For a guy who's been dead for almost 200 years, he sure gets around a lot. You probably have a couple pictures of him in your pocket right now. You can see him in Hollywood, on Broadway, and even on TV—his second HBO miniseries is currently in production.1 He is kind of a big deal—literally: if you're ever in South Dakota, you can see a 60-foot granite sculpture of his face, carved into the side of a mountain. It's the size of a five-story building. He's lent his name to schools, colleges, and townships, streets, bands, parks, boats, and planes, a particle accelerator, the St. Louis Arch, and even a wannabe state. You've heard his words a thousand times. (If you watch The Simpsons, you've even seen his house—check it out!) He is, next to George Washington, the most unavoidable American president.
Thomas Jefferson's ongoing popularity has a lot to do with his undeniable historical significance. He was one of the most consequential actors in American history. Just a list of his accomplishments is impressive. He helped justify American independence from Britain, voiced the new country's creed, wrote the legislation that shaped its growth, and then, to seal the deal, acquired the land into which it would spread. As if that weren't enough, in the process, Jefferson formulated a political ideology which has had massive global repercussions: the mark of Jefferson's words can be seen in the French revolutionaries' Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, in the arguments of both Southern secessionists and Northern unionists during the Civil War, and even today, in the hopes of democratic dissidents halfway around the globe and in the cadences of Barack Obama's presidential victory speech.2 Since his death on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (which was thought to be a divine sign!), he has been a symbol for democratic equality. Just mention "Thomas Jefferson" and listen to the catchphrases pour out: equality and freedom; self-governance; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His name alone evokes a vision.
This would be all well and good if there were only a name. But behind that long-dead name, there was once a living man, and what that man did doesn't always seem to match up with what the name has come to stand for. Jefferson-the-name stands for freedom, but Jefferson-the-man kept slaves—lots of them. Jefferson-the-name stands for equality, but Jefferson-the-man believed that some people were naturally better than others, and some races naturally better than others too. Jefferson-the-name stands for popular self-government, but Jefferson-the-man believed in a natural aristocracy, destined to rule over the unqualified rabble.
So what's the deal? How did a slaveholding aristocrat from Virginia come to stand for the radical promise of freedom and equality?