived by it for much of its history.” Modern education authors and administrators appear willing to censure Jefferson for his role as a slaveowner.

It may be possible to explain the evolution of the presentation of Jefferson in school materials over the past century by turning to the authors’ contemporary political and cultural situations.

From the 1830s through the 1850s, slavery remained legal even as tensions over the issue heated. Perhaps lack of mention of slavery derived from its proliferation and a desire not to attack a key Founding Father while the nation of unified but separate states was yet young. At the end of the Civil War, the United States  grappled with Reconstruction. Perhaps the omission of Jefferson’s slaves from educational texts aimed to avoid the slavery issue altogether. On the other hand, the 1899 textbook’s depiction of Jefferson’s slaves – with narrative and quotes that are racially offensive by modern standards – as loyal and devoted to him might have been an effort to reconcile the leader’s actions.

A few decades later, perhaps the widespread character enhancement of Jefferson (i.e. failure to mention or emphasize his ownership of enslaved people) – alongside his fellow Founding Fathers and other notable American leaders – in the 1930s and 1940s stemmed from the hardships of the Great Depression and early years of World War II. Congress established the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission (TJMC) in 1934. At a 1939 ceremony, President Roosevelt laid the memorial’s cornerstone, and in 1943 presided over the dedication ceremony. The monument embodied and rallied unifying nationalistic sentiment during depressed economic and wartime conditions. Perhaps historically-selective enhancement of iconic Jefferson mirrored rallying ideals of wartime forces fighting for American/Jeffersonian principles of freedom abroad.


Textbooks from the 1980s discuss Jefferson and slavery more openly and frequently than prior decades – likely the result of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet these texts still refrain for criticizing Jefferson. During the Cold War-era United States, strong nationalist sentiment abounded and rallied around American democratic ideals and their figures (e.g., Jefferson) – an “us” (United States) versus “them” (USSR) sentiment. Limited censure of Jefferson may well be hand-in-hand with notions of American exceptionalism.

In the twenty-first century, globalization stands in opposition to the idea of Pax-Americana. Despite the Great Recession and War on Terror, the nation has not rallied under an umbrella of 18th century ideals. Rather, racism (e.g., Black Lives Matter) and gender inequality (e.g., #MeToo) have taken center stage, prompting censure of Jefferson as racist and misogynistic in modern texts.  While criticisms do not overtly call for rejection of Jefferson’s cornerstone political postulates, they instruct the coming generation of a new lens for viewing peoples and principles that heretofore formed the largely unquestioned bedrock of America.

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