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December 02, 2012 4:03 PM Thomas Jefferson is “one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” Agreed!

By Kathleen Geier

An interesting scholarly controversy has broken out among historians. Independent scholar Henry Wiencek has written a book about Thomas Jefferson, a withering assessment called Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. It has been highly acclaimed by the popular press but, as the New York Times recently reported, the reviews from academia have not been so hot. Historians have accused Wiencek of misreading the evidence and not giving proper credit to other scholars.

I’m not so much interested in that controversy, which at any rate I lack the professional expertise to judge. What fascinates me is the way Wiencek’s book has renewed the debate about Jefferson and his legacy. It’s notable that even many of those historians who don’t have much use for Wiencek’s book are scathing in their evaluation of Jefferson. This is quite an about-face from the mixed but mostly positive accounts of scholars like Joseph Ellis from a decade or two ago

For example, in the Times article, law professor Paul Finkelman is quoted as saying, “I think Thomas Jefferson is one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” He elaborated that statement in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, which focused on Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves. The Volokh Conspiracy’s David Post offered an unconvincing rebuttal of Finkelman’s piece.

The most persuasive of the anti-Jefferson cases that I’ve come across recently is Corey Robin’s, which you can find here. Yes, of course we know that Jefferson owned slaves. Compounding that horrific crime against humanity is the fact that, in contrast to other Founding Fathers like George Washington, he failed to set all his slaves free upon his death. As Finkelman notes in his op-ed, Jefferson’s will “emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block.” Not even Hemings herself was set free (though his children by her were).

No, it’s not merely Jefferson’s appalling personal behavior that is so deeply disturbing. It’s the way he proselytized in favor of racism in its most horrific form as ideology and national policy. Robin quotes at length from two of the more repellent passages from Query XIV in his Notes on the State of Virginia. In it, Jefferson writes that, due their moral, intellectual, and physical inferiority, the slaves, if freed, could never live in the same society as whites. According to Jefferson, there were but two “solutions” to this “problem”: deportation or elimination. Robin writes:

If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.” The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history. When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.”

Robin rightly links these sentiments to Nazi ideology about how to deal with “the Jewish question.” The parallels are real, and they are chilling. No wonder why Jefferson is a hero to many of the extremist racists on the American right like Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party types. Yes, the man also accomplished great things, but nothing could atone for the noxious of stench of the deadly, quasi-fascist ideology that permeates his writings on race.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Raenelle on December 02, 2012 4:35 PM:

    I could be wrong, but I think George Washington was the ONLY FF to free his slaves when he died. Not one of them; the only one.

  • Arthur Byron Cover on December 02, 2012 4:41 PM:

    The problem with all this talk of Jefferson and slavery is that Jefferson was a man of his time, not our own. There's life before the conceptual breakthrough, and life after it. England didn't ban the practice of slavery until long after the Revolutionary War, and neither did we.
    Jefferson, like the other Founding Fathers, opened a door, through which those of subsequent generations could walk. They did not know where it would lead. Or, as they used to say about Liszt, he shot an an arrow into the future, not knowing where it would land.

  • POed Lib on December 02, 2012 4:42 PM:

    What really annoys me about Jefferson is that he was totally ignorant of the theory of evolution. He was also a very poor driver, and he did not rotate his tires.

    Morons use contemporary standards to judge historical figures. I do not. It's profoundly stupid. He was a man of his times, and of his locale, and if that is ignored, the comments are idiocy.

    Geier never fails to write a fail comment. She's batting about 10%. She has idiotic ideas about H-1Bs, and is now revealing herself to be a revisionist historical ignoramus. What's her strong suit?

  • DJ on December 02, 2012 4:58 PM:

    Geier never fails to write a fail comment. She's batting about 10%

    Ten percent? Quite the generous curve you're using...

  • martin on December 02, 2012 5:06 PM:

    While mostly in favor of judging people by the standards of their times, we must also be careful about treating the founding fathers as infallible gods sent but once to walk among us mortals. It is good now and then to be reminded of their various flaws, especially when faced with political movements and Supreme Court justices that pretend to channel the spirits of the founders.

    Former slave owner Benjamin Franklin began petitioning against slavery in 1789, so it is not as if Jefferson had no contemporaries to show him the way. Jefferson was of his time, Franklin was ahead of his.

    As for linking Jefferson's views on race to the Nazi's, ok, maybe. The more direct and meaningful link is to the Confederacy and the poison it continues to spew through the American body politic.

