Jefferson's Ties to Slavery

Re "A Slave to His Time and Place," Commentary, Nov. 3: Garry Wills made a flawed decision to ignore contradictory documentary evidence to justify writing an entire book to cast anew the false shadow of slavery over Thomas Jefferson. He asserts that "[Jefferson] did everything he could to protect and extend the slave system."

Fawn Brodie's book "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait" provides extensive documentation to show that Jefferson's original version of the Declaration of Independence would have outlawed slavery, a provision that was later removed to maintain unity among the various colonies. He also repeatedly sought changes in Virginia law that would have allowed a master to free his slaves. Another researcher, following the lives of Monticello slave children, found they were smuggled to Illinois to live in freedom. Jefferson had to make a hard decision. Unable to free his slaves, he made of them an extended family, which, given the alternatives, was probably their best opportunity for happy and fulfilling lives.

Channing Hillway



Wills omits mention of the extraordinary historian who first documented that Jefferson did not marry after his young wife died but instead commenced a long-term relationship with her younger half-sister and house slave, Sally Hemings. UCLA's Brodie was a psychological historian and former Mormon feminist who published the first study of Jefferson's secret liaison.

Wills calls the Hemings' story "trivial," but Brodie's work was groundbreaking. An American historian in a field dominated by men and their hagiographic treatment of America's "forefathers," Brodie brought to the surface of our culture a monumental story of the foundations of racial tensions in America. Hemings was the daughter and granddaughter of slave mistresses. She was part of the institution of concubinage in the antebellum South and an unwitting "foremother" of subsequent race relations in America.

If it weren't for DNA testing, Brodie and Hemings would still be discredited by male historians with an agenda. Hemings' relationship with Jefferson can no longer be denied, but Brodie is now in the shadows. Whenever Hemings' story is told, Brodie's name deserves to be mentioned.

Jean E. Rosenfeld

Pacific Palisades


Without going into Wills' tricky analysis of the election of 1800, I would like to remind him of some other facts. Time after time, while governor of Virginia and in the Declaration of Independence, and in his public statements, Jefferson wanted the slave trade ended and the gradual emancipation of the slaves. To quote from his "Notes on the State of Virginia": The Legislature would be forbidden to introduce "any more slaves into this state" or continue slavery "beyond the generation which shall be living on the thirty-first day of December, 1800: all persons born after that day being hereby declared free."

In spite of his public record on slavery, it is usually assumed that because Jefferson did not free his own slaves he supported the institution. When Jefferson died in 1826, his estate was so heavily in debt that his heirs had to sell it to pay off the debts. You cannot free what you don't own.

Thomas R. Tefft

Palm Desert


It is always nice to have someone make a point without polemics, as Wills did in his piece about Jefferson. My only demurral is that he didn't show how much our third president was troubled by the very things Wills points out; how much pain it must have brought him to contemplate the future of a free nation built on slavery.

Jefferson cannot be blamed that even a great mind such as his could ponder deeply and still find no easy solution to a problem that was eventually solved only by fratricidal war and the shedding of much blood, both black and white. Anyone who doubts this need only consider the anguish that must have accompanied these words written about slavery: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

Robert A. Fruge

Cathedral City

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