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.

A Founding Contradiction

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: All nations...


JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: At the stroke of the midnight hour...

VEDANTAM: ...Are built on stories.


NEHRU: ...India will awake to life and freedom.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VEDANTAM: They're stories about ideals...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VEDANTAM: ...The values around which a people stake their identity.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing ground.

PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: Mates helping mates. That's what it means to be Australian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking German).

NELSON MANDELA: Let freedom ring. God bless Africa. I thank you.


VEDANTAM: Often, these stories contain contradictions...


VEDANTAM: ...Some so profound that most of us simply look the other way.


VEDANTAM: The United States has its own set of founding myths and its own set of contradictions. One of the most striking unfolded in 1776 at a house on the southwest corner of 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia. That summer, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson rented rooms at this house. While he was there, he wrote the document that would formalize America's split from Britain - the Declaration of Independence. It says, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...

SEAN CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life...

VEDANTAM: That among these are life...

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) Liberty...

VEDANTAM: ...And the pursuit of happiness.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) And the pursuit of happiness.

VEDANTAM: And yet, even as he was writing these inspiring words...

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) That to secure these rights...

VEDANTAM: ...Jefferson was attended on by a slave. He was a 14-year-old boy named Robert Hemings. Jefferson, in fact, owned hundreds of slaves. He fathered six children with an enslaved woman.


VEDANTAM: Today, we take a deep dive into history as a window into psychology. We look closely at the life and beliefs of a man who shaped the modern United States and ask how his complexities and contradictions have echoes in our own lives. How our minds justify our choices - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: Thomas Jefferson is remembered as a founding father of the United States. But historian Annette Gordon-Reed looks at his life beyond the writing of the Declaration of Independence. She and her co-author, Peter Onuf, explore Jefferson's inner life in their book, "Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of The Imagination." Annette, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Glad to be here. Thank you for asking.

VEDANTAM: The story of Jefferson and the story of slavery in the United States are deeply intertwined. I understand that Jefferson's earliest memory involved a slave.

GORDON-REED: Yes. He told his grandchildren that his earliest memory was of being handed up on a pillow to an enslaved person, as his family was making a move from his boyhood home of Shadwell to Tuckahoe plantation. And so making this journey with his siblings and his parents, Jefferson was carried by an enslaved person. And so he says that that was his first memory.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, slavery continued to play an important part in his life throughout his childhood. When he turned 21, he inherited 5,000 acres and a number of slaves. About a decade later, following his marriage, he received another two plantations and even more slaves. What did he do with all this land and human property?

GORDON-REED: Well, he basically lived the life of a planter. Enslaved people planted tobacco at first and then later wheat. They served in his household. They were the source of his wealth. He was a lawyer by trade, but being a plantation owner was the sort of basic understanding of himself, the basic part of his life.


VEDANTAM: Even as he became a slaveholder, Jefferson also thought of himself as being an educated and cultured man. He read voraciously. He loved music. He considered himself to be a man of science and reason. And much of his learning taught him that slavery was a terrible institution, but slavery was also, as we've discovered, essential to his way of life. What do Jefferson's early writings tell us about his views about this contradiction?

GORDON-REED: Well, he thought of himself as, as I indicated, a progressive person. And you have to remember that a lot of people who would be considered cultured and educated people were slave owners. But the difference between them and Jefferson is that they never came to the conclusion that slavery was wrong.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson, reading) The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal.

GORDON-REED: The interesting thing about him is that, as a young man, he saw himself as a part of or an adherent to the notion of the Enlightenment. And being anti-slave trade, antislavery, was one of the tenets that many people thought was a part of all of that.


GORDON-REED: So I think he saw it as something that would gradually - and that's the thing that trips us up - gradually end as people became more enlightened and learned more, that they would realize that slavery was a backwards institution, an institution from ancient times. I think he thought it was - just as we learn new scientific thoughts, just as we learn ways to make machines that are better - that the machinery of society would change, as well.

