Saturday, January 24, 2015

The character of Jefferson (slavery)

I am not much of a fan of Thomas Jefferson.  He is, pretty much by definition, an American icon, having his face not only on our money, but also looming high on Mount Rushmore along with three other presidents.  Actually, Jefferson's face was selected, as were the other three, by the sculptor, not the government.  But it was hardly controversial, as, other than by his political opponents and a few historians here and there, possibly only Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and sometimes Benjamin Franklin have been so  revered as politicians throughout our history right up today.  And even if David McCullough did make John Adams a shining star for a few brief years, it was a bump on a long log, compared to the hero worship directed towards the Sage of Monticello.

Despite my personal dislike of Jefferson as a person, it would be foolish to suggest TJ was not one of the most important figures in the founding of the country, though I am not sure it would not have been significantly different, and perhaps better, had he not been.  I cannot think of any role he played which was critical in the revolution (please say what would have been different, if you disagree). In fact, what he was best known for after the declaration was failing to defend Virginia as governor and riding away from the British while his slaves remained behind, something that a number of other of his own peers were deeply angry at, and which, though found not at fault after investigation (and I agree), injured his reputation for a while.  Of course, it is the Declaration of Independence that he is most famous for. And I've treated this before on March 7, 2009, explaining why I think he should get some credit, but nowhere near as much as he is afforded for most famous piece of political writing in our history. Besides, someone else on the committee, like Adams or Franklin would have written the Declaration had he not.

But, undoubtedly, more so than any of these things, he was the leader of one of the two factions that became one of two great political ideologies that has existed throughout our history in one form or another (though I maintain the current popular consensus that he was the spiritual founder of the modern Democrat Party is overstated and he cannot be properly seen as the originator of either present party, however much it is believed). He was also  a major proponent if not always an applicator of enlightenment values, particularly the promotion of religious freedom and education. And, of course, he was the third president for two terms and in some senses the selector of his successors for the next four terms (so, 24 in all). He was also a formidable writer who left tons of correspondence and memoir material (albeit, most deliberately self-serving).  Of course, he can be called a "great" man in the sense of his impact on the world. However, so can his contemporary, Napoleon, and he sure had his faults. So can Cromwell.   So can others with far worse reputations.

Though he was incredibly well educated for his time, some of his achievements, as I have written about before, were  exaggerated (e.g., the Declaration) and many if not most or all of his important ideas were clearly derivative from others he read (though, that is true of most famous "thinkers").  But, it is not his achievements or failures I aim at here, but his character.  In my view, he has enjoyed a somewhat false sanctification.  In fact, his efforts at self-sanctification is one of his worst features. Rather than Sage, he should be known as the Shame of Monticello.  

It is not that his faults are not recognized by others - I personally rely on the scholarship of a number of authors over the last 100+ years in forming my opinion, but - his faults are too often smoothed over, as if they were mere foibles or minor character flaws, by his biographers. They shouldn't be. He does not deserve accolades but reproaches for many reasons.  I suspect that some of the resistance to seeing Jefferson clearly is the custom of treating reprehensible characters as being without any merit, and that would be extraordinarily difficult to do with any of the founders (though Jefferson and Hamilton did a pretty good job in tarring Burr, a far more honorable man than either of them in my opinion). Tarnishing founders can be a problem for many, but it's not necessary on their part. We can recognize a flawed character and contributions at the same time. We do it with many if not most historical persons.  

And, though a minority, there are professionals who find Jefferson as loathsome a character as I do, including those who have studied it much harder than I have.  Just as an example, as put by Paul Finkleman, a Professor at Albany University who wrote a book commenting in part on the evasions of Jefferson scholars,  “I think Thomas Jefferson is one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.”

