Harvard Professor discusses Jefferson’s legacy for Rutman Lecture

Sarah Donovan

DURHAM- Dozens of people gathered in the Granite State Room (GSR) last Thursday for Annette Gordon-Reed’s speech, Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary, President and Visionary, for this year’s Rutman Distinguished Lecture on the American Presidency. Gordon-Reed, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School, captured her audience by discussing the importance of Thomas Jefferson’s pivotal role as a visionary during his presidency and beyond.  

“So, we are used to talking about tough subjects, but one of the things that’s apparent about Jefferson is that he has always been a controversial figure, Gordon-Reed began. “He was someone that people either loved or hated.” 

Jefferson was a controversial figure according to Gordon-Reed, as many people thought he was a crazy radical, and a revolutionary during his lifetime. However, in the 21st century Jefferson is considered a visionary; a facilitator and spokesperson for democracy. Yet for a lot of people still, his character is disputable as he was a slave owner himself.  

Gordon-Reed addressed those who have questioned Jefferson’s stance on anti-slavery as he did not free all of his slaves on his Monticello, Virginia plantation. Contradicting slavery, in Jefferson’s early twenties, he copied out a section of a poem from a commonplace book by William Shenstone addressing the “evils of the slave trade,” said Gordon-Reed. Jefferson was going to use this section of the poem at a burial ground for enslaved people that had passed away.  

With this information on Jefferson’s interest and opinion of slavery, it’s arguable that he was actually an activist for implementing change in his generation. Gordon-Reed went on to discuss how as an upper-class, white man in society, he was in a position to lead people as that’s what people of his status in his era were born to do.  

“This person who has all these advantages, nevertheless, comes to the idea that things should change and becomes involved in activities that some people thought were going to be a challenge to the class to which he was born,” said Gordon-Reed. So naturally, from these views of his, Jefferson wanted to be a part of running the society that he was a part of.   

Gordon-Reed finally discussed the un-optimistic side of Jefferson. In letters he wrote how he could not see a future where Black and white people coexist.  

Gordon-Reed finished off her speech by concluding that as a historian, she is interested in what people thought they were doing at the time. She discussed how she wished that Jefferson advocated more for the abolishment of slavery, but Gordon-Reed stated, “I’m more interested in a person who will[ed] himself into power.” 

Gordon-Reed shared details of Jefferson’s life that constituted him to be a visionary for a free future for African Americans, and how his ideas were revolutionary during his time. No matter how much of a controversial figure he was, and still is to some, he was a pioneer in the early days of the enlightenment and for future emancipation.