VEDANTAM: And Jefferson was a great believer in progress and things being better in the future than they were in the present.

GORDON-REED: Absolutely. And that's part of - that's a strength and a weakness. Some people say the optimism was almost too great. But he definitely thought that mankind and society would get better and better.


VEDANTAM: In her book, Annette writes (reading) Jefferson was a lifetime participant in an ancient system that made him the master of hundreds of people, over whom he had near absolute power. He could buy and sell human beings. If hostility to tyranny was at the heart of his politics and plan for the United States of America, that sentiment had no real currency on his mountain. At the same time, he well understood the basic problem with his way of life and wrote damning and insightful criticisms of the institution that made it possible.

I asked Annette whether this made Jefferson a hypocrite.

GORDON-REED: You could say that, but I think he was hypocritical in the way that many people are hypocritical, in that all of us are hypocritical when we have an intellectual belief about something, but we don't have the will (laughter) to act upon those beliefs. Jefferson did not know what to do about slavery.

Slavery was not just an economic system. It was a system of social control. What do you do with black Virginians when they are emancipated? How do they fit into society? I just don't think he could see what a sort of real plan - a realistic plan for what to do about it. And that's something that we grapple with in lots of areas - believing one thing but not having the strength to do something about it or to actually make that idea come to fruition if you have the shot.

VEDANTAM: This ambivalence toward slavery became even more difficult to navigate after Jefferson went to Paris in 1784 on behalf of the new U.S. government.

GORDON-REED: When Jefferson went to Paris, he took a man named James Hemings, who was a teenager - 18, 19 years old at the time - and he took James with him to have James trained as a chef, a French chef.

VEDANTAM: So there was some tension here because France, of course, at the time, was, you know, resounding with the cries of liberty and equality. And Jefferson, in some ways, embraced French revolutionary fervor. But how did he manage that embrace of the revolution with the slaves he had in his own household?

GORDON-REED: Well, the way he handled enslaved people - or James Hemings, when he was in France - had much more to do with French law, which, at the time, was on the side of the enslaved person. I mean, people who petitioned for freedom in France, people who had been brought from the colonies and so forth - or other enslaved people who were brought there from other places - who petitioned for freedom had those petitions granted routinely.

So when he's there with James Hemings, he knows that it's possible that James might, at some point, petition for his freedom. So he handles this, I think - although he doesn't say this - but this is the time when he begins to pay James Hemings regular wages. James becomes the chef de cuisine at the Hotel de Langeac, Jefferson's residence.

Before, he had been giving James spending money or gratuities. But once James takes over the role as the chef de cuisine, he begins to pay him. So I think he handles it by treating James as if he were a regular servant instead of an enslaved person.


VEDANTAM: Jefferson's wife had died by the time he got to France. At one point, a young slave is brought over from the United States. She's actually the sister of Robert Hemings, who was by his side as he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Who was she, and what did she become to Jefferson?

GORDON-REED: Well, Sally Hemings - Sarah, nicknamed Sally - was sister to Robert and James. She had been something of a companion to Jefferson's daughter, so she went along. And she was 14. And Sally Hemings crossed the ocean, and while she is there - we don't know when - she became Jefferson's - and their son says concubine is the term that he uses. And she became pregnant by Jefferson, and she wanted to stay in France. By the time Jefferson thinks that he wants to come home, she wanted to stay.

And actually, all of the young people in the Hotel de Langeac wanted to stay in France. Nobody wanted to go home. But Jefferson promised her that if she came back with him, she would have a good life at Monticello, and their children would be freed when they were 21 years old. So she agreed to that. She was 16 years old at the time. And she came back to Virginia with Jefferson.


VEDANTAM: So for us at least, with the vantage of history, this seems almost incomprehensible as a decision. Why would you give up, essentially, freedom in France to come back and be a slave in Virginia?

