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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?
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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

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Camila Vargas-Restrepo