2013 was a Jefferson year and a number of books came out which treat upon him, most notably John Meacham's The Art of Power.  Though Meacham, not a professional historian by training, wrote what I think is the best biography of Andrew Jackson that I have come across, I do not feel the same about his Jefferson, which has far greater competition.  I myself have probably read well over a dozen books on Jefferson alone (not including books on the revolution or time period). Whether we like a subject or not should have anything to do with our appreciation of a writer's work.  For example, I did not think much of Andrew Jackson as a person or president either, but still think Meacham wrote an excellent book about him.  I do find Meacham's effort on Jefferson interesting -- the phrase "a good read" comes to mind, but I have to say it was a typical Jefferson hagiography.  No doubt, hagiography is hard to avoid when dealing with celebrated  subjects like Franklin, Lincoln and Jefferson, but it is not inevitable for a good historian and not necessary at all for a great one.

 It is not that Meacham ignores any of Jefferson's most glaring faults, but, like so many other authors, he takes an understanding and sympathetic view of what in a less admired person would likely be seen as obnoxious or even terrible behavior (e.g., trying to seduce his friend's wife, whom he was asked to keep an eye on by her absent husband) or even horrific, like his keeping during his life hundreds of slaves he could have freed or treated much better, including his mistress and own children.  

For example, take Meacham's soft-pedaling of Jefferson's politics, which were probably more backstabbing and heavy handed than anyone else at the time could manage other than his arch-rival, Alexander Hamilton.  Meacham writes of Jefferson - "He was both an unflinching political warrior and an easily wounded soul. He always would be."  Awww.  In other words, maybe he was naughty sometimes, but a soft and vulnerable naughty boy, so we forgive him.  Imagine this phrase used of someone like Hitler - He was both an unflinching political warrior and an easily wounded soul. He always would be.  Hitler as examplye too rough for you? Fine, howabout someone like President Nixon.  Would that explanation justify forgetting about Watergate - that he was an easily wounded soul?  He was.

In another place Meacham writes of the Alien and Sedition acts in negative terms and details Jefferson's opposition, neglecting to mention that Jefferson as well as Adams signed the bill.  You can't, of course, put everything in a biography, and Meacham's  (or his editor's) selectivity is admirable for such a large subject.  But, how much space would that have taken?  one or two sentences? A footnote?  In just three consecutive pages he soft pedals Jefferson's typical hiding behind front men as being a "sign of good care,"  his stonewalling of his protégé, James Callendar, as not wanting to consort with a man skilled "in the dark arts of political warfare" (laughable when you consider Jefferson was virtually a Sith Lord when it comes to politics) and ignores his paying what was essentially blackmail to Callendar to save his own reputation  -- not even a  single critical comment!  

Meacham is hardly alone. Take this review of Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx,  "Though critical of Jefferson’s character, in the end Ellis decides it's his contradictions, in part, that made the third president great." Excusing Jefferson's  sins is a cottage industry.  Even one of my favorite historians, Garry Wills, who facilely writes the truth about Jefferson,  seems to almost as easily to forget or forgive the worst faults. At some point he stops to remind us how wonderful he was in the whole. The truth is, no forgiveness is necessary.  He's dead, he's legendary (the apocryphal quotations falsely attributed to him are epic) and he was, of course, a man of his times, like all of us. Being fair about a subject does not mean excusing things that cannot be excused. But, I discuss here how much an excuse there should be. 

Not all authors treat Jefferson so gently, of course. Some, like Finkelman, have been critical. But, they are certainly fewer and  almost always get ignored or treated shabbily by publishers and commentators on their work.  Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain, also published last year, looks at Jefferson's slave ownership with a far more penetrating light than Meacham throws on any of Jefferson's faults, in lieu of writing just another general biography.   And, not surprisingly, he quickly found himself being attacked by some as being unfair to Jefferson. Imagine -  they are defending someone we know owned hundreds of slaves, who made certain he kept them no matter what, who freed only his offspring and not even their mother during his life, and even upon his death did not follow the example of others who freed their own, like Washington, but perpetrated slavery every chance he could.  Instead, they castigate the messenger, Wiencek, who also, actually, treads very carefully himself. He probably had to in order to get published.