GORDON-REED: I thought about that quite a bit (laughter). When I wrote my first book, that was sort of a point of mystery for me about Sally Hemings. But when I started writing "The Hemingses Of Monticello" and working on that, and I realized how important family was, so I began to think about how important family would have been to someone like that, a 16-year-old female raised to believe that she had some special connection to family, in a way, to think about family, think about your mother is back in Virginia. Her sisters and brothers were there. So that would be an impetus. I mean, that was sort of a dilemma that many enslaved people faced. Do you run away and have freedom by yourself or do you stay and stick it out with your family?

The other thing to consider is that Jefferson treated Sally Hemings and her sisters and brothers very differently than he did the other slaves on the mountain. She had seen him let her brothers sort of wander and go off and hire their own time, work for themselves, make - keep their own money. The enslaved women on the plantation, all but the Hemingses, had to go to the fields at harvest time. The Hemings sisters did not do that. They were constructed in a different way.

And so I might have a different view of Jefferson. I have a particular view of Jefferson from this particular time and seeing him as, for lack of a better term, an enemy of these people. But it's not clear to me that she would have seen it in exactly the same way that I did. And that's one of the things you have to do when you're writing history is whatever you would want people to do, they may not think about things in the same way. So family and her history with Jefferson, not just the two of them but his relations with her mother and her brothers and all of these people, likely colored the way she considered making this decision.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, she was still a child.

GORDON-REED: Yes. Well, she was - by our light, she was a child. She was 16. The age of consent in Virginia at the time was 10, and they raised it to 12 in the 1820s, and it was that way through the 19th century in most of the states of the union. So a 16-year-old person to us is like a baby, but a 16-year-old person at that time would not have been thought of as a child.

VEDANTAM: So once they're back in Monticello, the estate in Virginia, which was Jefferson's home, he went on to father six children with Sally Hemings. But at the same time, he also had a white family that was also a part of his life. How did he navigate having these two separate families under the same roof?

GORDON-REED: Well - because he was the patriarch of Monticello. And in those days, it was much more than father knows best. What he said would go because he was the head of the household.


GORDON-REED: I think it's also important to remember that Jefferson had two surviving daughters with his wife, you know, who died in 1782. So I think he handled it by being the boss, and it was the kind of thing that people would not question. So he had basically the freedom to impose a kind of order on this place that everybody went along with. Plus, you have to remember - I think we have to remember that he wasn't married. And the idea that a man would have a mistress or a companion or that he would have a setup like this was normal in Virginia. It was not considered crazy. One of Jefferson's friends said that it was a common practice for widowed or bachelor slave owners to take an enslaved woman as - and he uses the phrase a substitute for a wife. Obviously, she couldn't be a wife because they couldn't marry. Black people and white people could not get married - well, until 1967 in Virginia. So that was out of the question. But this was something that happened in slavery, and it's hard for us to wrap our minds around just as it might be hard for us to wrap our minds around about slavery in general. But mixed children - these kinds of connections from rape to sort of long-term liaisons, however you want to call them - were a part of slave societies, and they have been in every slave society that has ever existed.

VEDANTAM: It's interesting, isn't it, because I think when most of us - at least laypeople - think about the institution of slavery, you think about it in economic terms or political terms. You don't really think about it in terms of these family relationships, which may have been every bit as important in keeping the system intact as the economic and political advantages that slavery conferred on some people.

GORDON-REED: Yes, but it also shows in some ways the deep horror of the institution because you think of family relations as, you know, biological connections, we could say, as something that would foster a sense of - well, a sense of connection. And there is a sense of connection among some people - at least it was for the Hemingses and for Jefferson - but it warps everything...


GORDON-REED: ...Because how can you have a true relationship? How can you have the kind of - a connection that we typically associate with family under these circumstances? But people did. As I said, most people, this was - they didn't care about the family connection at all. They sold children. They, you know, gave them away. But this was a very strange attempt to create something or to maintain something that is just very difficult for us to understand.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, did Jefferson see the contradictions in his own life? Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: Annette, Thomas Jefferson saw himself as one of the fathers of the nation but also as the patriarch of his own patch of paradise, this estate of Monticello in Virginia. How did Jefferson's sense of his obligations to his slaves shape the way he felt about them?

