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.
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 incorrect-bear.blogspot.com. 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.
- 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 . . . .