Think about it. With most topics, we celebrate and are excited by iconoclastic writing. But, when the subject is Jefferson (Lincoln too and some others), it is almost always the messenger who is shot and Wiencek, though quoted by others (including Meacham), has been handled roughly.  Some of Wiencek's critics, like Finkleman, seem upset that he might be getting credit for things he readily admits he did not discover.  Others say he is exaggerating a certain Jefferson notation because there is no proof Jefferson was talking about himself and not Virginian slavery in general  (I don't know why that would even matter), and  ignores all the other evidence raised by Wiencek.  

So, why another post here bashing TJ, you ask? It's because I want to cover a certain topic often used as a Jefferson defense.  This is excusing someone by calling him a "man of his times" also known as "presentism."   Naturally, I agree that we should not blame long dead people for holding  beliefs that were commonly or almost exclusively held true at their time, at least by those in their community or culture.  

In other words, I don't want to be myself or want others to be guilty of presentism either.  For example, it is in my opinion mostly unfair to attack Columbus for the horrific treatment of native Americans.  To do so would be to charge him with knowledge and attitudes that were extremely rare in his own time - mostly the 15th century.  Similarly, it is not surprising that Lincoln held as poor an opinion of the talents of blacks as he did, despite being opposed to slavery.  Jefferson was convinced of the inferiority of blacks as Lincoln was, probably more so.  But, presentism is sometimes insufficient as an excuse and too often reached for when it is not applicable.  In Jefferson's case with respect to slavery it is wholly false or, at best, deeply exaggerated. The reason for this is that Jefferson himself, and many of his peers, held the belief that slavery was an abomination, that blacks deserved freedom, that "all men were created equal." He was also aware that he could have freed his slaves, the same way a number of his peers whom he knew well did.  Instead, he chose to live the good life, even well above his means and saddled with debts, in an opulent palace, thanks almost entirely to the efforts and suffering of his slaves.     

The moral-free businessman and aristocrat in him simply won over the enlightenment writer.  Sure, he was, of course, a man of his time, but he, highly educated, was also ahead of his time, and he wrote about the horrors of slavery himself (while at the same time describing blacks as subhuman) and let himself be portrayed as slavery's enemy.  Hardly so, of course. He was slavery's friend and protector.  I will suggest here that the "presentism" argument (using present values to criticize an historical figure) shields an undeserving ghost. His slave owning, sometimes portrayed as being unavoidable or for the benefit of the slaves, was in fact, purely selfish, exceedingly cruel and despicable.

Jefferson, who bathed in the enlightenment authors from both England, Scotland and France -- was well aware of what he was doing, he simply wanted to live as a philosopher king.  No less is the fact that he engaged in what he thought was despicable miscegenation with Sally Hemmings.  I will not even consider here any of the unlikely arguments that it was not him, but his brother, who fathered the children (dna evidence tells us it was one of the two).  Circumstances tell us that it was him. Perhaps worse, he enslaved his and her own children, even if eventually freeing them.  Not even every slave owner kept their own children as slaves (though you do not get a gold star from me for freeing only your own). And he deplored the mixing of masters and slaves as much as any aspect of it. For Jefferson, it was not a matter of indifference to say one thing and do another. It was one of the main themes of his life. The enlightenment writers upon whom Jefferson so heavily relied for his ideas, were for the most part, very much opposed to slavery, whatever they thought of blacks, and it his peculiar devotion to it despite that, which rankles.

Of course, Jefferson's views and actions have been long debated and I can only give a snapshot here. First, let me address what Jefferson did with respect for slavery which he should get credit for, being careful also to state its limits:

1. He sought to place language on slavery in the Declaration of Independence so critical of it (blaming it on King George too, though it was no longer legal in Britain itself since even before the Revolution) which, if kept in the document, he said he believed would have made it most difficult for the new nation to maintain the institution for very long. However, that does fit a pattern of his of proposing things short of ending slavery or short of freeing slaves himself.

