Jefferson's irony: Voice of liberty, slave owner

Thomas Jefferson was both a passionate advocate of human rights, and one who owned hundreds of slaves during his life at Monticello.
CBS News

(CBS News) Founding Father and Third President. Author of the Declaration of Independence and eloquent proponent of the rights of man. That's how most Americans have viewed Thomas Jefferson for most of our history. Martha Teichner now, with another view:

Thomas Jefferson's view from Monticello was as perfect as his high ideals. But at Monticello today, it is the imperfect Jefferson we see, and must judge for ourselves.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote that all men are created equal, owned 600 slaves over his lifetime, and in addition to his legitimate children almost certainly fathered at least six children borne by his slave, Sally Hemings.

For generations, descendents of Sally Hemings told stories implicating Jefferson as father of her children. DNA proved a connection in 1998.

Is Thomas Jefferson any less great because the understanding we have of him now is three-dimensional?

"Most human beings I know are quite capable of denial and hypocrisy," said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham. "I think Jefferson's virtues were enormous, and his vices were equally enormous.

Meacham has just published a best-selling biography of our third president: "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" (Random House).

"Looked at in full, you find a man whose life was made possible by slavery, who had misgivings, who as a young man attempted, however feebly, to reform the institution," said Meacham. But in the end, Jefferson "allowed himself to be trapped by the economic, political and cultural circumstances into which he was born."

Web exclusive video: To watch an extended interview with author Jon Meacham click on the video player below.

Elizabeth Chew, curator at Monticello, said that Jefferson's earliest memory was of being handed up on a pillow as a toddler to a slave on a horse. "And we know that his last words were asking Burwell Colbert to adjust his pillow," she told Teichner.

Jefferson's butler, Burwell Colbert, was also a slave. "There would have been an intimate relationship really, from birth to death," said Chew.

The joinery, or furniture-making woodshop at Monticello, was in Jefferson's later years run by a slave named John Hemings, who made many pieces of furniture that are in Monticello today. Chew showed Teichner some of Hemings' beautifully crafted work. "He was very highly skilled, and he was freed by Jefferson in his will and was given the tools of his trade," Chew said.

John Hemings is remembered because of his craftsmanship, unlike so many other Jefferson slaves.

"To be able to sort of have an image of Jefferson that we all know, and behind him the names of the 600 people that he owned in his lifetime, really means that we have to understand slavery in order to understand Jefferson," said Lonnie Bunch, who heads the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture - sponsor of a traveling exhibition about slavery at Monticello.

"What's powerful is, quite candidly, we only know the first names," said Bunch. "And there are some that we just have as 'Unknown,' because we don't even know."