Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Boo, Jefferson.

I was down in Virginia this week and passed a sign for the Natural Arch, an usual rock formation popularized by Thomas Jefferson. It started me thinking about Jefferson, and when I get thinking about Jefferson, I start sneering.

A few weeks ago I made a comment on someone else's blog (Balkinization)on the topic of Jefferson and slavery. I was reacting to the suggestion that Jefferson had no choice but to keep his slaves and the notion that we must forgive the founders for slave holding because that’s a modern concept:

“By 1807, Jefferson, who had long promoted the idea of ‘strict construction,’ had also long abandoned it as a practice during his presidential terms to the consternation of some in his own party. Lip service to principals was a Jefferson specialty.

Jefferson is often given way to much credit for combating slavery. His own ownership, his passing his slaves down to his heirs, his refusal to support the Haitian revolution, and other acts leads me to the conclusion that he may have been among, and probably was "the" most hypocritical of presidents. The argument that this is pressing modern views upon 19th century leaders carries no weight, as can be seen by reading Jefferson himself as well as other forefathers. They knew slavery to be an abomination, but made every excuse to continue its existence and with it the Southern slave power.

Boo, Jefferson.”

Another writer commented, in what I would call, typical Jeffersonian defensiveness:

“Jefferson didn't have much choice in his slave ownership. Before 1782, it wasn't legal for him to manumit his slaves; after 1782, he was in debt and couldn't legally do so. “

This led to still another writer chiming in that Jefferson did not try and get rid of his debts hard enough. That wasn’t good enough for me, so I continued the debate (although I’ll own that I fixed my spelling errors here). As far as I am concerned, Jefferson’s allegiance to law was a matter of convenience. I wrote:

“But . . . that is precisely the type of rationalization we always apply to Jefferson, and would never apply to a Himmler or Napoleon.

Jefferson oversaw the annexation of the entire Louisiana Purchase although he was convinced it was not constitutional. He made it clear during his term in office that the law would get in the way of doing what he thought needed to be done during the embargo.

What was less legal than the American Revolution (which Jefferson himself understood)? Slavery was an abomination, recognized as so by him and many others, which he could have, probably uniquely, save Washington, taken a great hand in ending, particularly during his tenancy as president. Perhaps he would have sacrificed his popularity with many Southerners, but that perhaps would have made him the great man who deserves his place on Mt. Rushmore.

Would not it have been easier for slavery to have been ended by the efforts of a popular Southern president, than by the Northern President who eventually did it decades later (and gave Jefferson too much credit, in my book)? It would have avoided a horrific war with its 600,000 dead, and saved unknown thousands of slaves from horrific servitude. At least Patrick Henry, also recognizing the injustice of slavery, had the courage to acknowledge he participated in it as a matter of his personal convenience.

Jefferson hid behind laws that did not stop others from manumission, cravenly asserting that he could not free his slaves, in part, for their own benefit.

No, I can't see Jefferson, fully aware of what he was doing, and always singing the song of liberty, as enjoying the reputation he does, when he alone had a unique opportunity to change the world, even if by example, and free his slaves. If the man could go into debt buying wine and property, he could have done so paying his slaves for the labor they performed, at the very least.

Last, I would argue with you that slavery is a far greater natural crime than any of those that King George imposed on America that Jefferson listed for us as causes for the revolution and its abolition far outweighed any petty legal niceties that can be raised to justify Jefferson's behavior. There may have been a time when the wrongness was not recognized by man in general, but it was not the 19th century in America.”

I love banging on Jefferson, the most overrated of the forefathers (IMHO), for his faults. I will spare my friend, Bear, from zapping me on this subject and simply refer you to his own recent pro-Jefferson blog post at Nevertheless, Jefferson’s description of slavery as a “great political and moral evil” leaves me cold in light of what he actually did compared to what he said.

The famed Sage of Monticello was full of excuses. Looking out for the slaves’ best interests; it’s not the right time; and, my favorite, it would have diluted his anti-slavery message to have kept repeating it (fortunately, Lincoln did not feel the same way).

