How many superlatives can one use to describe Thomas Jefferson? First and foremost, he was a Founding Father whose defense of democracy and individual rights motivated American colonists to break away from Britain and form a new nation. As principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he inspired human rights movements around the world with his assertion that “all men are created equal” and that they had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson was also the first American Secretary of State, the second vice-president, and the third president. During his presidential term, he peacefully negotiated the purchase from France of 827,987 square miles of the continent – known as the Louisiana Purchase – doubling the size of the U.S. And he commissioned Meriwether Lewis and George Clark to lead their Corps of Discovery on their ambitious and successful two-year exploration of the newly acquired territory.
Diplomat, statesman, lawyer, architect, inventor, philosopher, and plantation owner – there seems no end to the accomplishments of this 19th century figure. Yet Thomas Jefferson was also a man of contradictions.
Though he often called slavery an “abominable crime” and a “moral depravity,” he was a lifelong slaveholder who used slave labor for his household, plantation, and workshops. Over the course of his life, he owned more than 600 enslaved African Americans, eventually freeing only 10 of them, including the children of his household slave Sally Hemmings, with whom he had a longtime affair.
Jefferson also held conflicting views on Native Americans. On the one hand, he refuted the idea that Indigenous people were an inferior race, asserting that they were “equal in body and mind” to people of European descent. Yet as president, he adopted an assimilation policy toward American Indians known as his “civilization program” and advocated for policies that called for the removal of Indians from their homelands.
Jefferson’s views on religion, like everything else about him, were complex. He was a governing member of his local Episcopal Church, yet he came to believe Jesus was an important philosopher but not the son of God. Jefferson’s religious views were nevertheless highly influential. He reacted strongly against the laws of Virginia Colony, for instance, which allowed only Anglicans to hold public office. These laws prompted Jefferson to write the Statute of Religious Freedom for Virginia, ideas later incorporated into the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.
Jefferson’s relationship to money was also complicated. He was wealthy most of his life, partly due to inheritances of slaves, land, and livestock from his own father and his first wife Martha’s father. He lived a lavish lifestyle at Monticello, the estate he built on a Virginia hilltop, spending large sums on construction projects, furnishings, and décor. At the end of his life, however, Jefferson was more than $100,000 in debt (about $2 million today) and was forced to sell his personal library to the government. It became the nucleus of the Library of Congress.
Overall, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is complex and full of contradictions. Neither a true hero nor a villain, he was simply a brilliant but complicated human being. Through both his successes and shortcomings, it cannot be denied that Thomas Jefferson permanently altered the course of American history.