On Thomas Jefferson's 274th birthday, we look back on his complicated legacy, meaning in Missouri | St. Louis Public Radio

On Thomas Jefferson's 274th birthday, we look back on his complicated legacy, meaning in Missouri

Apr 13, 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017 marked the 274th anniversary of the birth of American founding father Thomas Jefferson.

On St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh looked back on the complicated legacy of the United States' third president and explored the impact of his presidency regionally with Washington University professor Peter Kastor.

Jefferson, who served as president from 1801-1809, is responsible for the very possibility of the existence of the state of Missouri. In 1803, he presided over the Louisiana Purchase, which allowed the United States to acquire the land that included Missouri.

“When Missouri was arguing for statehood, he was retired by then, but it was very important to him,” Kastor said. “It is hard to know how things would have played out had he not been president, but one thing was clear: he was very concerned with this place.”

Initially, Jefferson wasn’t interested in purchasing Missouri’s lands from the French: he was solely interested in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Jefferson had to adapt to a proposed deal by the French to take the land west of the Mississippi.

Washington University Professor Peter Kastor.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

“He had to figure out, ‘how do we govern all this land?’” Kastor said. “That became the most important domestic policy challenge he faced during his presidency.”

His solution would include the famous Lewis & Clark expeditions, which charted the territory for the U.S. government.

In addition to these kinds of historic acts, Jefferson had wide-ranging interests: music, science (including a search for mastodons in Missouri), foreign language and writing.

He was also a man who made morally reprehensible decisions. Jefferson was a lifelong slaveholder, which is part of the income that allowed him to go into politics and hold a wide variety of passion projects.

At the same time, there were periods of his life where he fought to eliminate slavery by writing legislation or defending slaves suing for freedom through his work as a lawyer. He never freed his own slaves, however, even when he had six children with one of the enslaved women in his household, Sally Hemings.

“There are two ways people view Thomas Jefferson,” Kastor said. “One is: he is complex and conflicted. The other is: he is a hypocrite. I often steer away from that because he’s consistent in many ways and inconsistent in others. And I think that’s part of the reason why people are so interested in Jefferson. Everything that makes us American, everything that is troubling in our history: he’s entangled in it all. He creates party politics, eliminates slavery in areas and preserves it in others, founded some of the institutions of government, claims he’s against slavery, but has children with one of his slaves but won’t free them. People say he’s complicated. There are few people that designation applies more to.”  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.