Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed, author of "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," delivered the 11th Thomas Jefferson Lecture Thursday at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. Gordon-Reed's focus was on the philosophical outlook of the founding fathers and how it related to slavery.
Gordon-Reed said at the outset that she would happily take questions about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings -- the topic of her well-known book -- during the question-and-answer period which followed the lecture, but none were asked. Gordon-Reed teaches for both New York Law School and the New York campus of Rutgers University, and no one asked about the Don Imus--Rutgers controversy either.
Gordon-Reed noted that history programming on cable television has increased Americans' interest in the Revolutionary War era, and in Jefferson in particular. She noted that a historian who had delivered one of UTSI's previous Jefferson lectures jokingly refers to the third president as "meal ticket."
At the time of the American Revolution, all 13 colonies allowed slavery. Cotton was not yet the agricultural force it would become; tobacco was the colonies' biggest cash crop. In New York City, slaves worked on the docks. Some colonies were more heavily involved in slavery than others.
Gordon-Reed said Jefferson was clearly conflicted about slavery.
"He develops, early on, a sense that slavery is wrong," she said. He clipped out a poem about the evils of the slave trade and saved it in his "commonplace book," a type of scrapbook kept by many in the colonial era. He was troubled by slavery as a young man, before he came to prominence as a leader of the new nation.
"But he's a slave owner," said Gordon-Reed. "This is part of his way of life."
With the slave trade still underway, many of the slaves alive in Jefferson's day were first-generation slaves who still remembered their homelands in Africa and who had been cruelly taken away from them. The antebellum stereotype of the faithful slave, devoted to his owner, would have had no place in Jefferson's age.
"There are no happy people," said Gordon-Reed about this era. "There are no 'happy slaves.'"
Jefferson's stirring words in the Declaration of Independence, and some of the other documents and speeches which moved the colonies to seek their independence, addressed the importance of liberty and the rights of man. Many thinkers in that day and age believed that slavery would soon die out on its own, whether or not it was incorporated into the laws of the new country. After the revolution, many of the New England states abolished slavery outright. New York and Pennsylvania adopted "gradual emancipation," under which existing slaves remained in servitude but their children were allowed their freedom upon adulthood. Since slave owners considered slaves to be their property, this was seen as a way of phasing out slavery without seizing private property.
Jefferson's home state of Virginia kept slavery but made it easier slave-owners to set their slaves free if they chose. Prior to this, a slave-owner had to get the governor's permission before granting a slave his freedom. Some slave-owners used this power more for economic reasons -- to dismiss old slaves who were no longer productive -- than for idealistic ones.
However, slavery remained strong in the South. And the "three-fifths" clause of the new Constitution -- which counted three-fifths of a state's slave population when determining how many seats it would have in the House of Representatives -- increased the power of the southern states with large slave populations.
Some slave owners tried to salve their consciences by trying to marginally improve conditions for slaves.
The growing Baptist and Methodist movements discouraged slavery, with Methodist founder John Wesley speaking out against it. (Gordon-Reed herself is Methodist.) Gordon-Reed noted that Jefferson was a deist, and skeptical of organized religion.
"He believed there was a God," she said. "He didn't think that Jesus was divine."
Jefferson continued to criticize slavery and introduced bills in Virginia to emancipate the slaves. But the issue of emancipation took a back seat to Jefferson's political aspirations and his hopes for growing the new nation. He was concerned that the young nation would split over the issue, and while he was a supporter of state's rights he was also devoted to the new country as a whole.
"This was a nightmare for him," she said.
As the Revolutionary War generation passed on, the next generation of Southern leaders were much less conflicted about slavery and even trumpeted it as virtuous. The next generation of Methodists in the South began to segregate their congregations. The southerners dug in their heels, and a Civil War was the eventual result.
Gordon-Reed is reluctant to criticize the Founding Fathers for their conflicted attitudes about slavery.
"It's easy to talk about what people should have done," she said.
Jefferson ended the slave trade during his term as president, preventing any new slaves from being brought into the country, but he never emancipated his own slaves. When he died in 1826, in the middle of an economic depression and after co-signing a loan for a relative, he was $107,000 in debt -- a huge sum for that time. His slaves were auctioned off like the rest of his property, tragically separating family members from each other.
Gordon-Reed said that if Jefferson were to be magically transported to the present day, he would be much less disconcerted by racial equality than by feminism. For all his progressive views about equality, he had very traditional ideas about the role and status of women. He sent his own daughter and granddaughters to good schools, but designed the University of Virginia -- which he considered his greatest achievement -- to teach men.
Gordon-Reed's 1997 book defended what was then a disputed claim that Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. Soon after, DNA testing confirmed a "high probability" of that claim, and Gordon-Reed was able to point out two years later that the facts had fallen right in line with her earlier work.
UTSI, which is normally more concerned with science and technology than history, has hosted the Jefferson Lecture for more than a decade. The program was funded by an anonymous donor. The school, which is located on the shores of Woods Reservoir and surrounded by the Arnold Air Force Base campus, has Jefferson-themed exhibits which tie in with the program.