2. However, using a relative as a cut out, he early on sought to abolish slavery in Virginia through legislation. That he failed was no fault of his own and he may have genuinely desired that result at the time.  But, he saw the demonization inflicted on his own relative by their peers, and instead of stepping up himself and lending it his support, he stepped back into the shadows from which he best operated. And, that was the last time he tried to end slavery.

3. He is though largely responsible for legislation which permitted owners to free their slaves by deed, though there was a great deal of pressure from certain groups to permit this when he was rewriting Virginia's laws.  Note, he no longer sought to free the slaves but only to allow owners to do so (and almost never acted on the opportunity himself). His proposals were also draconic. He called, for example, for outlawing white women who bore mixed raced children and who would not leave the state (which usually means they are outside of the law's protection and can even be killed with impunity). So, this was something,  but not earthshaking.  It was not in any sense abolition. Virginia had repeatedly changed its slave laws over the centuries, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

4. He apparently (questionable, but likely to me) drafted the Northwest Ordinance of 1784, passed by the pre-Constitution congress, but which never went into effect.  It had called for the abandonment of slavery in the territories, but not immediately - only after 16 years.  Many have commented that this would merely have given slavery a foothold from which with the best of intentions, there could have been no withdrawal and virtually anyone at the time would have recognized that. There are some elements of the later Northwest Ordinance of 1787, an Act which he did not author, which was ratified by the United States Congress under the new Constitution. Perhaps Jefferson can be given some credit for having pre-figured it, but in most regards it is a summary of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and authored by Massachusetts' men. The new ordinance actually barred slavery -- not yet established, in the new territory.  Thus, we can only say that in the early 1780s Jefferson proposed allowing slavery in the new territories for a number of years and eventually eradicating it a generation later, which provision was almost certain to fail, and later, without his help, it was banned there completely.

5.  While president, he signed into law a bill making it illegal for U.S. citizens to participate in the international slave trade. But this itself had been contemplated in the Constitution, which he himself acknowledged, and the slave trade had already been abolished in almost every state at that point.

Now, the negative, most of which I collected from Wiencek, who documents it thoroughly, but much of which is well established:

