deplorable entaglements

the flawed nature of heroism

A “deplorable entanglement,” a “moral depravity,”[1] and a “hideous blot.”[2]Thomas Jefferson believed slavery was the greatest threat to the survival of America[3], a new nation in his time. In his mind, the continuation of slavery was destined to lead to civil war and destroy the union… a rather accurate prediction from our perspective today.

“All men are created equal.” These are the words of Jefferson.

Yet he owned over 600 slaves in the course of his lifetime and indeed died a slave-owner. Only 7 enslaved men gained their freedom from Jefferson.

Hemmings Cabin

Hemmings Cabin plaque

Mulberry Row, where a number of slave family cabins once stood

While touring Monticello (Jefferson’s estate) earlier today, I couldn’t help but dwell on the complexities of the man.

I’ve always (and still do) revere him. His profound curiosity and veracity for truth is admirable. At one point, he possessed the largest library in the western hemisphere with over 6,000 books on every topic imaginable: philosophy, history, ethics, law, medicine, mineralogy, zoology, astronomy, mathematics, geography, poetry, gardening, sculpture, didactic, architecture, logic, polygraphic studies, language… the list goes on.

He advocated ideals of individual freedom which had never been quite so articulated before in human history. A Founding Father. Ambassador to France. Writer of the Declaration of Independence. 2nd vice president of the United States and its 3rd president. The founder of the University of Virginia…

I cannot not admire him.

But to lionize him is to dehumanize him. Just as with any other person, deifying him is excusing reality.

To admire, even respect someone, is not fundamentally tied to a moral approbation of the entire person.

Jefferson, like anyone, was a product of his time. He wrote that the institution of slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”[4]

The institution was so much a part of the fabric of society, that to dissolve it immediately would surely have ended America. The moral argument surrounding this topic is an intense one but it’s not difficult to imagine the immense difficulty of Jefferson’s dilemma.

We’re all subject to the weight of society’s norms, even norms which contradict our stated beliefs. Escaping and challenging, (much less overturning) those norms, is among humanity’s greatest struggle.

The hideous blots, moral depravities, and deplorable entanglements that plague us today act, in part, as reminders of our humanity. May we allow them to highlight the nuances we willingly or unwittingly ignore.


[1] Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, September 10, 1814, in PTJ:RS, 7:652. Transcriptionavailable at Founders Online.

[2] Jefferson to William Short, September 8, 1823, Thomas Jefferson PapersEarl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Transcription available at Founders Online.

[3] Jefferson to John Homes, April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.

[4] Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.

Monticello gardens

Slave cabin overlooking the gardens

Monticello