Do You Want to Be Lied to, or Not?

They use it as an asterisk. Like when the governing commission is forced to add an explanation to a sports stat. Babe Ruth and Roger Maris or whatever. The sports hero is the greatest ever…except with this teensy asterisk caveat. The same treatment is granted to the white men who established America. Historians, politicians, we white people—we say our Founding Fathers were the greatest…except they enslaved people for profit.

We are wrong. It’s not an asterisk. It’s a split screen.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also experimented on children to see how young he could put them to work in his foundry and still produce quality penny nails. Was ten years too young? Was nine? How about eight? He settled on age ten for these boys who he personally supervised in the nailery. A “workforce” he kept productive by ordering lashing and whipping.

Our country was founded on the highest principles of freedom. Our country was established on the profits of owning human beings.

Why am I trash-talking Thomas Jefferson? Because I went to the University of Virginia, the school he founded, designed, and, along with the Declaration of Independence, put on his tombstone as one of his three greatest achievements. Young and ignorant, I arrived to “the grounds” of Mr. Jefferson’s university that featured his amazing architecture. Our first-year orientation session was three-fourths talk about the great Mr. Jefferson. The university is located within an easy drive to his Monticello home where he experimented on children.

During my undergrad days, I read the entire six volumes of Dumas Malone definitive biography of Jefferson (six volumes!). Yet, it would be decades before I learned about his relationships with 14 year old Sally Hemings who first became pregnant by 46-year-old Jefferson at age 16. I only recently learned about the penny nail experiments. Why is that? Because we want to treat the owning of human beings as an asterisk.

Our country was established on the profits of owning human beings. Our country was founded on the highest principles of freedom.

When Thomas Jefferson realized how much money he could make from selling babies, he went all in. (“What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest.”) He then scoffed at his fellow planters who were too stupid to follow his business model. He spread the gospel of slave breeding. So perhaps you can thank Jefferson for the South’s aggregation of “wealth” in Black men and women that led them to declare war on the North to retain their money.*

Our country was established on the profits of owning human beings. Our country was founded on the highest principles of freedom.

What is the third accomplishment on Jefferson’s tombstone? The Virginia statue on freedom of religion, which set the principle of separation of church and state. Why was that so important to Jefferson? He identified as a Deist. He went through his Bible and excised (literally cut out) Jesus’s miracle parts. He admired Jesus’s moral teachings, but didn’t believe Jesus was divine. He wanted the freedom to think, believe and worship as he wanted. And he wanted to forever establish that freedom for you and me too.

Our country was founded on the greatest principles of freedom. Our country was established on the profits of owning human beings.

Do you think the newly-proposed “1776 Commission” would teach any of this? I don’t. First, the entire purpose of the “patriotic” commission is to regain ground white people lost when we quit bowdlerizing history. To accomplish this, white heroes will once again become perfect. More importantly, such a Commission wouldn’t teach the truth because human beings loathe a “both” understanding of anything, including history. We want it clean cut. Bullet points. Black and white.

Why does this issue rile me up so? Because I was lied to. Someone down the line—1790, 1941, 1963, 1975—decided FOR ME that I didn’t need to know the truth about Jefferson. They read what he did and, in the famous words of Jack Nicholson, concluded I couldn’t handle the truth. I was too dumb to parse the good and the bad and chose for my own damn self how to handle his life.

Now, they’re proposing to go back to those censorship days with the government telling us what to think about America. That makes me so damn mad I could spit. I’m certain it would make Mr. Jefferson—champion of free thinkers—mad too, even if it meant disclosing his moral corruption. He would believe best practices are to learn it all; understand that even those with the highest principles can be corrupted by money and debt; and, don’t whitewash failures—take lessons from them instead.

Thomas Jefferson was the brilliant architect of principles that keep our country in motion today. Thomas Jefferson was an immoral greedy exploiter of men, women, children, and babies.

Our country was founded on the greatest principles of freedom.

Our country was established on the profits of owning human beings.

It’s not an asterisk. It’s a split-screen.

* I am not using “20/20 hindsight unfair judgments.” Jefferson’s contemporaries who were inspired by his stated ideals of freedom actually freed the men and women they owned; they were limitlessly disappointed in his failed action.

1776 Commission, lying about history, Racist founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson slave-owner, University of virginia

Comments (10)

  • What an eye-opening, educational, and inspiring post this is, Ellen! It makes me question yet again just how much truth vs. white-washing (no pun intended) our history books portray. Thank you and be well.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Good Lord, Donna, you are a friend, indeed (I am a TERRIBLE speller!) Thank you for reading, contacting, commenting, and finding something of value in this post. What I couldn’t get past was that Jefferson knew these little boys. They lived all up with each other. Yet, for him, they were simply an extension of making Monticello profitable. You cannot excuse that.

  • The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. (F Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, 1936)
    As another UVa alum, Thank you for helping me still be able to hang onto him for the Good (while despairing for the other).

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      What a great quote. You (probably do) know, Dumas Malone went to his grave defending him, and yet it was Malone’s meticulous cataloging of Jefferson’s movements that proved Hemings’ children were born 9 months from the dates of his returns to Monticello. Malone’s inability to conceive of the relationship was undoubtedly not just puritan but racist itself.

  • One of the creepiest Thomas Jefferson facts for me is that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. Sally’s entire existence speaks to racial and sexual violence and exploitation.

    Thank you for the powerful post, Ellen.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Creepy is the exact word for it. You’re thinking, how much worse can it get? Then you’re like, oh…. Thanks so much for weighing in.

  • If you ever decide to give up your present writing program and become a historian, you are well prepared to do so. I also appreciate your anger. My undergraduate school, Rice, did not admit African Americans while I was there. And the University of Texas, public institution, didn’t either. I think the history recently written is much clearer about role slavery played in the creation of wealth in the early republic.
    But we keep striving. Do you know the work of Annette Gordon Reed? Highly recommended for Jefferson studies.
    I haven’t yet said how powerful and well done this piece is. And as they say in Texas I am proud to know you

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      My goodness. I didn’t know that about Rice. What seems like history is, in fact, such a short time ago. I don’t know Reed, but I will look her up. Thanks for the recommendation. As to my being a historian, first I have to pursue my amateur neuropsychology degree. 🙂

  • Thank you for this well-written, totally outrageous and enraging piece on T J. I continue to be shocked at the wild contradictions between the talk and the walk. Ok, I’m guilty on some level too, but selling babies! And then there’s the issue of those who cover up the actual walk to protect the sanctity of the talk. Give us the whole story, folks. We’re grownups. We can use our critical minds to sift through the whole story and come to our own conclusions. And I’m not just talking about Mr Jefferson.

    • It’s so true. I had known for a while about his personal manipulation of the foundry at Monticello, his up-close-and-personal exploitation of the children. Then I learned how young Sally Hemings was. No one EVER calls her a child. It’s like we can only take so much drawing back of the curtain at once.

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