Thomas Jefferson was brilliant and visionary, making so much of the potential of the Enlightenment real. Without him it's not clear that our declaration of independence, constitution or even bill of rights would be the remarkably durable and influential documents they are. He has also lost standing as one of our great presidents because he owned slaves and had a relationship with one.
|In the Jefferson Memorial|
We don't measure Jefferson by whether he owned slaves. We measure his greatness by how much he changed the world and how that change has rippled into future generations. Before Jefferson, aristocracy and power was something inherited; after Jefferson "all men were created equal." It's true and somewhat baffling that he apparently didn't stop to think that not only could a land surveyor like Washington be equal to a king like George but that a black could as well as a white. It is also true that as future generations tried to honor the spirit of "all men are created equal" it helped to fuel racial equality. His vision of democracy helped to change hundreds of countries and democracies almost invariably result in the creation of wealth and longer lives, enabling people more freedom to think, live according to their conscience, and choose a life of their own making. We measure Jefferson's life by how many lives are better because of what he wrote and created.
You don't need many people as impactful as Jefferson. The measure of how great a person is is not whether they had as nice a car in 1800 as everyone seems to have today or whether they were as "woke" about racial or feminists issues as many are today. The measure of how great a person is how much they were able to move the people of their time forward.
We are not better people than Jefferson because we don't own slaves. That's like thinking we're richer than Rockefeller because we have access to antibiotics or smart phones. The equivalent of Jefferson today would be the person able to end childhood poverty, making sure that every child had a safe place to sleep each night and there would be no difference in the quality of educational opportunities because of the difference in parents' income. The equivalent of Jefferson today would be someone who restructured democratic procedures and institutions so that people felt as delighted by their government as they are by their favorite restaurant. You aren't better than Jefferson unless you move the world forward as much as he did and I rather doubt that anyone reading this silly blog post is that person. But if you are, congratulations and let me tell you something I have never been able to tell Jefferson: thank you for making this a better world and while I'm not thrilled about whatever obvious flaws you have (perhaps you eat meat from factory animals or spend $200 on shoes, $200 you could send to refugee children or ... well who knows what all), I'm game to overlook them in you even if my great grandchildren (rightfully, I think) don't overlook those flaws in your great grandchildren.
The measure of progress is not where we are but how far we have come. The measure of greatness is not how we compare to the standards of people living two centuries after us but instead how much we changed the standards from when we were born. By that measure, it's not clear to me that we have anyone today who can compare to Jefferson.