  • dp on December 02, 2012 5:10 PM:

    In addition to his racist views, one also must remember that Jefferson was an irresponsible spendthrift who was totally unable to live within his means. Even if he had wanted to free his slaves, which he obviously did not, he probably couldn't have afforded to.

    The man wrote well and had some wonderful ideas, but he was far, far from perfect.

  • Anonymous on December 02, 2012 5:13 PM:

    As for linking Jefferson's views on race to the Nazi's, ok, maybe. The more direct and meaningful link is to the Confederacy and the poison it continues to spew through the American body politic.

    This is more sound than Geier's adolescent opinion. Unless Jefferson advocated the industrialized extermination of a people, comparisons to the Nazis are ill-advised. Godwin's Law and all that...

  • johio on December 02, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Those complaining about judging Jefferson by contemporary standards are showing their own historical ignorance. There was plenty of thinking in his own time on the evil of slavery. Jefferson himself put a condemnation of the slave trade in the Declaration of Independence. His sin was knowing he was doing wrong, and doing it anyway.

  • Mikhail the History Grad Student on December 02, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Much as it galls me, since I generally like Geier's writing, I'm going to have to agree with the consensus here. Jefferson is best judged not by modern standards, but by the standards of his own time.

    If you use modern liberal (as in post-enlightenment, not Leftist) moral standards, then the overwhelming majority of people who lived in the past will come off very, very badly. Most were racist, religiously intolerant, ignorant, dirty... because that's how the world was. Isn't that the whole point of progress, that we move away from that towards greater enlightenment?

    This isn't to say that you can never criticize people who lived in the past, but using modern rubrics is just silly. In comparison to other people of his time and class (that is, other Virginia planters), how does Jefferson come off? I'll admit I can't say, I haven't read these books, but that's the standard by which he is to be judged... and then you have to weigh that against such things as writing the Declaration of Independence or the Louisiana Purchase.

  • modaca on December 02, 2012 5:43 PM:

    He freed his children but not their mother FGS!

  • Peggy Seats on December 02, 2012 5:48 PM:

    Henry Weincek is a brilliant historian and author who has the audacity to write truth to power about American history versus the mythologized "sound bytes" that have plagued and prevented Americans [and the world-at-large] from knowing who the historic figures of America, particularly colonial America, are. Although it has been over two centuries since Thomas Jefferson and George Washington [of Weincek's "An Imperfect God: George Washington and His Slaves and the Creation of America."], America refuses to relinquish the candy coated lies and to tell the true story of the founding of America. These people were human beings, not gods, and their true stories are far more interesting and engaging than the myths.

    Hats off to Weincek for having the courage of conviction for arguably coming closer to telling the truth about America's early historic record than most anyone. This is particularly true as relates to the "interdependence" of the slave owners and their victims, the chattel slaves, in the creation of America as the first created sovereign nation [and capital] in modern history.

    That's even though the enslaved are still seeking their freedom and credit for their many unsung contributions as slavery has only been modernized; and the slave owners are still in denial about the benefits they were bequeathed as their inability to stop being in denial about the "peculiar institution" that is the American way skewed in their favor is alive and well, of course.

    Here's a clue for consideration. As the old axiom goes, "The truth will set you free." That perspective, I believe, is relative to us all!

  • Peggy Seats on December 02, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Henry Weincek is a brilliant historian and author who has the audacity to write truth to power about American history versus the mythologized "sound bytes" that have plagued and prevented Americans [and the world-at-large] from knowing who the historic figures of America, particularly colonial America, are. Although it has been over two centuries since Thomas Jefferson and George Washington [of Weincek's "An Imperfect God: George Washington and His Slaves and the Creation of America."], America refuses to relinquish the candy coated lies and to tell the true story of the founding of America. These people were human beings, not gods, and their true stories are far more interesting and engaging than the myths.

    Hats off to Weincek for having the courage of conviction for arguably coming closer to telling the truth about America's early historic record than most anyone. This is particularly true as relates to the "interdependence" of the slave owners and their victims, the chattel slaves, in the creation of America as the first created sovereign nation [and capital] in modern history.

    That's even though the enslaved are still seeking their freedom and credit for their many unsung contributions as slavery has only been modernized; and the slave owners are still in denial about the benefits they were bequeathed as their inability to stop being in denial about the "peculiar institution" that is the American way skewed in their favor is alive and well, of course.