One man who freed his slaves knew Jefferson well; Robert Carter, lost in history and only recently brought back to life by Andrew Levy in The First Emancipator. Carter, a fabulously wealthy man, freed over 400 slaves in 1791. Jefferson kept his the rest of his life and still didn't free them. Washington kept his too. So did virtually everyone else. Carter actually freed more (all of his) than the two presidents even owned.

Admittedly, Carter was exceptional. Nevertheless, he did not challenge the lawfulness of slavery; in fact, he did it all with no fanfare at all, by filing a deed of manumission as Virginian law permitted. No American ever freed more of his own slaves than he did. He also continued to support and care for them, trying to make the transition to freedom easier.

One wonders what Jefferson thought of Carter’s selfless act when he was making his excuses as to why he couldn’t free his own. Actually, he freed a couple during his lifetime and a handful more in his will, all relatives of Sally Hemmings, including two of her children who some think were Jefferson’s own (I won’t weigh in here on whether Sally was TJ’s mistress; certainly DNA evidence tells us that either Jefferson or a relative fathered at least one of her children, but there is just no way to ever know for certain if it was TJ) but that is out of the couple of hundred of slaves that he owned. Ironically, Carter freed his slaves by deed pursuant to a law which Jefferson helped engender.

For some, Jefferson’s passionate opposition to slavery in his Notes is a point in his favor. To me, it is more the reason to despise him for it. For example, he wrote:

"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. . .The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who, permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other."

Although most of the early presidents had slaves, not every forefather was pro-slavery. Thomas Paine never owned a slave (he had enough trouble keeping himself out of jail). He wrote: “How can Americans complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them while they hold so many hundred in slavery”. Of course, “many hundred” was a gross understatement.

Alexander Hamilton was anti-slavery and active in an anti-slavery association. His wife, however, was a slave owner, which tarnishes his reputation with respect to abolition for me a little; he could have forbid it. Same with the overly maligned Aaron Burr, a member of the same association, who also owned slaves. Like a number of famous men, he was well known to be good to his slaves. That doesn’t cut it for me. Would we give someone credit for being good to their kidnap or murder victim? Franklin owned slaves, but when he got older became anti-slavery and actively promoted abolition.

But John Adams never owned a slave. He was not quite the rabid abolitionist though. He wrote Jefferson late in life that he would comment to Southern legislators “I cannot comprehend [slavery]; I must leave it to you. I will vote for forceing [sic] no measure against your judgements [sic]." Some might say he was merely a good republican in respecting Southern states’ rights. I say not good enough. He deserves more praise than Jefferson but did not rise to the level of courageousness that his own son did much later in opposing the peculiar institution wherever it was found.

I give Washington little credit for freeing his slaves in his will, but only after his wife’s death. Knowing it was wrong, Washington kept them slaves while convenient for Martha and himself.

Britain, for all of its horrifying treatment of indigenous people in their colonies (including genocide), ended slavery completely there before our revolution and set about to stop the slave trade while Jefferson was still president. During the same presidency, Haitian slaves freed themselves in an insurrection from their masters, the French. Jefferson never lifted a finger to help them, though they acted in the same cause of liberty as he did.

I am not unaware of the anti-slavery statements Jefferson made, nor am I unaware that he tried to end slavery in the territories (but only well into the future. He also was largely responsible for the law prohibiting importation of slaves as soon as it was constitutionally possible (1808 while president) and made efforts to end it in Virginia. But when he had the opportunity to “restate” Virginia’s own laws, he did nothing about slavery (although he was creative with other laws), nor did he ever provide any moral support or aid to abolitionists who sure could have used it.

Besides, it can’t be said enough – he owned slaves and lots of them. He benefitted his whole adult life by their labor while knowing and saying it made one depraved. How can we look at our country’s history and consider slavery a stain, and yet so easily forgive a slave holder like Jefferson who could have gone at least some long ways to ending it?

I would not harp on this if writers would stop making excuses for him. He did know better. In fact, thanks to his own pen, if there is one person we know knew it to be completely wrong, it was Jefferson.

