The Jefferson Quandary
Is it okay to have a problematic fave?
That’s a question many people have asked in recent years. Is it alright to like someone for their work, if they’ve done or said something awful? Can we simultaneously condemn Mel Gibson for his virulent antisemitism while enjoying his movies? Can we still admire Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence after knowing about the evils he inflicted upon enslaved Black people?
I’ve had firsthand experience with this. When I was twelve, I loved Thomas Jefferson. My teachers portrayed him as a brilliant, albeit socially awkward, man: a polymath who invented a cypher wheel, enjoyed good cheese, and was soft-spoken but had a powerful way with words. As a quiet cheese-lover and budding writer, I saw my aspirations reflected in him. I wanted to be a revolutionary too. I wanted to make a difference with my writing, just like he did. High school classes didn’t change my view: Jefferson was a key figure in the fight for American freedom, or so AP US History taught me. According to the textbooks I’d read, Jefferson was supposedly anti-slavery. I was taught that he’d wanted to speak out against slavery in the Declaration of Independence, but the other Southerners in the Continental Congress had shot his efforts down.
I was twenty when I learnt the truth – from, of all things, a Washington Post writeup. Thomas Jefferson’s words were beautiful but empty. Even as he preached about white men’s right to freedom, he used enslaved Black people as labour on Monticello, his Virginian plantation home. He half-heartedly denounced slavery, yet never broke his own ties to the abhorrent practice. Upon his death, many of the enslaved people at Monticello were sold to cover his debts. And, like a revoltingly high number of other wealthy white men, he took advantage of his skewed power dynamic to repeatedly rape Sally Hemings, a Black woman enslaved by his family. Hemings was a teenager when this began – younger than I was when I learnt this gruesome information. She was a child when she fell pregnant by Jefferson. After I read just one online news article about this, my eyes opened. My revolutionary hero plummeted from his pedestal into a swamp of cruel iniquity.
It’s becoming harder to ignore information like this. With the expansion of the Internet and the development of smartphones, we can read scans from eighteenth-century diaries and look up every known detail of their lives on Wikipedia. We have the ability to instantaneously learn facts people wouldn’t have had such fast access to merely thirty or forty years ago. This ease of information-gathering brings an expectation with it: it’s our duty to read articles, to watch documentaries, to critically think about the actions of the people we idolise and question whether they’re worth idolising in the first place.
Is it okay to have a problematic fave like Jefferson? Well, ask yourself this: why are they your favourite in the first place? I loved Jefferson’s writing, but after learning about his legacy of slaveholding and assault I turned to other eloquent writers and revolutionaries:
Frederick Douglass, who escaped from bondage and spoke against slavery across the nation, refusing to back down despite the threats he faced.
Ida B Wells, a maverick journalist who refused to adhere to the standards of silence historically (and currently) imposed on Black women, braving the prospect of death to write about the horrific frequency of lynchings in the American South.
Octavia Butler, whose brilliant works like Kindred and Earthseed brought Black women’s narratives into the predominantly white-male-dominated field of science fiction literature.
Of course nobody is flawless, and it’s ridiculous to expect perfection from the people we look up to. Doubtless Wells, Butler, and Douglass all made mistakes in their lifetimes. But there are some transgressions which are impossible to forgive or ignore. Uplifting venomous men like Jefferson actively harms millions of Black Americans who still suffer under the effects of the systemic racism Jefferson and his cohorts helped entrench in our nation. It sends a message that their lives are somehow worth less than the reputation of a man who died two hundred years ago.
In this age of information, picking a favourite historical figure (or celebrity, or author) is an informed decision. We can choose to focus our appreciation on people who aren’t Jefferson’s level of problematic: people who ultimately spread more good than evil.