GORDON-REED: This notion of being a patriarch, which is kind of problematic for us these days, for Jefferson, it was not simply about the power he exercised over people. It would be about his sense of responsibility. And that, of course, grates with us because he's talking about responsibility over grown men and women, you know? And you'd think, hey, they could be responsible for themselves, but his experiences in France with the Hemingses, with James and Sally Hemings, they were the face of slavery for him. And he saw himself acting as a slaveholder through his relationships with them, and he is treating them differently.


GORDON-REED: He sees himself buying clothes for James, paying James a full salary in France and continuing to do so when they come back to the United States. Treating them in a different sort of way, he sees himself as a good - quote-unquote - "good and benevolent" master. Now, we balk at that - and rightfully so - but he saw himself as doing slavery in the right way, if it had to be done. And once you start to acquiesce or think of yourself as a good slave owner, I think the urgency about ending slavery dissipates.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) I have my house to build, my fields to form and to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine.

VEDANTAM: Can you talk a moment about how Jefferson related to the slaves that he owned in terms of the violence that he and his overseers perpetrated on them?

GORDON-REED: Well, there's no record of Jefferson ever beating anybody, but overseers at Monticello and his other plantations did use the whip. The whip was a ubiquitous part of control on plantations. But Jefferson developed the idea that using incentives would be a better way to get people to do things than to whip them.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) It would destroy their value, in my estimation, to degrade them in their own eyes by the whip. This, therefore, must not be resorted to but in extremities.

GORDON-REED: And while he was thinking about this, he read a number of books about changes in prisons, the way that people dealt with prisoners in penitentiaries, and the idea was incentives worked better than after-the-fact punishments. So in the 1790s when he sets up a nail factory run by boys, typically, and older teenagers, he institutes a regime of incentives, that they would get extra rations for food, they would get extra clothes, sometimes they would get money, they were paid gratuities. So this notion of incentives versus punishment or whipping was something that became a part of his way of making himself a, quote-unquote, "better" slaveholder. And that's the thing he tried to foster, which made him more comfortable in his role as a master.


VEDANTAM: In many ways, I think it's hard to read your book without at least reading into it the possibility that Jefferson had, at least in his own mind, something approaching an intimate relationship with Sally Hemings, that it was not just master and slave. Of course, a lot of people have criticized you for this. She was a slave. She could not have given consent. How have you come to understand the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings?

GORDON-REED: You know, I go back and forth on this. I don't believe that every relationship between an enslaved woman and a master was exactly the same. I think there were different types of connections. And Jefferson, to me, shows signs of having been attached to Sally Hemings. I have no problem saying that because there are no stories about him with any other woman when he comes back from France, you know, ever but her. We don't know about her because once she gets back here, she is totally under his power. But if you look at the kinds of male-female relationships they would have known at that time, a wife, a white wife, would have been under the control of her husband, too. She could not refuse consent to sex any more than an enslaved woman could. He could not sell his wife, but that would be about the only thing that he couldn't do. So we look at this - and there's this sharp difference between male-female relationships. And we see the difference between - obviously a white woman has more power than an enslaved woman. But those people - Sally Hemings would not have thought that as a woman she would have freedom to do whatever she wanted. So it's complicated.


VEDANTAM: We may not know how Sally Hemings felt, but we do know what Jefferson's critics had to say at the time. Annette says Jefferson was rebuked by people who told him he had no business falling in love with a woman who wasn't white.

GORDON-REED: The newspaper reports in, you know, when Jefferson is president, were saying - were castigating him for saying, you know, why have you not found - I'm kind of paraphrasing here, but why have you not found a worthy woman of your own color? So people - what people objected to was not that he had a child with her but that it seemed to be a continuing thing. And that put it too much like marriage, and that put it too much like the kinds of connections that white men had with white women. And so back in his time, that was the real objection.