    Here's a clue for consideration. As the old axiom goes, "The truth will set you free." That perspective, I believe, is relative to us all!

  • Neil B on December 02, 2012 5:56 PM:

    This is a shame, since I went to UVA and want to believe better of Jefferson. I do note, neither did I like his support for a government lottery (?) Oddly, Jefferson thought that interbreeding with native Americans was a good idea.

  • rwgate on December 02, 2012 6:02 PM:

    The political environment at the time of the writing of the Constitution was such that the new Union could not have been formed, or held together, had not the issue of slavery essentially been "kicked down the road". There were numerous attempts to inject language that would bar slavery, but even then the Southern states would not go along. Cotton and tobacco were labor intensive, and even maintaining slaves was quite expensive. The South was much more rural than the North, and crops were the primary source of income.

    I agree with the other posters that you can't judge people like Jefferson by contemporary standards. My own great-great grandfather was a planter in Georgia and owned 250 slaves. Prior to the Civil War he freed all of them, and then served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Thomas Jefferson is my second cousin, and I have read just about everything I can find on his life. Sally Hemings was his wife's half sister, and what is known as an octoroon (1/8 black). Several of their children (1/16 black) moved to the North and were indistinguishable from their white neighbors.

    It really was a different world.

  • aimai on December 02, 2012 6:04 PM:

    It isn't "judging Jefferson" by our standards to note that the man was seriously invested in a racist ideology and that out of convenience and lust he had sex across what he represented to be an unbridgeable racial divide, produced children across this division, and sold, bought, and sold again people who he knew to be in a blood relationship with himself and his family. Its not surprising that he was able to compartementalize and write movingly about "liberty" for one class of persons while owning and selling another class of persons. That kind of compartamentalization is typical of aristocratic thinking in general--rights always pertain to some kinds of people and not others: to men and not women, to older men and not younger ones, to whites and not blacks, to propertied persons and not unpropertied. So he was revolutionary and democratic for one set of persons (white) and not for all kinds of persons (white, red, and black?). Its not surprising.

    But we don't have to valorize it as normal for his time--because even in his time this issue was debated and other educated men came to radically different conclusions. And even in his time, in his own life, he himself violated his own racist principles by having sex with Sally Hemmings and by owning persons who were not free to select their own mates, or free to control and raise their own families without fear of having their family members sold off. The brutality of this reality can't be glossed over as normal "for his time." It was considered disgraceful in its time. It was scandalous in its time.

    Please, other commenters, stop bringing your bitter spitefulness to KG's posts. I consider her posts the highlight of the weekend crew--she writes about different topics and in some depth which the other weekenders simply can't match. I've followed her work for a long time and I am sick of the bitchy backbiting of her detractors. You all sound like McCain and Graham heckling Rice.

    aimai

  • c u n d gulag on December 02, 2012 6:08 PM:

    Jefferson was a slave owner, who wrote the most imprortant political document on the right's of freedom and liberty for "man."*

    Jefferson was also a politician who said one thing, and did another.

    He was a man of many "first's" - like the former. And in the latter, hr was neither the first, nor will he be the last, about saying one thing and doing another.

    *Oh, and looking through the lens of over 200+ years, he was clearly not one for women's rights, either.
    He was a foreward thinking man, who was also, clearly, a man of his time.

  • Andrew J. Lazarus on December 02, 2012 6:08 PM:

    I believe Jefferson couldn't free his slaves because he had used them as collateral.

  • Ryan Seacrest on December 02, 2012 6:12 PM:

    Put me down in the "he knew better" crowd. He wrote about it in the D of I, plenty of people (Franklin) also wrote of it as evil, etc.
    It was his irresistible spendthrift ways that drove him, and, I think, his rationalizing racism.
    As a Freethinker, it pains me to realize this, and TJ was a hero of mine.

  • Roger Keeling on December 02, 2012 6:25 PM:

    I'm finding myself agreeing very much with Mikhail here, and most of the other posters also. While I generally like Ms. Geier's writing, her apparent embrace of the idea that Jefferson was a true monster and -- somehow -- the author of Nazism is just way over the line.

    For much of my life, Jefferson was my favorite Founding Father. I'm not entirely sure why I found him so appealing -- the frequent clarity of his words, his embrace of science, his architectural achievements, whatever. But starting 15 or more years ago, my opinions began to shift. My regard for Washington -- who'd always been something of a cipher to me -- rose a lot as I learned more about him, while feisty little John Adams (despite the nasty sedition laws passed during his administration) began to grow on me ... in part because of his fierce hatred of slavery (contrary to a comment above in this thread, many of the New England and mid-Atlantic state founders never owned slaves to begin with. I'm pretty sure Adams was among those).

