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My husband of forty-two years is a high-functioning Asperger’s person. Asperger’s Syndrome is a disorder on the autism spectrum whose sufferers tend to be very bright but often have trouble relating to others. A book published in 2000 called Diagnosing Jefferson makes a compelling case that our third president was another extraordinary man whose blessing and bane was Asperger’s Syndrome.

The revelation that Thomas Jefferson’s life displayed the signs of Asperger’s is crucial for anyone who hopes to understand him. To ignore his condition and judge him for traits that were beyond his control would be as morally wrong as it would be to judge someone with a club-foot for his inability to run well. There are some advantages to Asperger’s Syndrome, but also some important disadvantages. I urge you to read Diagnosing Jefferson for a more complete analysis of all the ways in which the insight that our third President was an Asperger’s person helps us to make a better sense of him.

In particular, Jefferson’s Asperger’s diagnosis is helpful as we ponder his attitude toward race. It is clear from his writings that he hated slavery with the fervor of an ardent abolitionist.He well understood how incongruous it was for Americans to be fighting for their own freedom while they held a subject people in thrall, so in 1778, at the height of the American Revolution, he led a successful effort to make Virginia the first place on earth to end the importation of slaves. He saw this as a necessary step toward ending slavery altogether. There is little doubt that if his wife had lived, Thomas Jefferson would have retired from public life in 1781, and together they would have devoted the rest of their lives to finding a way to end slavery. But she died in 1782. And the idealist in her husband died with her.

Thomas Jefferson hated slavery, but he was also – how can I put this delicately? – convinced that there was a difference between the races. Unlike true racists, Jefferson did not want black people to be inferior to whites. This fear he had that there were racial differences enormously complicated his wish to free the slaves. But he believed to the end of his life that there were differences that went beyond shades of skin, and he believed this because he had Asperger’s Syndrome.

Read more of this Roberta Grimes blog article.


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