Conflicted lives

Appointments in Richmond and Charlottesville, Va., gave the opportunity to visit Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful home place, Monticello, yesterday morning. The crisp air, changing leaves and sense of historical importance made it enjoyable.

The third president’s impact on the foundations of this country is immeasurable. At the top of the list, of course, is his role as author of the Declaration of Independence.

Upon entering the stately plantation home, the guide noted that defining American document that affirms “All men are created equal” and therefore have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Then she somberly confessed: “Yet he died a slaveholder.”

In retrospect we see so clearly. In real time, we live so inconsistently.

We are conflicted — or, in spiritual terms, so prone to sin.


  1. John,
    Thanks for your thoughts on TJ. How true, how true. That’s why humility and the practice of self-criticism are so important in Christian discipleship. My generation looked back at our grandparents and asked “How could you hold such views on race? And why didn’t you speak out?” I often wonder what questions my grandchildren will ask of me..

    Of course, there were those in Jefferson’s day like his friend John Adams who opposed slavery and fought it. But it is still a reminder that the weeds and flowers grow together.

  2. There is an old saying, “God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick”

    TJ’s tombstone has this inscription: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia

    Not bad for an imperfect person who did not believe in the resurrection.

  3. Thanks, John, for this post about Jefferson.
    Jefferson’s push for religious liberty was a major factor in the development of America as a Christian nation. By that I do not mean a Christian government, although it is obvious that Christian beliefs provided a backdrop for national morals. By the time Jefferson became president, the process of disestablishing state churches had produced a flourishing Christian culture. The Federalists framers of the Constitution saw the wisdom of prohibiting religious tests for offices and necessity of accepting amendments based on the requests of Antifederalists. Most pertinent to this discussion, of course, is the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Thus, we have a secular federal government in which religious freedom was guaranteed and Christianity flourished.
    Jefferson also was instrumental in the prohibition of slavery from the Northwestern Territory. This kept slavery south of the Ohio River and allowed the dynamic of emancipation to continue in the north. One historian posits that Jefferson knew that if slavery was limited to the South, it would eventually die. I am not convinced of that, but one cannot deny the influence of Jefferson in freedom, slavery, and religious liberty.

  4. Find the Higginson letter to Emily Dickenson in Wineapple’s recent book about their Correspondence White Heat.
    This letter happens to be from Higginson to William Jennings Bryan.
    Will make you feel good about your country on the eve of this Historic Presidential election.
    The darker aspects of Richard Land and James Dobson’s populism are still with us; though the racism Higginson confronts Bryan with has transformed itself into other issues.
    Not calling Land and Dobson racists; just saying the letter speaks to them, like Lincoln with respect and praise for Jefferson through his suffering called us to a Higher angels of our nature….

  5. I wonder if Thomas Wentworth Higginson had conflicting thoughts about his support for John Brown.

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