Date of Award

5-2020

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Departmental Honors

Department

English

First Advisor

Keri Holt

Abstract

Thomas Jefferson is often presented as an enigma. He who wrote that “all men are created equal” also owned over six hundred slaves during the course of his life. Jefferson was a man of immense complexity and intelligence and, as such, his beliefs cannot be presented in simplified terms. Although his contradictory positions on race and slavery were common during his time, his hypocrisy received critique from contemporaries. Jefferson was a famously sensitive man, and in order to avoid judgement from his peers, he often either censored himself or used eloquent but empty words to satisfy his disparagers. Some historians point toward documents where he appeases his critics as proof that Jefferson did not truly believe in the morality of racism and slavery while others argue that the slaves he owned and never freed are evidence of his actual beliefs on race. I argue that Jefferson chooses to misrepresent his beliefs on race and slavery when confronted by critics rather than face judgement or political backlash from a nation divided on the subject of slavery.

This project analyzes primary sources from Jefferson (Notes on the State of Virginia and letter exchanges with Benjamin Banneker, Henri Grégoire, and Edward Coles) from a literary perspective to identify how Jefferson’s audience awareness led to a certain degree of self-censorship on matters of race and slavery. By analyzing those who challenged, asked for clarification, and criticized the Sage of Monticello in conjunction with his responses to them, we can observe the precipitous line he walked as he attempted to maintain his public image. The project also uses biographies and academic studies to better understand the political atmosphere surrounding Jefferson as he deftly worked to remain a respectable politician. By both using close readings of Jefferson’s letters and examining his political context, we can begin to detangle his complicated beliefs regarding race and slavery.

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