1. He kept hundreds of slave, inherited by him or his wife, sold by him, raised by him. His son, Madison, who wrote long after TJ was dead, stated that Jefferson freed his children eventually, but did not do so for some 600 others (it's a collective number). He also noted Jefferson's affection for his white children and grandchildren but lack of any affection for his own half black children.
2. Forget your image of him as a kindly slave owner. He worked most of them at hard labor, doing things like farming or making nails even in bitter cold. Many got sick, many died. Here's an example from Wiencek: " Jefferson moved onto Monticello Mountain as a twenty-seven-year-old bachelor in November 1770. During a snowstorm on a bitterly cold day he went to observe the digging of a cellar. Wrapped in a coat, the young master watched a sixteen-year-old girl dig into frozen clay. The crew consisted of four men, two sixteen-year-old girls, and "a lad"--all slaves hired by his contractor. He wrote a description of the work, taking note of the crew's output for the day, which lasted about eight and a half hours in the frigid weather.  Half-frozen, the slaves took frequent breaks to warm up on a fire. An instinctive engineer and calculator, Jefferson measured their output, a hole about 3 feet deep and 132 feet square. He was not commenting on slavery but making engineering and labor notes, setting down for future reference how much digging could be accomplished by youthful laborers on a terrible day."   
3. He claimed he did not want slaves whipped, but, despite his complaints, never did much when overseers did so.  Some of his overseers were quite liberal with the lash and he was well aware of it when he hired them. One of his slaves who he long trusted to run his nail making business ceased being effective when he refused to whip the slaves anymore and he was taken off his job.  In fact, Jefferson was well aware of the cruelty of some of the overseers and even that children were being whipped. On occasion he would order it himself, for example, on a repeated runaway. Much of this facet about Jefferson has been deliberately hidden by some biographers and other famous biographers have relied upon fallacious accounts.
4. Not only were the children of slaves to remain slaves, but they were often born into indebtedness "contracted" with their parents, who of course, could not pay off their debts.  The reason for the debt - mostly buying slaves.
5.  At one time he wrote that blacks should be slaves all their life, but their children taken from them when adolescents and given training and when grown given material goods and sent to a place to be free and independent (the idea of a Liberia was a common one that even Lincoln championed).  That was about as good as it got. But, other than those who were almost certainly his children, he did not free any of his own slaves, or their children, even in his will. In fact, he believed the continuation of slavery was essential to American's survival.
6. Unlike Washington, he did not inoculate his slaves against small pox, but blamed the failure on the British to whom he was indebted. He wrote to a manager of Monticello :
"I cannot decide to sell my lands. I have sold too much of them already, and they are the only sure provision for my children, nor would I willingly sell the slaves as long as there remains any prospect of paying my debts with their labor." He adds that he is governed solely by their happiness, and would make their lot easier when they have paid the debts, most of which had been incurred through their purchase. Another time he wrote that   "I am miserable till I shall owe not a shilling: the moment that shall be the case I shall feel myself at liberty to do something for the comfort of my slaves."  A small minority were paid "gratuities," but the lowest workers received bare rations and clothes.
7. In writing to friends or those whose opinions he wanted to be favorable of him, Jefferson omitted mentioning that  Virginia permitted individual owners to free people at will. He would explain why Virginia would not emancipate slaves as other states had by claiming that it was because blacks were incompetent and it was like abandoning children.   
8. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a revolutionary war hero from Poland, left Jefferson as executor of his will for the purposes of using the money to free slaves. Though TJ helped him draft the will, he never acted on it and used the money to free any slaves.
9. His idea of protecting the slaves he rented out was to do so for only a year at a time so that he could get them back if they were treated harshly.  A year!
10. Despite claiming it was impossible to free them, he had many peers he knew well who did so and he was  acquainted with many who supported themselves, including a very few who worked for him.   Washington, D.C., where he resided for years, had a whole community of freed slaves who supported themselves.  One friend freed his slaves and worked beside them on the land. Another friend tried to show Jefferson how renting land would be more economical than having slaves. He ignored him.  Another brought all his slaves to Illinois and settled there with them.  Jefferson's peer, Robert Carter III, far wealthier than Jefferson, used the same provision in the law that Jefferson could have used, to free his over 450 slaves over time. Unlike Jefferson, he died living in a little house in a city, no longer living like a rich man on the sweat of others.
11. The U.S. acquired Louisiana, a huge territory, in 1803, under Jefferson's presidency.  Despite all his words claiming the evils of slavery and that he wished to end it, when the Senate debated the issue of slavery in the new territory,  Jefferson secretly instructed his floor manager through a note to insert in the bill that slaves would be admitted there.
12. He did whatever he did to prevent the equality of blacks, even, when a free black militia in Louisiana offered its services. He determined to keep them in their posts to "till a better settled state of things shall permit us to let them neglect themselves."   It was actually far harder for them than remaining in their barracks.
13. When slaves revolted in Haiti from our enemy France and begged for our help, he ignored them, despite his own supposed dedication to freedom and his role in our own revolution.

All of this is, of course, just a smattering from Wiencek's book and some other sources. Wiencek, published quite recently, is almost already forgotten, while you can easily find Meacham's book in stores. Wiencek reminds people of things they would rather not know and if they read it, to quickly forget.  It is not comfortable to have a heroic figure you were taught to treasure since childhood be brought so thoroughly down to earth. Admittedly, when I first started reading American history, I had trouble with it myself. It is easier to make excuses - such as, he was a man of his times.

