Lydia Davis

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Student Question

How might Thomas Jefferson's deterioration over his lifetime be compared to the character in Davis's "How He Changed Over Time"?

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Thomas Jefferson can be said to have deteriorated in the sense that he did not develop as a thinker over his lifetime. In his earlier years, he struggled with the great questions of his time, and he was aware of the contradiction between the founding of the country based on the principle that all men are created equal and the fact that he was a practitioner of slavery himself.

Jefferson knew slavery was wrong. He tried in some sense to rationalize it by claiming (although somewhat equivocally, because he must have known he had no scientific evidence on which to base this) that Black people were inferior to white people. He also outlined a plan to resettle African Americans in either Africa or the West Indies. It's difficult to believe a man as intelligent as Jefferson did not realize that this would have been totally unworkable, as well as cruel and immoral in the extreme.

But in his later life, Jefferson said little about these issues. Except for his work in establishing the University of Virginia, he basically retired from public life after his terms as president were over. He was also massively in debt, which in a sense can be seen as a kind of metaphor of the debt the new country owed to the African Americans and the Indigenous peoples. Jefferson had become detached from reality. Unlike Washington, who freed all his enslaved people in his will, Jefferson freed only a handful of people, all of them related to him in some way, but significantly, not Sally Hemings, who had given birth to his children in a relationship lasting many years. It's unfortunate and tragic that Jefferson never resolved these contradictions (and his hypocrisy) with regard to his personal life and the country he helped found.

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