VEDANTAM: I understand that, at the end of his life, Jefferson in effect freed Sally Hemings but didn't do it in a way that just simply said, you know, you are now free. He did it in more complicated fashion. Can you talk about what he did?

GORDON-REED: Well, Sally Hemings was never formally freed. She left Monticello with her sons who were formerly freed, the two youngest ones. The two eldest children went to live as white people and did not want freedom papers because that would indicate that they were enslaved and meaning that they were part black. So she is not formally freed. She's given her time, and that's the phrase that they used. And a possible reason for this - possible reasons - is that in order to free her, he would have had to put her name in his will and request that the legislature allow her to remain in Virginia. An 1806 law said that if you were freed, you had to leave the state within a year unless you had permission from the government to stay. So he probably would not have wanted to do that. Second - she was over 45, and you could not free an enslaved person below 21 or over 45 unless you explained how you were going to provide for their care for the rest of their lives. And so he would have had to, in addition to putting her name in the will to ask for permission, he would have had to say and here's the money that I'm going to give to support Sally Hemings. And that would have been an admission, and he was not going to do that. So the community takes this notion that she is free and treat her as a free person, which I think talks a little bit about law and how law exists on the books and how you're supposed to formally do things. But if the community decides that you're a free person, she was treated as a free person.


VEDANTAM: When we come back - the enduring legacy of Thomas Jefferson's contradictions and what his story tells us about the contradictions in our own lives.


VEDANTAM: In 1824, Thomas Jefferson welcomed to an old friend to his home at Monticello. The friend was escorted by a crowd, a procession of cavalry man and ordinary citizens. His approach was announced by a bugle.


VEDANTAM: The name of Jefferson's friend was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. History remembers him as Marquis de Lafayette.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) My dear, Marquis.

DIDIER DEVYNCK: (As Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) Monsier President, I am very glad to see you, my friend.

VEDANTAM: Lafayette was a French aristocrat who was inspired by the American Revolution. He fought with the Americans and convinced France to provide crucial support to the American cause. Decades after the revolution, Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824 for a now-famous tour of the nation, including a visit to Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia.

DEVYNCK: (As Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) Thirty-five years of separation is too long, indeed.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) I trust that your journey has not proved too tiring.

DEVYNCK: (As Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) Not at all.

VEDANTAM: The two men had a lot to talk about on their visit. Annette Gordon-Reed says we know about the details of their conversation because of an enslaved man named Israel Gillette Jefferson, who was their carriage driver.

GORDON-REED: He overhears this conversation.

JASON FULLER: (As Israel Gillette Jefferson) The conversation turned upon the condition of the colored people, the slaves.

GORDON-REED: Lafayette always encouraged Jefferson, sort of needles Jefferson, about this issue of slavery and emancipation.

DEVYNCK: (As Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) I feel I must express my continued concerns about the issue of negro slavery.

FULLER: (As Israel Gillette Jefferson) Lafayette remarked that no man could rightfully hold ownership in his brotherman, that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage, which seemed to grieve his noble heart.

DEVYNCK: (As Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) I feel I must continue to press upon you how much I desire to see this plague cured before my death.

FULLER: (As Israel Gillette Jefferson) Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) My dear, Lafayette, you know where I stand on this issue.

FULLER: (As Israel Gillette Jefferson) But he did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom.

CASEY: (As Thomas Jefferson) I am not apt to despair, yet I see not how our generation is to disengage itself from this deplorable entanglement.

FULLER: (As Israel Gillette Jefferson) He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived.


VEDANTAM: There's something deeply ironic about this, isn't there? I mean, you have these two people who are speaking about high ideals and about the importance of equality, and they are being driven around by somebody who is a slave. And you look at this, and you say, how can you not see what is happening?