Eventually, I will get around to writing how overrated his writing the Declaration of Independence was (not an original thought to me – Adams probably said it first), how sneaky and underhanded he was as secretary of state under Washington and vice president under Adams, how hypocritical, destructive and ineffective he often was when president himself, and how otherwise selfish he could be in his personal life.

Someday I might even write about the things I admire about him. But not today.

Boo, Jefferson, boo.


  1. Anonymous12:25 PM

    AARRRGHHH! You are blinded by your unnatural hatred of Jefferson. Slavery was much bigger than any one man, as should be obvious to any student of history. It took the greatest tragedy in American history (the Civil War) and the death of Lincoln,to bring an end to the abomination. None, none, NONE of the founding fathers were smart enough to do anything about it. They knew that they had to look the other way to hold the fledgling nation together, and even said that the future generations would have to deal with it. Jefferson ROCKS! You just can't deal with his political conniving. Get over it. They all do it. It comes with the territory. A brilliant mind like him comes along way too rarely. Give him his due, little man.

  2. Oh, what a shocker -- Bear disapproves of my Jefferson bashing.

    The forefathers could have done something about it. They could have given up their own slaves at whatever financial and political cost. You can't tell me that if Jefferson and Washington not only repeatedly and publicly bashed slavery, but gave up their slaves and at least threatened rescue of the slaves, that something would not have happened. Remember, some state's did it already and so did some countries. A war may not have been necessary if our original leaders had the same courage in fighting for African slave freedom as they did in fighting for European-American freedom.

    Let me quote Uncle Ben from the movie Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility."

    The more brilliant you tell me Jefferson was, the more I think he should have been an example.

    I say yet again, Boo, Jefferson.

  3. I got into a long argument at another site on this topic. Here it is.

    Jefferson had many good qualities, but the author of the Declaration that all men are created equal was in fact the hypocritical owner of hundreds of slaves, while Adams never owned or hired a slave in his life.

    Just wanted to point that out.


    5 mespo727272
    1, March 11, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Right you are, but Jefferson was ambivalent about the institution and made reasonable provision for his captives. He famously said “we have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

    He was certainly no raging proponent of slavery, but, given his often times precarious financial situation, he decided self-preservation trumped morality. Not particularly unique or noble but I cannot cast the first stone here either. Could you? Could Adams?

    6 Vince Treacy
    1, March 11, 2008 at 12:03 pm
    Well, Adams could have thrown stones, since he did not own slaves, did not hire or rent them, did not sleep with them and father children by them, and did not have escaped slaves hunted down, captured, returned and flogged, as Jefferson in fact did.

    This is a real twist on language worthy of Orwell. He owns, rapes, and tortures slaves, but he is ambivalent. He captures and flogs escapees, but this is reasonable provision. Very many people before him and after him managed their self-preservation despite precarious financial situation without owning and abusing enslaved human beings. Please look up Lincoln, as just one example.

    We know now that massive amounts of slave labor were used by Germany and Japan in support of their efforts in World War II, but I suppose they made reasonable provision for them, were ambivalent about it, and decided their precarious financial situation trumped morality.

    7 mespo727272
    1, March 11, 2008 at 12:40 pm
    Wow you really don’t know anything about Jefferson and you apparently really missed the point about compromising morality for self- preservation. Adams didn’t live in an agrarian society and he certainly didn’t need slaves. My point was simply that Jefferson was a product of his times and a great man indeed with very real problems. There is no evidence to suggest he tortured slaves and the proof that he fathered children with them is tenuous at best even given the DNA evidence which is suggestive that his cousin in fact was the father. All in all, you have an entirely surprising self-righteous attitude about one of the fab four on Mt. Rushmore, which conspicuously seems to omit your pious hero, Mr. Adams. Maybe that decision was Orwellian to you as well. I bid you return to your crystalline world of leaders without flaws and citizens altruistically subverting their own self-preservation to uphold your sense of morality.

    8 Vince Treacy
    1, March 11, 2008 at 12:54 pm
    Dear Mespo,

    There is evidence for all I wrote, and the evils of slavery need no elaboration here, but you may have the last word. I did not mean to offend you. I do not want the Professor’s site to get bogged down off-topic.

