One often hears that that we can’t judge people
of another era by the standards of our time. This is often asserted
when one looks back in U.S. history to evaluate the actions of
our founding fathers, for example. When one critiques people such
as Thomas Jefferson, not only for owning slaves but for expressing
ugly racist beliefs, the response is that he was simply expressing
an idea prevalent in the world in which he lived, as if there
was no way to think outside of racism. This approach avoids a
simple question: “Were there any people expressing alternative
ideas at the time?”
Of course there were. Among them was Thomas Paine, another major
figure in the establishment of the United States, known for his
best-selling 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” that made the case for
independence from England. What is less well known about Paine
is that he was an opponent of slavery. He arrived in America in
1774 and quickly wrote an anti-slavery article that was published
on March 8, 1775, in the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly
Advertiser. A few weeks later an anti-slavery society was
formed in Philadelphia, with Paine as a founding member. His article
started with a clear condemnation of slavery and the Americans
who supported it.
Certainly Jefferson was familiar with Paine and the arguments
against slavery. Certainly Jefferson was aware of the existence
of the idea that all humans had an equal claim to liberty and
the argument that Africans should be considered human in these
matters. Certainly there were many different ideas about the institution
of slavery and racism in play at the time. So, we are not judging
Jefferson by the standards of our time when we point out the way
in which he employed racism to justify the barbarism of slavery.
We are acknowledging that others in Jefferson’s time – including
such notable figures as Paine – articulated anti-slavery and anti-racist
principles, at the same time that Jefferson was in 1781 writing
in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” about the natural inferiority
In that work, Jefferson explained that skin
color was crucial, which led him to conclude, “Are not the fine
mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by
greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to
that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that
immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the
other race?” Smell was an issue for Jefferson as well. Blacks
“secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin,
which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour,” he explained.
Among his other “insights” into Africans:
“They seem to require less sleep. A black, after
hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest
amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing
he must be out with the first dawn of the morning.
“They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome.
But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which
prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present,
they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than
“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason,
and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal
to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely
be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations
of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and
And then there is the question of sex. Jefferson
believed in the “superior beauty” of whites, noting “the preference
of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black women over those of
his own species.” He also observed that black men “are more ardent
after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager
desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
It is unclear whether when Jefferson raped his slave Sally Hemings
he was trying to provide a little tenderness in her life that
black partners apparently could not. Nor is it clear whether Jefferson
spent much time wondering whether his preference for a black woman
meant he had something in common with the Oranootan.
Wait just a minute – Jefferson raped a slave? The author of the
Declaration of Independence was not only a slave-owner but a rapist?
That description is not heresy but simple logic. The historical
consensus is that Jefferson had sex with Sally Hemings, one of
the 150 slaves at Monticello, the Jefferson plantation. Even the
official guardian of the Jefferson legacy acknowledges this: “The
DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available
documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability
that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most
likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing
in Jefferson’s records.”
Rape is defined as sex without consent.
Slaves do not consent to their enslavement. To ask whether a slave
consents to any particular order given by a master under such
conditions is a meaningless question. Sally Hemings was a slave.
Thomas Jefferson owned her. Jefferson had sex with Hemings. Therefore,
Jefferson raped Hemings, who under conditions of enslavement could
not give meaningful consent. That he raped her at least once we
know with “high probability.” That he raped her five other times
is “most likely.” That he raped her numerous other times is certainly
This is hardly surprising; white slave owners routinely raped
their slaves. When stated generically – “white masters sometimes
raped their African slaves” – the statement doesn’t spark controversy.
What reason is there to assume Jefferson was different? Since
he was willing to own other human beings and force them to work,
why would we expect him to be unwilling to force at least one
of them to have sex? Why should the same term applied to other
slave owners not be used to describe Jefferson’s conduct? Yet
Americans seem to have a strong need to tell a different story
about Jefferson, even when acknowledging these unpleasant realities
about his life.
I know of no history textbook in which there is an acknowledgement
that Jefferson raped at least one of his slaves. Why? Because
to acknowledge such things that bluntly is to take a step on the
road to coming to terms with the three racist holocausts that
have formed the United States of America. It’s to acknowledge
that the story we tell ourselves about this country is as much
myth as fact. It’s to face the ugly, brutal, violent racist history
of the country; understand that our affluent society is the product
of that history; and then recognize that such violence continues
to protect our affluence and perpetuate racialized disparities
in the worldwide distribution of wealth.
History matters. It matters whether we tell the truth about what
happened centuries ago, and it matters whether we tell the truth
about more recent history. It matters because if we can’t, we
will never be able to face the present, guaranteeing that our
future will be doomed. That isn’t meant hyperbolically: I mean
doomed. I mean that a society with such inequality at so many
levels is unsustainable. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the
sense of urgency in this struggle the night before he was assassinated.
On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, TN, he warned that “if something
isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the
world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of
hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
This essay is excerpted from The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting
Race, Racism and White Privilege (City
Lights, September 2005). Jensen is a professor of journalism
at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at [email protected] .
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