Mike Murphy

Period 2


Jefferson and the “Character Issue”

Generally, Thomas Jefferson is known as the author of our Declaration of Independence, the document upon which American is based.   By framing ideals regarded by the people as revolutionary, and instituting constitutional rights such as personal liberty and freedom, Jefferson is regarded as one of most important of our founding fathers.   However, the personal failings of Jefferson have planted doubt in many historians’ mind as to whether he was, for lack of a better term, a just and moral person, worthy of remaining an important American symbol.   Jefferson was quite accomplished as a politician, statesman, philosopher, architect, and visionary of the great westward expansion.   While, indeed, Jefferson made questionable and contradictory decisions, his actions are interpreted through the looking glass of modern society, an example of presentism.   He was a mere product of his environment, acting as most white land owners did during the late 1700’s, early 1800’s.

“’Presentism’ is the term that historians use for applying contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past.”   In simpler terms, presentism is the incorrect application of modern ideals and values to past events.   It is a fact that society’s morals and opinions change as time progresses.   Drastic changes in society can be seen as early as the 1970s to today, not to mention over 200 years ago.   As mentioned in the text, it was not very uncommon to find a racist slave owner sleeping with one of his slaves.   This fact has been distorted, however, not only because of Thomas Jefferson’s status in society, but because of the changed opinions of the people over time.   In Jefferson’s time period, slavery was a normal part of life that was common among rich whites, and stark ideas were just beginning to emerge while little action was taken.   Nonetheless, people today look at slavery as it is presently seen and bash Jefferson...