A portrait of Thomas Jefferson

On Turning Imperfect People Into Heroes

All real-life heroes are human. When we make them into something more, do we also play with tyranny?

The most beautiful words ever written

In the years leading up to the War of Independence politics in Philadelphia were at their height. Congress argued at each others’ throats, wary of the idea that the legislators with whom they negotiated today could be military commanders on the opposing team tomorrow.

Amidst all of it, Thomas Jefferson said next to nothing. Rather, he listened, asked questions, and avoided taking any particular stance.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

As the political fervor grew to the point of open war John Adams requested that Jefferson pick a side. Jefferson stated he was for Independence. Adams then said to Jefferson words to this effect:

‘I know you don’t like to speak to the public, but I understand you have some skill with a pen. If you are going to help us, could you please write something to be distributed among the states making it clear that we’re separating?’

Jefferson nodded and wandered home. A few days later, he told Adams to stop by and pick up the message.

Imagine what it would be like to be Adams. You’re in a hurry on your way to your next appointment, you’ve got a thousand things you want to make clear in congress, and you’re still trying to figure out how to get New York to change their mind and vote with you. You’re worried sick about all the people that are going to die and feel duty bound to deal with every last drop of minutiae you can think of.

And to get through with this one task you bumble up to Jefferson’s creaky house, he lets you in, and the two of you meander into the backroom, making small chat all the way. There you sit down in creaky wooden chairs, and you’re already sweating from being indoors in that hot and stuffy colonial house.

Jefferson hands you the declaration, as promised, and asks you to look it over and tell him what you think. These are the words waiting for you on the page:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Can you imagine reading that for the first time? Not just you, whoever you are, dear reader, but John Adams–the first person to come across those words?

It must have been remarkable. Reading down that page as it continues on, “…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”

Adams knew that the paper he held would be of great consequence, and he said as much to Jefferson, to which it is said Jefferson replied,

“Well…it’s what I believe.” And he shrugged.

Not everything is as it seems

Here’s the tricky part.

And please–understand as I tell you the following that I mean no disrespect. I’m merely relating to you this part of the story as I understand it.

It is said that as Adams read over the script again he mentioned that the sentence, “…all men are created equal…” would be a hard one to explain to the southern states, since it boded ill for the institution of slavery. But the writing was so good Adams waved off the concern and figured it’d all work itself out.

That sentence would indeed carry out that potential. Americans would see the truth in Jefferson’s statement, that all men are created equal, and this would lead to one of the bloodiest wars on this continent, and would indeed deprive the south of their indentured servants.

But the sentence grows stranger when you look a bit deeper. There’s a story behind those words that is so controversial that it is difficult for any American patriot to swallow.

Historians now believe that Thomas Jefferson had a secret room in his basement in which he kept a slave, as his mistress. Her name was Sally Hemmings.

And he kept her in this capacity throughout his life, and together they had several children.

The tragedy of living heroes

What a paradox. The same man who could see his way clearly enough to write the words that would fuel a revolution was also a man who, one could argue, led a life that exhibited opposing qualities. It’s hard to think that a married man who secretly keeps an indentured mistress is one that we would look to as a paragon of virtue, but it is exactly what we do. His face was even on our nickels.

An image of Jefferson on the nickel

Thomas Jefferson – Nickel

And we still respect him. He’s a hero. He’s a Founding Father, the man who penned the phrase that would later end slavery.

How do we balance the two aspects of our hero?

We honor him, and yet at the same time we speak of his history in hushed tones?

Having two-thoughts in our head at once

One of the most difficult problems we face at this time in our growth is the question of what we should do when we have two things that are both true and are completely opposite each other?

What do we do with Jefferson? Do we revere him? Or do we call him a liar and a hypocrite, and erase his name from our textbooks? Is his contribution void and null because of his vice?

Whatever the answer is to that question, how will that affect these other heroes whom we revere?

Gandhi was perhaps the most empathetic leader of all time, and yet he drank his own urine and slept naked with underage girls to test his own strength.

George Washington was a brilliant military strategist, who was sometimes making decisions based on what we now would call hallucinations–some might even say he had occasional schizophrenia.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was proud of, as he essentially described it, ‘deceiving his way through World War II in order to win.’

Mother Theresa baptized people on their death beds without their permission.

I don’t have the answers to this question. If you have any answers, I’d love to hear about it.

Briefly,  I do have a few thoughts, which I’ll share just so as not to be a cop out. But feel free to take over.

I wonder about the value of creating a halo around people whom we love. On the one hand, we need heroes, people whom we can hold up as examples of what we should strive for. We can say to our children, “See look, this is how we live.” On the other hand, when we create heroes out of men and women, we give license to paint horns on those whom we hate. And we mistake our paintings for the people themselves.

One thing I am trying to do is to simply be at peace knowing that there are many things I will never understand, and that I don’t need to have all the answers.

How do you deal with these questions? Let me know in the comments.