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The Founding Contradiction: Thomas Jefferson's Stance On Slavery

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?
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?

"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

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