    But above all, I came to really appreciate Ben Franklin (oddly, I did not now that he'd ever owned a slave, a fact reported above). There are so many reasons for being astonished by the man. He was, for example, a REAL scientist -- not just some dabbler. And I was deeply charmed by the fact that, at the tender age of 16 or so, he wrote a series of anonymous letters -- published in the Philadelphia press -- allegedly from an older woman, and arguing powerfully for the equality of women. It was quite a scandal! How many 16 year old boys ANYWHERE at ANY TIME would have so much as considered such issues?

    But equal to my increasing attraction toward Ben Franklin and the others, a big part of my shift was a growing disdain of Jefferson, fueled by my growing appreciation of his ugly hypocrisy on race and slavery.

    So now we're seeing, all of a sudden, an upwelling of revisionist work condemning Jefferson. It is very likely a needed correction, because the man has been too long on an exceptionally high and mighty pedestal. However, what concerns me is allowing the pendulum to swing too far over, to not merely cut Jefferson down to human size, but to then proceed to demonize him, to declare him among the most black hearted villains in history. He was not a saint, but he was not Satan either.

    On matters of race, Jefferson was a man of his time, a condition the vast majority of us are condemned to. He's guilty of that. He surely knew the arguments against slavery, for others -- not just Franklin, but Adams too -- spoke out about it. For whatever reasons, he rejected it. His motives were probably a complex mix of pecuniary concerns and deeply-embedded racist opinions utterly consistent with what the overwhelming majority of his neighbors and friends believed.

  • TCinLA on December 02, 2012 6:50 PM:

    I think Mikhail and Roger Keeling have the right attitude here about Jefferson.

    I seriously doubt Hitler or any of the Nazis every read anything Jefferson ever wrote, so I think calling him an intellectual father of Nazism is a whole helluva lot more than "a bit over the top." His attitudes certainly fit with those of our own white supremacists of the Confederacy.

    I had always thought more of him than John Adams before I read David McCullough's fabulous "John Adams," which really put Adams in his proper place (BTW - he did not write the Alien and Sedition Acts and didn't support doing so). I'm surprised Adams and Franklin didn't conspire to kill Jefferson when they were all in Paris.

    I think if Geier wants to hold Jefferson in such low esteem, she's definitely going to have to add in JFK to that mix of a man who wrote and said one thing and did another - but like Jefferson, he too had his accomplishments.

    Personally, I prefer to look at all their accomplishments. Looking for "perfect people" is a fool's errand no matter what era's morality one is using as a measuring stick.

  • jd--Central Florida on December 02, 2012 7:17 PM:

    I wonder how many of the Founding Fathers or Signers could be fairly judged by our contemporary standards. While Franklin is admirable in many ways, his emphasis on practicality could be interpreted as a narrow utilitarianism that excludes much of the spirit. And then there is his illegitimate son, the last royal governor of New Jersey.

    We now require Great Men to have been great in all respects, perhaps an unattainable desire. And given the pettiness, not to say smallness, of so many of our political figures now. . .

  • wvmcl on December 02, 2012 7:51 PM:

    I always felt a affinity with Jefferson until I read in a biography the most disturbing thing about him.

    Apparently, Jefferson never, joked, laughed, or even cracked a smile. He was a totally humorless individual. I can overlook a lot, but not that.

  • aimai on December 02, 2012 8:27 PM:

    I don't read anyone here as saying that the Nazis were influenced by Jefferson--he was an important writer but not important for the things he said about race. But rather that the ideas of racial supremacy and racial isolationism and eliminationism were congruent. That's pretty much inarguable. Modern ideas about race--based on crude notions of biological difference (rather than chance or religion) and modern ideas about the necessity for separation between races were born in the crucible of slave and colonial societies which brought slave and free populations together physically but needed to keep them separate socially. The same issues would arise again and again in each such society because race mixing (miscegenation/sexual congress) and the resulting "problem" children would remain a problem whether the ruling party was white or aryan and whether the problem was "how do we maintain white privilige" or how do we maintain aryan supremacy.

