A Conversation With Thomas Jefferson's Modern Editor
From his commission of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to the name of the city’s most recognizable landmark, St. Louis has particularly strong ties to Thomas Jefferson.
As the editor of “Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness,” a collection of Jefferson's writing organized into 34 essays, Eric Petersen has spent years reading Jefferson's letters and state papers.
“When you have the chance to read Jefferson in his own words, you can’t help but feel struck by the uplifting nature of what he was offering. He was a seer. He was a dreamer of a better future for all Americans. So I wanted to take his wisdom and make it easily accessible and available for people today,” said Petersen, who will be in St. Louis on Saturday, May 17 to speak at the Missouri History Museum.
In a pre-recorded interview that aired during the first segment of St. Louis on the Air today, host Don Marsh spoke with Petersen about Jefferson’s writing, political career and stance on slavery, as well as what Jefferson would be like if he were alive now.
On Jefferson’s Writing
“I think he ranks right up there with Shakespeare, honestly,” said Petersen. “He was very clear in his writings, as well as subtle. And so when you read him, his writings are compellingly fresh. I feel that he wrote poetic prose and he expressed ennobling thoughts.”
On His Career
From the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson went on to be governor of Virginia, minister to France, the nation’s first secretary of state, vice president and ultimately president of the United States.
“He said he always preferred his farms and his books and his family, but the times he lived in, he said, were so momentous that he was called upon to serve. His fellow citizens recognized his capabilities, and they put him in all those key posts,” said Petersen. “And I think it’s fair to say that while George Washington was the leader of the country who achieved our national independence, Thomas Jefferson was the leader who consolidated the victory of that independence over a long 25 or 30 year period, really establishing the principles of egalitarianism that he had set forth in the Declaration of Independence.”
Thomas Jefferson, Slave Owner
“He definitely held slaves, as did virtually everybody back in those days. Mr. Jefferson did way more than anybody in the founding era, as far as I can tell, to ameliorate and roll back, and eventually emancipate slavery,” said Petersen.
In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included slavery as one of 25 reasons for independence from Great Britain. But in order for congress to pass the declaration, those paragraphs were removed.
Jefferson also attempted to introduce legislation in Virginia that would have emancipated slaves beginning in the year 1800.
“When he returned from France and saw that the spirit of the revolution had dissipated … he saw that there really wasn’t any practical opportunity to do anything further [to end slavery], so he remained essentially silent on it for the rest of his career,” said Petersen.
In the spectrum of slave owners, Jefferson was among the more benign, said Petersen, relaying a story where his slaves hoisted him on their shoulders in celebration of his return from France.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, it is likely that Jefferson fathered three children with his slave, Sally Hemings. His wife died before the children were born.
Petersen, however, doesn’t agree. He points to a report from the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Committee as proof that Jefferson did not have an affair with Hemings, and that the more likely father of her children was Thomas Jefferson’s brother.
“He was falsely accused of this by political character assassins of the defeated Federalist party during his time as president, and it has been picked up in the last 20 years by what I would call academic character assassins, who on the basis of essentially nothing, recycle this old smear from his presidential era as if it were a fact,” said Petersen. “There is no evidence that would indicate anything at all of an affair with Sally Hemings. He denied it in private correspondence. He did not live that kind of life.”
Petersen’s defense of Jefferson was so passionate that host Don Marsh commented on the feeling expressed in his voice.
“I’ve worked with his thoughts and his ideals so much, and I feel he’s so important to our country, that I feel essentially like a friend of his across the reach of time,” explained Petersen. “He’s not here to defend himself, and he has been pretty much used as a punching bag by a lot of academics and comedians on these two subjects.”
Listeners also felt passionate about the topic of Jefferson and slavery. Three different listeners emailed to say that while Jefferson’s contributions to the country cannot be denied, it also should be acknowledged that it was wrong for him to own slaves.
Below are two of those emails, edited for length and clarity.
“The Declaration of Independence was a phenomenal undertaking and all Americans should be proud of those men who did something so amazing that it still stands. However, allowing him to be seen as ‘a man of his time’ and that owning another human was okay because that's what everyone did is completely unacceptable. Do you really believe that those slaves carried him on their backs because they were happy to see him? Slaves were never free to refuse required adulation.” – Kia Moore
“I am so offended by the idea that someone who owns other people is a fundamentally decent person. It was absolutely within his power to free those slaves and hire them onto his household. Then they would still have jobs, but they wouldn’t be his property. I am not saying it makes him an evil man, just a flawed human being.” – Susan Klement
If Jefferson Were Alive Today
If Jefferson were alive today, he would most likely be a “profoundly reflective commentator,” not a politician, said Petersen, adding that “if he were alive today he would encourage us to take advantage of the freedoms that we have” to contribute to society, rather than use the time we have on “passing personal pleasures.”