    9 mespo727272
    1, March 11, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Agree with your sentiments and have no desire to bog us down either, but as you know there’s evidence and there’s truth and one does not always lead inexorably to the other. No offense taken.

    10 Vincent Caminiti
    1, March 11, 2008 at 3:14 pm
    Vince / Mespo:

    Please - the discussion was terrific!

    How could JT mind a eloquent exchange with some real passion that didn’t cost 4,100 bucks. It seems to me that your argument was far more interesting than a peak at how Eliot Spitzer ruined his career, besmirched his family and …. this list is too long.

    Please carry on - you were talking about things far more interesting and relevant than “Client 9 from Outer-space”

    11 mespo727272
    1, March 11, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    You are too kind. Maybe Vince and I can verbally joust more about our favorite Founding Fathers. I must confess bias in favor of Mr. Jefferson who is obviously my favorite. Vince is right that my hero had feet of clay, but don’t they all?

    12 mespo727272
    1, March 11, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    In fairness, I must correct one of my criticisms of Vince’s indictment against Jefferson. It does seem that while Jefferson did not personally flog his slaves, he did permit overseers to do so on his estate. This is a fine distinction and Vince was right to disregard it in his allegations. The record does show that this was not the norm in Jefferson’s household and was reserved principally for thieves. It was likely, according to most sources, a final rather than initial punishment and was usually preceded by a lecture on the desirability of morals from the squire himself. It also was in keeping with the corporal punishment prevalent in the day. That some of the most popular attractions in Colonial Williamsburg are the public stocks, attests to those times as well as ours. But these are parsing words, I know, and I must say that Vince’s criticisms, while seemingly out of proportion to a judgment on the great work of the man, remain, nonetheless, fundamentally accurate as sins of omission.

    13 Vince Treacy
    1, March 11, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I certainly agree that there is evidence and truth, and truth has to be faced, and I am glad no offense was taken. I do not agree with your statement that there is no evidence to suggest Jefferson tortured his slaves. Given the current importance of the issue of torture, readers should know that my statement was truthful and not made lightly, being based in part on the fact that when one of Jefferson’s slaves escaped, he was captured, returned and flogged. Not sensorily deprived, not waterboarded, not subjected to raucus music, but flogged, severely, for simply trying to be free.

    Readers can find at a source by a professional historian, at the OAH site, with a balanced treatment of the entire issue: QUOTE James Hubbard ran away and, for awhile, evaded Jefferson’s attempts to recapture him. When he finally caught Hubbard, Jefferson “had him severely flogged” and then sold him. UNQUOTE. Source: Thomas Jefferson and Slaves: Teaching an American Paradox, by Bruce Fehn, assistant professor and program coordinator of social studies education at the University of Iowa.

    As readers can see from the last post, there are always differences in emphasis and spin. This slave seems to have been an escapee, not a thief. He was flogged and sold, so it was more final than initial. It was severe. Of course Jefferson did no hold the whip, but he ordered it. Obviously, we can all disagree on whether a man is a product of the times, or rises above the times. I just observe that while Adams never made it to Rushmore, neither did he ever need to order a runaway slave of his flogged. Readers all have their favorites, but mine is Lincoln, the man who saved the union and freed the slaves.

    I post under my real name, and we [or anyone interested] can continue by email to

    14 mespo727272
    1, March 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Since VC does like our little discussions, I opted to post here. On the issue of James Hubbard (the younger) the issue is somewhat complicated and perhaps some persepctive would help the discussion. James Hubbard, the elder, was Jefferson’s trusted slave and served in his household as a “waterman” which granted him autonomy to travel to and from town allowing him to visit friends and family. His son, James Hubbard, the younger, was more of an intrepid soul and did continually get into trouble both at the estate and in his attempts to run away. As Jefferson biographer E.M. Halliday in his work “Understanding Jefferson” writes ” James Hubbard, one of the nailers, was caught stealing nails… subsequently ran away… [was] captured… [and] was “severely flogged in the presence of his companions.” Hubbard was certainly no angel given his past transgressions and his treachery seems established. It did not justify his servitude, but as with most human interactions was more complex than a mere example of human cruelty authorized by Jefferson. Similar punishments were meted out to young people with similar transgressions, so although this was severe, it was by no means rare. Not justified perhaps but clearly in keeping with the evolutionary stage of the morality of the time.