    I get that a lot of people love the idea of Jefferson--I do too. We love the idea of the perfect, brilliant, man of letters and politics, of ideas and noble tastes, inventions and art and architecture. How much poorer our country would be if our founding fathers had not (mostly) been men of great talent, imagination, and education?

    But it should be obvious to the grown ups among us that people are, in reality, a mixed bag. It is perfectly possible for a man to sit down to a glorious dinner with his educated boon companions, drink expensive wines, and then sell off living human beings into distant slavery to pay for the meal. It should be obvious that its possible for someone to write winged words about liberty and the beauty and perfection of the white race and then coerce sex from his black slave woman. Its not romantic(!) it doesnt' comport with a child's vision of what the daddies do with the mommies. But its real. Upper class men have companionate, romantic, idealized relationships with their "own" wives and women of their own class and they have abusive, contemptible, manipulative, and often brutal relations with women and children from other classes. Nothing should be more obvious in the historical record.

    It is not the people on this thread who are looking at Jefferson's record in this light who are "judging him by modern standards" it is the romantic children on this thread who are demanding a level of perfection and courtly nobility from him in defiance of his history who are doing so. The man was no parfit gentil knight.

    aimai

  • Tyro on December 02, 2012 8:44 PM:

    Jefferson is best judged not by modern standards, but by the standards of his own time.

    In a lot of ways, we are trying to judge him by his own standards. It turns out that he was not, in fact, a founding father deeply conflicted about slavery or looking for a practical means of phasing it out. It turns out that Jefferson was a viciously pro-slavery advocate.

  • Bill K on December 02, 2012 9:50 PM:

    I agree that Jefferson should be judged by the standards of his time. But as others have pointed out it is possible to find his views on race deeply disturbing even by those standards. And any historical evaluation of Jefferson needs to confront the inherent contradiction between his progressive ideals and his racism. Just as anyone studying Wilson needs to realize that he held racist views that were common in his time and place, but far from universal, and that acknowledging this isn't judging him by modern standards or automatically dismissing his positive accomplishments. That said the Nazi comparison is ill advised, generating more heat than light.

  • POed Lib on December 02, 2012 10:03 PM:

    The problem that the historical revisionists are having is that slavery was not wrong during this period. It was legal, acceptable, and part of the stream of commerce.

    And as for putting Jefferson on a pedestal, I certainly do not do that. I respect him as a deist, slave holder, screwer of his own property, miscegenist, and frequent farter. He also crapped frequently. Sometimes he masturbated. He is neither a saint nor a monster. He was rather a man of his time and place, neither different from others nor necessarily better than many.

    And in fact, slavery was not widely considered to be wrong then. It became more and more clear that it was wrong over the next 100 years. Then it became wrong. But it is enshrined in the constitution.

  • BillB on December 02, 2012 10:21 PM:

    A fine debate one and all. As an architect guy I am a big fan of Tj. Of course we cannot look thru the lens to be with him and make his calls on values. But look to our time and ask yourself about our President. A brilliant sophisticated man we all adore, and yet he is drone bombing hundreds of innocent people to death, somewhat damning , eh.

  • Keith M Ellis on December 02, 2012 10:38 PM:

    While I'm inclined to agree with the argument that because abolitionism was alive and well during Jefferson's time, found among even his peers, it is appropriate to judge him harshly on this issue and not wave it away as him being a "man of his time".

    But I wonder ... how many people here making this argument will apply its implications to themselves and their own beliefs and actions? While slavery was widely questioned during Jefferson's time, it nevertheless was both legal and considered within the mainstream. So what issues exist today that might be similar — where there are dissenting voices, but they are a minority and most in our society don't take them very seriously?

    I can think of a number of examples.

    And I feel certain that at least some here who are criticizing Jefferson for not being progressive enough are not themselves progressive enough, by these standards. I feel certain that some of the critics of Jefferson have, themselves, disdained or ridiculed relatively fringe (but extent and widely-known) opinion concerning systemic wrongdoing and oppression.

    None of us can imagine ourselves to be so enlightened that someone from a better future won't judge us harshly. We are all anchored in the customs and ethics of our time. But this shouldn't be a blanket excuse for either our predecessors or ourselves — we can't aspire to rightness about everything, but we can constantly question our own tendency toward smug certainty that being just slightly progressive relative to the rest of our society is exactly as progressive as righteousness requires, and no further.

