Thursday, April 26, 2007
Writer: Shanna Relford
Thomas Jefferson Lecturer Entertains, Informs
Since 1996, UTSI has held the Thomas Jefferson Lectures, hosting a Jeffersonian expert each year to come and speak on an area of Jefferson’s life. This year’s lecture, held in mid-April, was entitled, “The Revolutionary Generation’s Response to Slavery and African Americans,” and offered a fascinating historical background for Jefferson’s conflicted attitude toward slavery. Though the 2007 Thomas Jefferson Lecturer, Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed, has written a book on Jefferson’s problematic relationship with slavery, and a particular slave of his, Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson fathered children, according to recent DNA evidence, the subject did not arise during the lecture at UTSI. Yet, Dr. Gordon-Reed’s lecture was anything but disappointing; the New York Law School Professor entertained the audience with a history lesson that felt more like reading a good book.
Dr. Gordon-Reed said that as a child Jefferson began to feel that slavery was inherently wrong, yet he himself owned slaves as an adult. Professor Gordon-Reed wasn’t critical of the founding father for this gap in his own theory of “all men are created equal.” She said that Jefferson, like many of his era, believed that slavery would die out on its own. Jefferson did put an end to the slave trade during his presidency, thereby keeping any new slaves from being brought overseas to America. A few of his slaves were given their freedom upon his death, including the children of Sally Hemings. However, most of his slaves were auctioned off along with all of his property, as he died in 1826 with over $100,000 in debts.
His private conflict carried over into his public life to an extent. Jefferson openly criticized slavery from his political pulpit and introduced emancipation bills in Virginia. But it was Jefferson’s climb up the political ladder and his efforts to strengthen the still newborn nation that took the majority of his time. Dr. Gordon-Reed said that Jefferson feared that the county might split over the issue of slavery, but that he never dreamed it would escalate to the level of Civil War.
“Though this was my first Thomas Jefferson Lecture at UTSI, I have been told that this year’s event was the best and the best-attended of the series thus far,” said Dr. Donald Daniel, UTSI’s Chief Operating Officer. “I enjoyed meeting Dr. Gordon-Reed immensely; she spoke of Jefferson with a knowledge and intensity that made her a pleasure to learn from,” added Dr. Daniel.
In conjunction with the lecture series, area high school students are invited to participate in an essay contest each year. This year’s winning essay was written by Rachel Powelson of Lincoln County High School, who was awarded a $300 prize, and earned $500 for her school, for her essay on “The Social Dichotomy in Jefferson’s America.” Also participating and ranking Best in School, were John Scarborough from Franklin County High School and Samantha Bartee of Tullahoma High School.