A Founding Contradiction | Hidden Brain "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." These words, penned by Thomas Jefferson more than 240 years ago, continue to inspire many Americans. And yet they were written by a man who owned hundreds of slaves, and fathered six children by an enslaved woman. This week, we talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed about the contradictions in Jefferson's life — and how those contradictions might resonate in our own lives.
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A Founding Contradiction: Thomas Jefferson's Stance On Slavery

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A Founding Contradiction: Thomas Jefferson's Stance On Slavery

A Founding Contradiction: Thomas Jefferson's Stance On Slavery

A Founding Contradiction: Thomas Jefferson's Stance On Slavery

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/670803601/670985195" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, yet he also wrote that "all men are created equal." How did he square the contradictions between his values and his everyday life? ericfoltz/Getty Images hide caption

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ericfoltz/Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, yet he also wrote that "all men are created equal." How did he square the contradictions between his values and his everyday life?

ericfoltz/Getty Images

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." These words, penned by Thomas Jefferson more than 240 years ago, continue to inspire many Americans.

And yet these very same words — affirming the equality and dignity of all — were written by a man who owned hundreds of slaves, and fathered six children by an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings.

For historian Annette Gordon-Reed, the contradictions embedded in Jefferson's life are "a window into us, into who we are as Americans."

"The fascinating thing about Jefferson is that he, in some ways, embodies the country," she says. "A lot of Jefferson's contradictions are alive in us. I don't think there's anybody in the founding generation who embodies that so well... and that's what makes him a subject that we can't really, I think, do without."

This week on Hidden Brain, we take a deep dive into history as a window into psychology. We look closely at the life and beliefs of a man who helped shape the modern United States — and ask how his complexities and contradictions have echoes in our own lives.

Additional Reading:

1) Much of our conversation in this episode drew from material in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf.

2) "Engaging Jefferson: Blacks and the Founding Father" by Annette Gordon Reed, The William and Mary Quarterly.

3) The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Thomas Lu, and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Camila Vargas-Restrepo is our intern. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.