    We can rightly criticize Jefferson for being more complacent than someone as smart, and otherwise radical, and with more enlightened peers, ought to have been. But if we do, we very strongly ought to stop and consider if those same criticisms might also apply to ourselves. And we especially should avoid self-righteously criticizing Jefferson for agreeing with his contemporaries about what positions are self-evidently too radical and foolish to be taken seriously while, simultaneously sneering at our own contemporaries for espousing positions which we claim are self-evidently too radical and foolish to be taken seriously.

  • cthulhu on December 03, 2012 2:31 AM:

    o obviously there was plenty of laudable stuff that Jefferson did but any scholarly reading of his papers has to lead one to the conclusion that, even by the standards of his time, he was behind the curve on the slavery issue. And as others above have pointed out, this was most likely partially driven by the same motive common to many southern land owners: they would not be in the superior economic positions that they were if it weren't for the theft of labor.

    His writings also suggest a very deep racism in that he was known to go on at length in some letters as to the inferiority and/or simple differences of the dark race: how they looked, how they smelled, what they ate, how they talked, sang, etc. He pretty much covered it all. Not pretty. (There's a potential sympathetic interpretation of this that I won't get into to because, frankly, there's only thin circumstantial evidence to support it).

    Nonetheless, it is a serious error to interpret Jefferson's writings as call for genocide. The fact is that Jefferson, at minimum, understood that the writing was on the wall regarding the end of slavery. So the writings that are cited above are his musings about how best to wind it down. He understood that it would be an economic and social upheaval especially based on his beliefs that whites and blacks could not coexist effectively. To be fair though, although he was certainly well aware of the previous era of rare black land ownership in the north and quiet acceptance of that period, he likely saw the much larger southern black (and more African) population as simply too massive and alien. So while he himself did not advocate genocide he worried that this would be the future if other solutions were not conceived. He considered deportation back to Africa but decided that the cost of moving the former slaves back to their origin countries would be too expensive. He eventually determined the best course of action was black resettlement to the Caribbean in a staged process with replacement of white paid labor over a period of decades.

    So yeah, not enlightened but not Hitler.

    On a side note, it sure seems like a lot of people like to bag on the weekend bloggers. What's up with that?

  • Mordu on December 03, 2012 3:30 AM:

    Actually, what was notable about Ellis' work was not that it was so positive about Jefferson (although it clearly did present the "Founding Brothers" in a quasi hagiographic fashion), but rather the way people like John Adams were praised much more, and sometimes to the detriment of, Jefferson.

  • cld on December 03, 2012 4:48 AM:

    Racism is not fascism.

  • ajay on December 03, 2012 5:05 AM:

    There's life before the conceptual breakthrough, and life after it. England didn't ban the practice of slavery until long after the Revolutionary War, and neither did we.

    That's not actually true. England banned slavery in 1774 (Summersett's Case) and Scotland the year after. In fact, (slightly inaccurate) newspaper reports of Summersett's Case were a powerful spur for the colonies to declare independence - they were worried that the British would extend Summersett to the colonies and take their slaves away from them.

  • Cranky Observer on December 03, 2012 7:37 AM:

    = = = POed Lib on December 02, 2012 4:42 PM:

    What really annoys me about Jefferson is that he was totally ignorant of the theory of evolution. He was also a very poor driver, and he did not rotate his tires.

    Morons use contemporary standards to judge historical figures. I do not. It's profoundly stupid. He was a man of his times, and of his locale, and if that is ignored, the comments are idiocy. = = =

    I was watching "Antiques Roadshow" the other day when a man brought in a print he had bought at an antique store for evaluation. Turned out to be a 1st-run print of a famous anti-slavery painting from England, dated around 1750. The argument over ending slavery in England (and most of Europe) was just about over by the time of the American Revolution, not just starting.

    Cranky

    The print turned out to be worth around $3000 on the open market; not bad for a $50 buy. The owner wasn't interested in selling though.

    esse stsBft - 1st try

  • aimai on December 03, 2012 7:49 AM:

    I think its weird that people think you can't criticize Jefferson for being on the wrong side of a lively debate in his own period--so lively that it ended up structuring the Constitution itself--and that is considered 'anachronistic.' Obviously its not anachronistic. It was the very same argument we had back then, with many of the same points (the evils of miscegenation, the cruelty of forced sex, the selling off of one's own children, profiting from other's sweat, etc...etc...etc..) These were all considered very serious and disgusting sins even by slaveholders themselves, who (to outsiders, certainly) strove to disguise the reality of their peculiar institution.

