Of all the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson is the most complex. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence—the document that declared that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was the founder of one of our great public universities—the University of Virginia. He defended the rights of the common man and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties.
At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Although he made several efforts to try to bring the “peculiar institution” of slavery to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to maintain his Virginia planter lifestyle—complete with all its consumer goods and luxury items. He was in debt for most of his adult life. And he is likely the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.
Jefferson’s story reminds us that history is complicated. As Christians, we must always remember that there are no heroes in history. We are flawed, sinful human beings in need of redemption. Even the great ones, like King David, fail. But there are also no villains in history. All of us have been created in the image of God and thus possess dignity and worth. History reminds us that when we put our confidence in people, whether they lived in the past (such as the founding fathers) or live in the present, we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed.
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