Of course, it is also easy to fall back on the fact that so many of his peers were slave owners, including those who were abolitionists (even Franklin had occasionally had slaves) and so many others who did not own them, but accepted it as part of the law. But, this is used by some to pretend that Jefferson did not know any better. And, of course, he did. That's the easy part, because he repeatedly wrote so. Not only did many states end slavery during his lifetime, but Britain had freed its slaves at home even before the revolution (not throughout its empire until 1833). Not only did Jefferson write about how awful slavery was for everyone involved, but Quakers had long been shaking the tree trying to abolish it throughout America and there were many abolition societies. Many of his friends and correspondents freed their slaves, encouraged him to do so and were puzzled at his continuing it. They shouldn't have been that surprised. The horrors at Monticello were disguised but visible enough to those who wanted to see. As one visitor to Monticello who knew Jefferson commented - "[H]e considered them to be far inferior to the rest of mankind as the mule is to the horse, and as made to carry burthens."  

Of course, he hid it well, being a master of deceit like few others. He designed Monticello so much of the seemlier side of slavery was out of sight for visitors and his other lands had even worse conditions for the slaves.

Of course, here, I only examine his slave-holding, not his other character flaws. There are many other reasons to disapprove of Jefferson's character and I will get to these another day.  The Sage of Monticello was very much so the fraud and in my view a bad man, despite his many accomplishments. "Creepy" is a good word for him. But, when breaking icons, you have to take a break sometimes. So, finito.


  1. What a disappointment. You allow your own biases to get in the way of any attempt at an evenhanded evaluation. Not a single legitimate substantive point in the whole piece. He was a slave holder and it was wrong. Wow. So were millions of people at that place and time. Yet you dismiss presentism as though it is a meaningless concept or an excuse. Fact is Jefferson bugs you. Much the way Burr bugs me, but at least I admit I just don't like him and it may not be entirely rational or justified (though I think it is, much as you do with TJ).

  2. I was waiting for that eruption. Ouch. I think I made nothing by legitimate substantive points and relied not at all on rhetoric. You missed the whole point the way Mongo missed the fact that the special delivery was a bomb. If you read it again (having nothing else to do, of coruse), you will see that I did not dismiss presentism. I actually embraced it as a legitimate argument - sometimes. The overarching point of the post was it can't be an excuse for Jefferson, because he himself wrote what an abomination it was and he was of course well aware of the abolition movements in America and Britain (where it had already ended, though not in the empire). He authored the emancipation by deed bill in Va. and never used it, though many people he knew well did. They sacrificed their convenience and wealth to free slaves. He did the opposite, used them to death, and if he did not himself wield the whip, his employees did with his knowledge and approval. He pretended throughout his life to want to be rid of slavery, when privately he exploited it for his own personal gain and resisted all real attempts to be rid of it in society after he was a young man, as I showed in the post and won't repeat. Of course he bugs me. He was a terrible hypocrite and he really did have a poor character, not just related to slavery (I'm slow, but an accounting of his character otherwise is coming). I think you make my point why the scholars who have written about Jefferson in an honest way have been criticized or ignored where those who soft-pedal his character or make excuses for him are more successful. He's an icon and with Jefferson and some others, people don't want their heroes muddied by the truth.

    As for Burr, if I ever have a book in me it will be to rescue his own character from Jefferson and Hamilton, who did more to destroy it than anyone else. They were ultimately far more successful than he was, and for more influential in the development of our country, but also by far the more honorable man.

    But, thanks for smashing me, anyway. I was beginning to miss it. I actually don't write about Jefferson to irritate you (although, of course, it's a bonus), but I do believe in what I write about him. He was not a "great and good man," as the saying goes. Maybe a great one, but not good.

  3. The ghost of Jefferson may come back to haunt you. Now, if you could get the ghost of Burr to come back too you could arrange a duel and history might come out more to your liking.

  4. Burr never died. He and the Comte Saint-Germaine are one and the same. And Jefferson's ghost would not haunt me. He'd have Madison's ghost or some other admirer do it.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
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 . . . .