No Sacred Honor

Currently, I am in the middle of a course on the history of the slave south, and in that course there has been a lot of discussion about Thomas Jefferson. Much of the discussion involves the nature of his character in light of the DNA demonstrating his paternity of Sally Hemming’s children to a high degree of confidence. For my part, the story of Thomas Jefferson is full of cautious and complicated resonance in the relationship between reputation, honor, and virtue. In order to examine these issues, it is worthwhile to define them for the purposes of this study. Reputation is what other people know or think about us. Honor is what we know or think about ourselves. Virtue is what God thinks about our life, based upon our adherence to His ways. As might be imagined, these are matters of great importance in our lives, as all of them, in varying degrees, play a vital role in the course of our lives and in how we are remembered and judged after our lives are over. It is therefore of great importance that we understand these matters well as they apply to us.

Both during his lifetime and afterward, Thomas Jefferson had a complicated and wildly divergent reputation. He was known as politically popular, enough so to be elected Governor of Virginia, to be chosen as a young man to the Second Continental Congress, and to serve one term as Vice President and two terms as President of the United States, during which the Federalists were largely finished. He has achieved fame for his writings, having even his private letters about religion misinterpreted and used as Constitutional guidance. His support of the cause of the territory of Missouri in 1820 and his handling of the Louisiana Purchase ensured southern dominance of the United States from about 1800 to 1850, despite Southern numerical inferiority when compared to the North. Yet from the beginning praise was mixed with condemnation, for his unpreparedness for Benedict Arnold’s and the following invasion by Cornwallis’ army that ended in the triumph at Yorktown. He was hopelessly in debt as a result of his continual rebuilding and tinkering with Monticello, and the second term of his presidency is remembered for the failure of his embargo policy and trying to stay out of the Napoleonic Wars and weakening America’s military posture and credibility in dealing with Britain in particular. More recently, the Sally Hemmings affair has crippled his reputation for morality and left him a founding father with considerable image problems far worse than his better faring contemporaries like Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Madison. All of the souring rhetoric in the world cannot overcome a lifetime spent in debauchery.

Examining Jefferson’s honor is a more tricky matter than looking at the complicated nature of his reputation. Like many Southern slaveowners, and their successors in the Jim Crow era, Jefferson spent part of Note VIII of His Notes On The State of Virginia to assail racial amalgamation. Yet Sally Hemming was his wife’s half-sister by their father, and Jefferson himself fathered half a dozen or so children by her according to DNA analysis, making him guilty of a crime that he and many of his fellow slaveowners publicly condemned. As Abraham Lincoln wryly observed about the presence of mulattoes that excited such a horror in the mid-1850’s, most of them came up from the South ready made up. Jefferson himself, a lifelong member of the slaveowning elite of Virginia, commented on how owning slaves was a school for tyranny even for sensitive young men, including himself perhaps. Jefferson had apparently promised his dying wife, who died during the last of a constant bout of childbirths, that he would not marry again, yet apparently he and Sally had a discreet affair lasting for decades that at least merits the title of a common-law marriage. It is hard to know what Jefferson thought of himself, whether he was blind to his flaws or thought that his talents and obvious gifts outweighed his more serious failings. Did he compartmentalize his life, justifying it by his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his efforts to found the University of Virginia? If so, he is hardly alone in that.

As far as virtue is concerned, the record on Jefferson is far clearer, and far more negative. For absolutely failing to live in consistency with his claim that all mankind is created equal, both in his controlling relationships with his wife and with Sally, and in his devotion to the slave interest of the South, he deserves harsh condemnation. After all, his wife was apparently kept under confinement in pregnancy for nearly their entire marriage, an extremely insensitive act that ended up killing her, and Sally was not freed despite their lengthy and apparently loyal relationship, even if her four oldest children by him and two of her brothers were the only slaves Jefferson freed during his lifetime. His writings have been used to justify the turn of the American court system against virtue and religion in the public sphere, which is another considerable sin that can be attributed to his incautious and excessive rhetoric concerning the notorious “wall of separation.” His removal of the miraculous from his version of the Bible was a massive failure of faith. Moreover, his moral cowardice in refusing to help lead and shape Virginian and Southern political opinion away from slavery and towards a more just and egalitarian society, especially later in life, was a major contributing factor in the destruction of the plantation civilization of which he was a major leading light. Even in his personal life, Jefferson’s virtue was definitely lacking [1], with his lengthy affair with a slave concubine that was exposed while he was president by someone he had hired to blacken another man’s reputation, and with his affair with a married woman while serving as the American Minister to France. Jefferson’s virtue was sorely lacking in his personal and political life, and in his practice of Christian religion, and again, his immensely rich rhetoric does not balance the scales.

What does this mean for us? We live in a world where instant DNA tests, and the presence of continual facial recognition and data trails make it difficult to live the sort of elaborate secrete life that Jefferson did, although many are still tempted to try. A life of generally high virtue and honor does not necessarily lead to a good reputation, especially as any weakness can be seized upon to ruin the whole. Our desire to have a private life and defend it as opposed to the continual publicity and attention-seeking of our times, of which most of us are guilty in some way or another of trying to draw good attention to ourselves while shunning bad attention, lead us to live very complicated lives that are often in a state of considerable tension. Yet if we remember that our reputation, honor, and virtue all have at least some relationship with the truth and with each other can be an aid to our efforts to live decent and successful lives. We might decide that image management is everything, and focus our attention on building a pretty masque to hide our true selves so that we may blend in with high society and low society according to our choice. We may, alternatively, decide to focus first on what is inside, and then to gradually extend that work to the surface as our virtue builds a sense of honor, and recognition of that honor builds a good reputation over time, if we are more concerned with the long run. Whatever choice we make, we make decisions that could reverberate for centuries, if we are as fortunate and as unfortunate as Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Monticello.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to No Sacred Honor

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