U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: A Racist Even At His Best: Thomas Jefferson in Stamped from the Beginning

Editor's Note

This post by Rebecca Brenner is part of our ongoing discussion of Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. Rebecca Brenner is a Ph.D student in history at American University where she studies Early American intellectual history.

Regarding Confederate monuments, Colin Kaepernick, or another issue, I lost track of how many times I thought in response to people’s social media posts: Their opinions might be different if they had read Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Ibram Kendi’s masterpiece rewrites American history through the lens of racist, assimilationist, and anti-racist ideas. He analyzes these three competing ideologies through five “tour guides”: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis.[1] For the purpose of this post, I focus on the second racist tour guide – Thomas Jefferson – before Kendi discusses assimilationists. Kendi’s treatment of his second tour guide transforms historical understanding of Jefferson by explaining even him at his best moments as shaped by racist ideas.

Before reading Stamped from the Beginning, I considered Jefferson’s offer of his library to the federal government during the War of 1812 to be Jefferson at his best. In August 1814, British troops burned symbolic buildings in Washington, DC, including the congressional library. Jefferson wrote to his friend Samuel H. Smith, chief editor of the Jeffersonian partisan newspaper the National Intelligencer, to pass along an offer to Congress: “The vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts by the destruction of the public library… I presume it will be among the early objects of Congress to recommence their collection… You know my collection, its condition and extent.”[2] Jefferson offered his priceless collection for a modest sum, acknowledging his unique combination of financial resources, opportunities for leisure, time in French bookshops while Ambassador to France, and his passion for knowledge. Key works in his collection included the philosophies of John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Kendi notes Locke’s stance on slavery: “You should feel nothing at all others’ misfortune.”[3] Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Jefferson’s favorite, calls Africans “apelike.”[4] Philosophers David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau likewise espoused racist ideas. Kendi reminds readers that Enlightenment political philosophers and by extension Jefferson, even at their best, held and spread racist ideas. Their ideas reinforced the institution of slavery at a formative time in American history.

The concluding sentences of Kendi’s Jefferson section read: “Black faces gathered around his bed. They were probably his final sight, and he gave them his final words. He had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Jefferson rested in the comfort of slavery.”[5] Jefferson remains sacred in American civil religion. After all, he drafted a charter that has become canonical: the Declaration of Independence. Americans make pilgrimages to the Jefferson Memorial to reflect on the author of that Declaration. Quoting Jefferson is a valuable tool in political rhetoric because voters often identify with Jefferson’s legacy, however they interpret it. As if by divine intervention, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This shocking coincidence is formative for young Americans learning national identity. And yet, Kendi returns readers to the reality that Jefferson’s death took place like his life, in comfort made possible through the enslavement of human beings.

Kendi masterfully rewrites our understanding of American history. His account is possible because race and racism are central to American history. Previous historians, including Gordon S. Wood, portrayed Jefferson as a radical founder who applied Enlightenment philosophy to create a new nation.[6] Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson contends that Jefferson was a “sphinx”: constantly saying one thing and doing another and comfortable with these contradictions.[7] In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, Annette Gordon-Reed exposes previous historians’ racist assumptions regarding Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, and in The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, she reveals the rich history of a family enslaved in America. Most recently, Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf focus on how Jefferson viewed his own life and legacy.[8] Thus, before Stamped, Jefferson historiography emphasized either his accomplishments or his complicity in slavery. Stamped considers Jefferson fully as a racist who shaped the course of events. This cherished founder, central to political speeches, public history, and academic interpretations of the early United States, is one of two “racist” “tour guides” in Kendi’s account. Instead of portraying Jefferson as the embodiment of contradictions, Kendi reveals that Jefferson espoused racist ideas quite consistently.

[1] Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016) 2-8.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel H. Smith, September 1814 (Reprinted by the Library of Congress, 1904).

[3] Quoted in Kendi, 49.

[4] Quoted in Kendi, 50

[5] Kendi, 158

[6] Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[7] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[8] Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997); Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008); Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Rebecca, thanks for this post, which recalls to me not only your fantastic paper at the S-USIH conference last October — delivered commandingly in that much-coveted Sunday 8:00 a.m. time slot! — but also the remarks of our keynote speaker, Annette Gordon-Reed, regarding Jefferson’s ideas about race in life and his ideas in print, how much distance there may have been between the two, and how/whether it matters. As AGR pointed out, and as IXK demonstrates in his sustained argument, Notes on the State of Virginia designedly conveyed racist ideas. AGR noted that it’s evident from Jefferson’s actions — entrusting vast resources / wealth / responsibility to the Black slaves who supervised various parts of his estate and his business ventures — that he himself did not seem to believe the lie of Black inferiority that he so carefully argued for in Notes.

    This contradiction in Jefferson suggested to me at the time the continuing challenge facing intellectual historians — what is “idea” and what is “context”? Is “lived exeperience” something we can set aside or strip away from “the text” in order to get at the ideas in it? Should we?

    After reading Kendi, I can see a stronger case for why we in fact should regard the words set to paper for others to read, rather than the beliefs they lived out, as the primary ideas to study — though, interestingly, Kendi claims they were not written with the idea that others might read them, a claim I found unusual given what I understand of the correspondence customs of the time. Of course all this depends on what question one is asking.

    But the “strange career” of racist ideas expressed in Notes had a far longer-lasting impact on American thought than the strained conflicts evident in Jefferson’s own lived-out-thoughts. I suppose that teasing out a contradictory subtext — the text of Jefferson’s complicated ideas-as-manifest-in-life behind the text of his simplistic racial arguments on the page — might be the very work that needs to be done to blunt or shorten the career of those arguments.

    Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

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