GORDON-REED: Well, I - you do. We do definitely do that. And I imagine - and this is not to minimize, as I would never do, the depredations of the institution of slavery - but I imagine, 100 years from now, people are going to look back (laughter) at certain things that we do and say, why didn't people understand? You know, why didn't people do something? And there are a lot of things - there are a lot of times human beings don't act according to what they know is the right thing to do.

Monticello was Jefferson's place. This was his way of life. It's what he knew. And he felt that he helped to found a country. He helped the United States come into existence. Breaking with Great Britain, setting up a government, that was a pretty big deal, and that the next generation of people had something to do, as well, and that was to make the progress on the issue of slavery that he thought could be made.

Now, we're not satisfied with that because we say, you had the talent to do this thing. Why didn't you use the talent to do the other thing? But that's not, you know, what he thought he was here to do. The American Revolution was the most important thing in his life. And the tragedy is he couldn't see that, after the union is formed, that the thing that would split it apart would be the institution of slavery.


GORDON-REED: So, you know, it's a tragic story in a lot of ways, but I think it's not surprising given human nature. We don't always do what we think or we know is the right thing to do.

VEDANTAM: You know, it's so fascinating when you read Jefferson's story. I mean, it's an extraordinary story. I mean, he helped to overthrow monarchy. He helped to change, you know, archaic property rules. He changed the way we thought about the role of religion in politics. But when it came to slavery, you know, he didn't make as much progress as he could.

And what's frustrating is not just that he had the power, but he also had the insight that slavery as an institution was not a good institution. And I can't help but wonder, in all of those other cases, Jefferson really didn't stand anything to lose. I mean, he didn't stand - he didn't stand to lose from overthrowing monarchy. He stood to gain from it.

GORDON-REED: Oh, if they had lost, he would have lost his life. I mean, that was treason against the king to sign onto that project. And they won only because the French helped them. If the French hadn't done that, (laughter) he could have been hanged. So he had something to lose there, but I see what you're saying. I think that that's true in the sense that he didn't have as much to gain from fighting slavery. He had a lot to lose, however, because I think Jefferson was probably the most talented politician of his time.

And he forged a party that lasted from his election through Jackson. Jackson considered himself to be a Jeffersonian. Nobody's ever done that, had that kind of political influence over that long a period of time. And he didn't do that by making bad political calculations. And we like to think, oh, sure, if you had just tried hard enough, you could have convinced Virginians and Southerners to vote slavery out of existence. I think he looked at that, and he knew that that was not going to happen.

And I think from the distance of history, we can say, this could have happened, and that could have happened. But I don't think realistically that could have happened. Slavery was going to end the way it ended. No one has given me a convincing scenario how, in the United States, people could have just voted slavery out without a real, real fight. Sure, he could have worked for that. But if he had given his life to that, we would not be sitting here talking about him, I don't believe.

I think if he'd come back from France and said, you know, I'm going to work to end slavery, I don't think he would have been vice president. I don't think he would have been president. So I think for him, politically, that was the choice to make, to do the things that he could realistically have a success with and the things that he, quite frankly, cared more about than ending slavery. And he was not, I don't believe, in the right moment to do that.

VEDANTAM: There are people who argue that judging historical figures through the lens of modern values and morals, that it just doesn't work, that, in some ways, our modern notions about racism simply cannot be overlaid onto people living in the 18th and 19th century. In fact, President Trump weighed in on this recently in the context of controversy over Confederate statues. Take a listen.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This week, it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know...

VEDANTAM: What do you make of this, Annette? I hear what you're saying in terms of the difficulty of superimposing our current values on the past, but at the same time, that's what we have. We have our current values, and if we don't superimpose them on the past, then the past continues to live amongst us.

GORDON-REED: Well, you know, I don't - I don't adhere to the idea that you don't make moral judgments. I think history is a moral profession. We don't just look back and say, oh, and here is how they slaughtered the innocents, and go move on. I mean, we do, of course, bring our lens to all of this, and we also have to think - to remember that there were people at the time, you know, who had some of the same values that we do.