    15 mespo727272
    1, March 12, 2008 at 12:06 am

    I thought I remembered this Lincoln quote and finally found it. Here goes: “The principles of Jefferson are the axioms of a free society.” See, we can wholeheartedly agree on something of substance.

    16 Vince Treacy
    1, March 12, 2008 at 10:49 am
    Let see. We started with: There is no evidence to suggest he tortured slaves. Then it seemed that while Jefferson did not personally flog his slaves, he did permit overseers to do so on his estate, where it was not the norm, was a final rather than initial punishment for thieves, usually preceded by a lecture on the desirability of morals from the squire himself, in keeping with the corporal punishment prevalent in the day, like the stocks at Williamsburg. How nice. Lastly, we find that an escapee was “severely flogged in the presence of his companions.” Not justified perhaps but clearly in keeping with the evolutionary stage of the morality of the time.

    So just what was this evolutionary stage of the morality of slavery of the time? Many approved of it, but some contemporaries had said that We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Did Jefferson subscribe to this latter view? He wrote it and signed it, so we can assume so. If questioned by James Hubbard, who sought his inalienable rights to life and liberty by escaping, Jefferson might have said it only meant white men, or he might have just said to watch what I do, not what I say. James may have unlawfully stolen nails from his master, Squire Jefferson. English people at the time thought Jefferson and his friends unlawfully stole a country from his majesty King George III. Jefferson, of course, invoked a higher law. So did James by his actions.

    So he was not like any other slaveowner, a man of the time being judged by today’s morality. He is held to his own standards, so eloquently expressed in his own words. Hypocrisy was a moral and ethical blindness that saw one set of rules apply to himself and another to his workers. This issue resonates on this thread about Governor Spitzer, doesn’t it? Orwell called it double-think: the holding of two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, fervently believing both, and being unaware of their incompatibility.

    The flogging in front of the companions reeks of the use of terror in aid of enslavement to deter further escapes. Human Rights Watch reports that the Saudi religious police use flogging to silence human rights protesters to this day. Flogging was not and is not routine corporal punishment: it is and has been deemed cruel and unusual punishment, ever since the Bill of Rights.

    And about that evolutionary morality. It really evolved a lot, didn’t it? By 1860, that morality had “evolved” to the point where the number of slaves had not diminished, but had grown to four million, so much so that the Confederates started a bloody civil war to split the Union, to defend slavery in the south as the “cornerstone” of their society, and to spread it to the territories. Looks like evolution in reverse to me.

    I fully agree you and Lincoln that Jefferson was a great writer, giving us the Declaration and the Virginia laws of religious tolerance as well as supporting the Constitution and Bill of Rights: the founding principles of our society. But he ran Monticello as a society that was half-slave and half-free, and seemed to think that the new nation could exist in a like manner. The overwhelming domestic issue in America in the 19th Century was slavery. It very nearly destroyed the nation. My original point was about the need to confront and consider Jefferson’s deeds, not his words.

    17 mespo727272
    1, March 12, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Without getting into a debate on the language of the Declaration, it is clear that slaves were regarded as property and thus exempted from the opening words. Women were likewise not regarded as the equal of landowning freemen, so Jefferson’s words are contextualized by the times in which they were written. No historian would argue otherwise. Thus his words are not quite so damning as you make it seem with today’s understanding of the terms. The Constitution, supported by men like Adams, also contained language that held slaves worth no more than 3/5 of a free man, so there was plenty of hypocrisy to go around. The point is simply that morality has evolved since those times despite your examples to the contrary. In fact the Civil War was nothing, if not a referendum on the morality of slavery that the good guys won. Adams was a fine intellectual, lawyer, and American statesman. He simply does not enjoy Jefferson’s stature, and while you may regard that as unfair, tearing down Jefferson’s legacy enhances Adams’ not one bit.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .