By Donella Meadows
–November 12, 1998–
I suppose you’ve heard the news about Thomas Jefferson. DNA tests were just conducted on one of his descendants (actually one of his uncle’s descendants) and on a descendant of a son of Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves. The tests say there’s about a 99 percent probability that Tom fathered Sally’s son.
To which many African-Americans are saying, so what else is new? If you didn’t know slavery worked that way, why didn’t you?
Some historians are saying, told you so, while other historians are saying, 99 percent is not 100 percent and a distant descendent of Jefferson’s uncle is pretty thin Jefferson.
Democrats are saying, see, if they’d impeached HIM, we would never have done the Louisiana Purchase, and the nation would end at the Mississippi.
As for me, my heart goes out to Tom. I’ve believed the Sally Hemings story all along. It hasn’t stopped me from being an ardent admirer of Jefferson, of his writing, his scientific curiosity, his devotion to education and democracy, and above all, his gardens. The first time I saw the gardens at Monticello, I felt a sympathetic identification with Mr. J., though I knew those gardens had been maintained by slaves.
I’ve been trying to explain that sympathy to my students, who are outraged that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave owner. He who called slavery “this great political and moral evil.” He who wrote, “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.” He who penned the thundering sentence, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Did he mean those great words? If so, how could he have kept slaves? How could he have fathered children with a slave woman?
I’ve read most everything Jefferson wrote and many biographies of him. I think he meant his anti-slavery words from the depth of his soul. His struggle to live those words in a society that fiercely opposed them is what most endears him to me.
Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha. When Martha’s father lost his third wife, he took a slave as his mistress, a “mulatto” house servant named Betty Hemings. (If you didn’t know slavery worked that way, why didn’t you?) She bore him six children, one of whom was Sally, who came into Jefferson’s household when he married Martha. After Martha died, the lonely Jefferson turned to Sally. He brought her to Paris when he was Ambassador to France. He educated her, bought fashionable clothes for her, and eventually freed her brother and her children. She was freed by Jefferson’s daughter after his death.
I assume that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson loved each other. It was a love that could never be acknowledged. He could not claim the children she bore him. Living a lie must have been excruciating for them both, especially when his political enemies caught on to the story and mocked him in ways that make today’s press look surprisingly civil.
So he treated her well. Still she was a slave. And what about his other slaves?
He had to have them if he were to farm Monticello, and he loved Monticello. “I have often thought,” he wrote, “that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.”
If you were a Virginia planter back then, you had slaves. Though you despised the very idea, it was an idea that ran the economy. To refuse to go along with it would have meant losing your livelihood, your farm, your society, your culture.
I am as passionate a gardener as TJ, and I also have slaves. They are not people, they are a tiller, a tractor, a chainsaw, a farm truck. I also fly on planes, I drive a car, I heat my house partially with oil. If I’m an average American, I consume in fossil fuel the energy equivalent of 80 full-time slaves.
At the same time I believe with all my heart that emitting greenhouse gases, exuding toxins, and driving species to extinction is immoral. I could say as passionately as Jefferson, “Indeed, I tremble for my planet, when I reflect that Nature is inflexible: that her response to our abuse cannot sleep forever.” I’m sure that future generations, coping with the messes we are making, will look back at us with revulsion and ask, “how could they LIVE that way?”
Like Jefferson, I do my best to mitigate my sins, to use my energy slaves kindly and efficiently, to reduce my load on the groaning earth. But to do that entirely would be to lose my livelihood, my farm, my society, my whole culture.
I could wish that both Jefferson and I were more radical. I could argue that his gradualism permitted decades of suffering and so does mine. But neither of us are violent revolutionaries; we fight with words; we try to change minds; and who knows, maybe that’s the fastest path. Watching oil companies admit to global warming, watching the invention of new solar energy devices, watching people yearn for a more sane way of living, I can easily join old TJ in hopefulness about the effectiveness of ideas.
His hopefulness was not borne out: “I think a change already perceptible, … the spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, … the way I hope preparing … for a total emancipation … to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.”
Maybe we can do better.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998