Jefferson and the Post-War Era: Race, Miscegenation, and History


  • Eric T. Owens Wichita State University


Thomas Jefferson criticism, Thomas Jefferson biographies, Sally Hemings


The memory of Thomas Jefferson has long been associated with the American experience of race and slavery. Just as Jefferson's words are used whenever freedom, liberty, and democracy need defending, Jefferson's example is used whenaever racial hypocrisy is criticized. In the nineteenth century, abolitionists used Jefferson's words as weapons, while Southerners used his example as a defense. It is the issue of race that has most clouded Jefferson's reputation in the second half of the present century. As the Civil Rights Movement gradually became a success, and as scholars increasingly realized that Jefferson's notion of equality was not the same as the modern idea of equality, Jefferson's fortunes began to fall in the academic community. Discussions of Jefferson's legacy have become increasingly complex since the nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1943. Ambivalence and qualification now surround most writing on Jefferson as the innocence of the 1940s and 1950s yielded to the skepticism and cynicism of later decades. Jefferson's life is a parallel with the destiny of the nation with regard to racial issues, and this parallel can be seen in the histories that have been written about Jefferson.