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Thomas Jefferson: How Racist?

One major criticism levied at America’s founding fathers is the label of “racist”. Indeed, their words, and their actions, often contradicted themselves based on the people they were talking about. Example being, all men are created equal, except if you’re a person of color, then you’re just 3/5 of a person. Though such line of discussion is fully justified and worthy of discussion, it should be noted that one of our best founders, Thomas Jefferson, did many things that should make us reconsider this label.

Jefferson was a southern gentleman during a time when social advancement was based off ones land, slaves, and income generated. Especially considering he was from the south, it is guaranteed that Jefferson would have some contact with slaves and slave owners during his life regardless. It should also be noted that Jefferson freed his slaves at the end of his life. One may argue that this was too late to be meaningful, but it is something.

For Jefferson to be a real racist it should be assumed he looked down on “lesser races”, no matter what logic and facts say. After all, scientists in the nineteenth century manufactured fake studies to say that whites were superior (by measuring skulls and fabricating data). They weren’t interested in the truth, rather verifying a conclusion they wanted to verify.

One lesser known fact about Jefferson is that he is considered by some to be the father of American archaeology, and with good reason. In a time when looting was more viable Jefferson did systematic studies on local burial mounds. Here he recorded notes  and even stratigraphy about the excavations.

Mounds are a major archaeological phenomenon in the Midwest, and parts of the east. During the late archaic and woodland periods people built massive mounds for burial and residential purposes. The most prominent of these earthen works can be found in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.

Various theories arose amongst Europeans about the nature of these strange mounds. Not only had the cultures that built them died out long ago, their descendants were being wiped out by disease  leaving only stranded residents on th large mounds. This gave the impression that the Indians did not build the mounds, feeding right into the racist idea that Indians were not smart or capable enough to make them.

Such theories ranged far and wide. The supposed builders of the mounds included Vikings, the lost tribes of Israel, Chinese, and even people from Atlantis. These theories were not just ideas. Those who believed the mounds were built by ancient Europeans believed the Indians should be removed to reclaim the land. And they were removed, by the Trail of Tears and other forced relocations.

Native Americans did indeed build the mounds. But the truth did not gain steam until a lengthy report in 1894 by a man named Cyrus Thomas. But there were those who already knew the truth a full century before the 1894 report .. Thomas Jefferson was one of them. After excavating a mound, Jefferson concluded by the artifacts found that Indians had made the mounds. He also noted that ancient burial practices depicted in the mounds closely resembled burial practices of Indians during his time.

Which means Jefferson did not go looking for evidence to support a thesis of white supremacy. He objectively observed the evidence and spoke the truth, even though the majority opinion during his time that Indians were in no way capable of building the mounds. This is just one story, but I believe it shows that the founders were not quite as racist as some people say.

Today the mound building cultures go under the names of Cahokia, Adena, Hopewell, and a number of other names. A number of famous parks and sites today are attributed to the mound builders, such as Monks Mound in Illinois and Serpent Mound in Ohio.

Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound

15 Responses

  1. Thomas Jefferson, a racist, give me a break. The new hate mongers are out in force now trying to rewrite history to comform to comtemporary values. Yes, Jefeerson, owned slaves and believed in slavery. The only reason salvery didn’t exit in the north during that period was economic (small farms, climite, etc.). All of a sudden most all the founding fathers were racist because they in some way supported slavery. We could go back and look at some of the quotes of Lincoln and call him racist. Hanging and flogging was common then also so everyone who supported those things were somehow evil. Give me a fricking break. Its time to easy up on all this.

  2. Great post.

    I do want to quibble with one point:

    “Example being, all men are created equal, except if you’re a person of color, then you’re just 3/5 of a person.”

    This 3/5 was not a belief held by anyone.

    The southern colonies/states would not agree to the constitution if it included counting colored at full 1:1. Those who wanted to eliminate slavery from the start could not get agreement to that either.

    Slavery supporters hated anything over zero; abolishionists hated everything less than 1. So, to get everybody to sign some kind of document, they ended up with this 3/5 value.

    I believe this common notion that they all thought that 3/5 was right is both erroneous and disrespectful to those anti-slavery folks who forced this issue into the Constitution, even though they had to settle for less than full count. It would have been so much easier to leave it out entirely and use zero.

    You have to remember, the slave supporters were more than a little nuts. They argued secession right from the start, tried it in the 1820s, caused a war in the 1830s in northern Mexico to establish slavery in Texas after Mexico refused to allow it, and then forced the issue to an utterly unnecessary civil war in 1861.

    Other countries had handled the problem much more simply. The examples were there to see, but those nutcases demanded wars.

  3. Jack – you’ve got it backwards.

    Slave-state representatives to the Constitutional Convention wanted slaves counted at 1:1. Why wouldn’t they? Counting them for the purposes of apportioning seats in the legislature would give them more seats in the House of Representatives. Just because you COUNT them as people for representation doesn’t mean you have to TREAT them as people.
    Free-state reps wanted only to count free persons, again to maximize their power in the legislature.

    You also have the motivation quite wrong.

    Neither side had any sort of intellectual belief regarding the good or evil of slavery driving their positions. It was entirely about which states would have greater influence in the new government.

