Jeffersonian Oppression: How the Third President Foreshadowed and Shaped Modern U.S. Imperialism
Copyright 2012 by Dustin Lewis
In the United States, Thomas Jefferson is a trans-historic figure. His name, writings, and persona crop up in modern life and provide a historical reference point for current, sometimes disparate trends of social and political thought. In the process, historians, politicians, and the public alike continue to shape our understanding of him.
Thomas Jefferson is typically represented as a champion of freedom and democracy, however those words may be construed. One of the 'Founding Fathers' of the United States, he is regularly thought to represent a spirit of virtue and independence.
Certainly Jefferson deserves inquiry. He is long-credited as the primary author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. A quarter-century later he began two terms as the third President of the United States. But history, or more specifically historiography, often reveals more about the authors, the times, and the places of various writings than it does about object of study.
In the United States, the notion that Thomas Jefferson represents an oppressive figure is controversial. Most promotion and defense of Jefferson is not based on any 'pure' view of history. Instead, Jefferson is symbolic. He represents not just a particular figure in history but the ideals, traits, and characteristics which the United States continues to associate itself with. Thus, to detract from a positive appraisal of Jefferson is to similarly do so with the United States.
Jefferson himself denied credit for creating the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. In his own view he acted politically as a tribute of the 'people.' It might be more appropriate to say he represented a certain class of people which both excluded and was engaged in an antagonistic relationship with Blacks, Native Americans, and other colonized people. Obviously these latter groups (along with women) were outside of Jefferson's thinking when he wrote, “all men are created equal,” and this was implicitly understood by his contemporaries. Therefore we should not think of Jefferson's racism as his own, nor judge him personally on this basis. But the idea that we should not judge Jefferson as an individual in relation to current perspectives does not preclude the ability and duty to critically appraise with the benefit of hindsight the broader history he was part of. Jefferson's writings, views, and official policies reflected a brand of settler-chauvinism which, based as it was on the settler-colonial social relations of the nascent United States, was fairly common. In this light, understanding Jefferson as an oppressive figure serves to promote an understanding of the oppressive relations sustained by the society he represented and led.