If Thomas Jefferson believed what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, how could he have owned slaves? It is one of the greatest paradoxes in American history.
Scholars have long puzzled over the apparent inconsistency in that the man who wrote "All men are created equal" could have actively participated in a situation where some people were held in bondage – clearly a sign that they were not considered the equal of others.
Two things to remember: there are no easy answers, and also that Jefferson was a man of his time and cannot be judged by today's standards.
Jefferson was against slavery for quite some time. He wrote in the Declaration that the King of England has "waged cruel war against human nature itself…capturing & carrying them (blacks) into slavery in another hemisphere…" Later in the same document he called slavery this "execrable commerce…"
So clearly, Jefferson was no fan of slavery. However, he was a plantation owner, and a man of his times. This meant that he was wedded to a society and economic system that called for him to use slaves to run Monticello. Like many other Founding Fathers, Jefferson believed that blacks were inferior to whites, particularly in mental ability. When Jefferson used the word "equal" it meant to him that all men were equal in God's eyes.
However, Jefferson always maintained his personal views against slavery, despite his practices. Late in life he wrote "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of Fate than that these people are to be free." Jefferson biographer William Sterne Randall speculated that, all his life, Jefferson wrestled with the question and contradictions of slavery versus freedom. He would offer his view that slavery was wrong, but that was as far as he would go.
Perhaps that's the best way to remember Thomas Jefferson and his views on slavery. Like all of us, he was a bundle of contradictions.