So I don't think it's enough to just say we can't judge people in the past because I - judge may be too strong a word. You can certainly comment on, you can certainly point out the contradictions, you can point out the differences, the vast, you know, distance between what people in the past thought and what we think.


GORDON-REED: As for, you know, Washington and Jefferson and monuments - I've talked about this before - I would draw a clear line between the confederates and the Confederacy and members of the founding generation. I think there's every difference between people who helped to create the United States versus people who tried to destroy the United States. I don't think that just because they're both in the past that we have to think of them as the same because they're not the same. They don't bear the same relation to us.

I mean, Jefferson has ideals. Not all of Jefferson's ideals do we adhere to. But Jefferson, through the Declaration and other of his writings, other of his actions, created a set of ideals that we still adhere to, that still have meaning for us. I don't know what the Confederacy means to us, so I draw a distinction between those people, the people - Stonewall Jackson and those people and people like Washington and Jefferson.


VEDANTAM: As a child, Annette, you were the first African-American to integrate your school, and in some ways, you have personally experienced our nation's struggle to discuss the legacy of slavery. I'm wondering, in studying the life of Thomas Jefferson, do you see echoes in the contradictions that he had - in the present day, do some of the contradictions that he struggled with and perhaps ignored or rationalized, are they still alive with us today?

GORDON-REED: Oh, I think they're very much alive. The fascinating thing about Jefferson is that, in some ways, he embodies the country. I mean, the struggles that were within him - and that's why when you go to Monticello, you get to see the best and the worst of America. And they're embodied in this person who was idealistic but, in some areas, did not live up to that. And certainly, the idea of citizenship, first-class citizenship for African-American people, is not - has not come to pass, I don't believe. There are still issues there.

But yet we hold ourselves out as a melting pot. So yes, 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 or shows this so well. And that's what makes him a subject that we can't really, I think, do without, or we can't push to the side because it's too much of a window into us, as to who we are as Americans.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering, do you ever think about Jefferson's life and the contradictions he embodies and think about your own life and perhaps the contradictions that you might embody yourself, that, you know, 200 years from now, people are going to look back and say, how could she possibly not see what's obvious to us?

GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think about climate change (laughter) as I get on my plane every week to fly back and forth between New York City and Cambridge. You know, what am I doing to stop, you know, trafficking in people - sex trafficking in people - that I know is something that's a problem? I'm a lawyer. Why am I not doing more about that? There are just lots of things.

Now, nothing is on the grand scale of Jefferson, as you mentioned before, but I'm not living on the scale (laughter) that he was living. I'm not the president. I'm not - I don't have that kind of power. But yeah, yeah, I think in all of us there are things that we know are wrong, and because of our other preoccupations, we say, well, that thing will take care of itself. Somebody else will figure that out. That's for someone else to deal with. Even though we know that, you know, we could make a contribution. So yeah, looking at him makes you think about yourself as well.


VEDANTAM: Annette Gordon-Reed is a historian and law professor at Harvard University. We've been talking today about her book, co-authored with Peter Onuf, "Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of The Imagination." Annette, thank you for joining us today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

GORDON-REED: Oh, thank you for asking me.

VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced and edited by Tara Boyle, Parth Shah and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel.


VEDANTAM: Today's show included performances by Sean Casey (ph) as Thomas Jefferson, Didier Devynck (ph) as Marquis de Lafayette and Jason Fuller (ph) as Israel Gillette Jefferson. Special thanks to Laetitia Brock (ph) and Brian Dunn (ph). Our unsung heroes this week are public radio stations around the country. As many of you know, NPR is part of the public radio universe, and our success depends on the viability of public radio stations around the country.

In one of the early episodes of HIDDEN BRAIN, the psychologist Scott Plous talked about the role of reciprocation in daily life. Human beings love to reciprocate. When someone gives you a gift, you feel obliged to give them a gift. If someone holds a door open for you, you feel like holding the door open for them.

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