    A similar disagreement emerged between large & small states. The large states liked proportional representation, which would give them a greater voice in the government. Small states liked equal representation, which makes Rhode Island equal in power to Massachusetts. The solution was the bicameral legislature, on proportional, one equal. The equal chamber was the more powerful, but all appropriation bills had to originate in the lower, proportionally-represented chamber.

    The existence of the equal representation chamber made the 3/5 Compromise more palatable to the free-staters.

    It was all about the distribution of power.

  4. Learn something new every day.

    Either my memory is playing tricks (entirely possible) or they taught it differently way back then (also possible).

  5. jack: you were mistaught on purpose.

  6. To user russelsih. You are a moron. Yes, if someone supports the slavery that went on back in those days, it DOES make them a racist you tool. If someone supports hanging, yes it makes them evil you moron. Much of today’s White generation is so insensitive and uncaring on anti-Black racism to the point I question how they’re being taught in schools. I look around our internet and see nothing but disrespect for the Black race and what they’ve had to deal with in the past. It’s just disgusting. As for the article, Thomas Jefferson did some heroic things but it’s unsurprising to me that he was an idiot racists as were many of these whites being looked up to and studied upon in our history books.

  7. Jefferson did not free his slaves at the end of his life, though George Washington did. Jefferson only freed those slaves (like 3-4) who are believed to have been his bastard children. The rest were sold.

  8. The poster of this article obviously has a sugar coated version of history. Fooser-

    A- Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves at the end of his life, Only the children he had by Sally Hemmings. The rest were re-sold.

    B- Thomas Jefferson wrote many essays on the inferiority of blacks. Many historians make the accurate claim that Jefferson was infact the founder of modern day racism. Slavery was an accepted thing at that time, but Jefferson was one of the few who made it a goal to prove how inferior the black race was.

    C- Who cares about Jefferson as an archeologist.

    D- A Southern gentleman? Who MIGHT have had contact with slaves? Jefferson’s childhood friend was one OF his future slaves. The young boy would grow up and call his best friend “master”. The only good thing Jefferson did in regards to slavery was call it “A Necessary Evil” towards the end of his life. He was actually able to see that it WAS a thing of evil, still, it didnt change much of his characater.

    E- Lastly, I can’t stand people who defend Thomas Jefferson’s actions. I give him credit for very little, and think he was a horridly cruel individual, completely self centered, condiscending, and biggoted. Jefferson did everything he could to make himself look “the best”. Jefferson was a beautiful writer, i give him that. But he was a horrible human being. Look at all of the fights between he and Hamilton. I could go into more detail but currently dont have the time to do so.

  9. Lamont is right, just wanted to add one thing. The Northerners did not want slavery because they wanted the Industrial Revolution where they could replace workers with machines and not have to deal with civil rights issues. The South didn’t want the Industrial Revolution because it would be bad for business. As always, it’s all about money and power. Are you as shocked as I am?

  10. Christie,

    Actually the true reason why Northerner’s wanted to remove slavery was due to deeply rooted racism. Most northerner’s were in fact free-soilers, not abolitionists, including Lincoln. The deeply rooted racism is what drove Northern states to push for slavery’s end (At least in the North, later in the South). Industry did play a factor, true; however it was not the sole drive.

  11. Really, I couldn’t care less about this crap, which, can be understandable considering I’m only 14. But I’m doing a report on Thomas Jefferson and I really wanted to know if he was actually on the support side of “The Trail Of Tears” or not? And as for Thomas Jefferson being a horrible human being becasue he’s “racist”. Well, pretty much every human is horrible in one way or another. Some may be racist, some may be something else, but really ever human is horrible in some way. Okay, well if anyone wants to answer my question about “The Trail Of Tears” that would be great. <3

  12. Also, to user Joey, the new generation of white is not all racist. I am 14 years of age and I am currently raising a colored little brother. Now, I will admit that I make black jokes. But I still treat that little boy as my own son. So, am I still racist because I make black jokes even though my sweet, adorable, little brother is not the same race as I? I think your facts are incorrect, and I hope you have not taken any offense to my comment.

  13. Kelly- You bring up good points, and show a lot of maturity for your age, but we are talking about Thomas Jefferson in specific, and while true everyone has bad qualities; Thomas Jefferson alltogether was somewhat of an immoral man. In my opinion, completely immoral. He was horridly hippocritical, concieted beyond all regards, racist to the very core (more so than most founding fathers), and spent most of his time trying to boast his own reputation while diminishing anyone who stood in his way. Jefferson did have good qualities among him, but very few. And the trail of tears happened well after his death; about twelve years after to be exact.

  14. Yes Jeff was a racist (although a hypocritical one — and admitted that the following quote should be “hazarded” with “diffidence”). You would know if you actually read his OWN WRITINGS instead of theorizing. In his “Notes on Virginia”:

    Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the white race, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black that covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, and their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by the preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

    Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to whites; in reason, much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous. . . .

  15. You should get your facts straight. Unlike some of his contemporaries for example George Washington, Jefferson never freed most of his slaves. He only freed 4 or 5, all of whom were Sally Hemings’ children and probably his as well.

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