    Second of all it is not the case that slavery and many of the ancillary details of then Modern American Slavery were taken for granted and not seen as "wrong." This is false. Slavery even then was rapidly evolving, had only started quite recently (since the colonies and the country itself were quite young at that point) and slaveowners, former slaves, indentured servants, and the huge number of descendants of the scots shipped over after 1745 were in fact wrestling with lots of the details like whether slavery was heritable. What rights you lost in indentured servitude vs. slavery, who owned the child in an unmarried birth--things like that.

    No one is "asking that Jefferson be more progressive" than he was. The guy's dead, not a zombie risen from the grave. We are just pointing out that if you can't condemn a guy for being no more good than the rest of society, you also can't praise him for his extraordinary capacities. There were other men of his time who saw farther,and were more humane. We have people now who are publicly noble and public spirited but privately keep and own slaves--plenty of our corporate philanthropists do so, slavery still exists in wide swathes of the Arabian penninsula, but we don't generally feel that public good works outweigh the private misery caused to other persons. And Jefferson had pelnty of reason to know that the people he enslaved and from whose toil he benfitted were persons in the full meaning of th eword since he was fucking one.

    aimai

  • HMDK on December 03, 2012 9:52 AM:

    aimai, exactly. It's a weird fetish for founding fathers or other Important Men. As already noted, the weak "excuse" that someone is a "man of his time" doesn't hold up. In fact, it just about never does. Because there's almost always lesser known, but influential contemporaries who got it right. Or at least closer to the truth. But they weren't as important in the self-mythology. So hey, history can be written any way at all, right? Nah.
    And seriously, the U.S. is WEIRD about its history.
    A very young country obsessing about its past is hilarisad.

  • FlipYrWhig on December 03, 2012 10:46 AM:

    Cranky wrote: The argument over ending slavery in England (and most of Europe) was just about over by the time of the American Revolution, not just starting.

    In England and Europe, perhaps. But slavery was booming in the Americas all through the American Revolution and beyond, with British firms making huge profits from it. The Zong incident was in 1781: the crew of a slave ship threw captured slaves overboard to collect on insurance. You would think that would galvanize opinion, but it didn't. Then there was a big push to end the slave trade in 1789, and it failed. So slavery and abolition were in the air in Jefferson's time, certainly, but he had plenty of "creepy" company.

    BTW, in the 18th century "slavery" is a complex term, because political thinkers tended to equate rhetorically tyranny and slavery. That's why Samuel Johnson, noted 18th-century curmudgeon and opponent of the American Revolution, could say in 1775, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

  • aimai on December 03, 2012 11:23 AM:

    Slavery was a complex term because it was a complex institution in fact. In the US we were still working out the details and laws were different in different colonies and then in the different states. The system was rigidifying in some places, relaxing a bit in others, depending on the arguments of the upper class legislators and the economic needs of their constituents. As the constintuent bse broadened after the Revolution the interests of free whites had to be taken into account and the line between free and unfree had to be reinforced in novel ways to prevent an alliance between lower classes (slave and white working class) and to prevent an infringement on the property rights of the slave owners.

    The system wasn't static. I don't think that has much to do with the thinking of political thinkers in a vacuum--slavery, revolution, the french revolution, the Hatian revolution, the maroon populations, the introduction of christianity to ameliorate and pacify the african slave population--these are all things that happened and were subsequently theorized about by political thinkers.

    aimai

  • Michael Martin on December 03, 2012 12:40 PM:

    Jefferson did oppose slavery and tried to write it into the Declaration of Independence, but he also later acknowledged that his view of slaves was affected by his experience as he later wrote: “My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity for the development of their genius were not favorable and those of exercising it still less so.” (Letter to Monsieur Gregoire, February 25, 1809)

  • phein39 on December 03, 2012 12:49 PM:

    It's worth noting that, Sally Hemings, the slave Jefferson had children with, was his late-wife's sister. Their children were trained as artisans and domestics, and freed upon reaching the age of majority; three entered society as whites.

    Jefferson wrote on how the "influence of the Negro blood" was mitigated by mixing with white blood, until an "octaroon" -- like any of his children by Hemings -- was indistinguishable from whites. That he didn't make the obvious connection that his children had been raised, trained and treated vastly differently than most slaves can be read as a personal failing or as the insidious effect of chattel slavery, but then, 19th C. America wasn't exactly conducive to an interracial "My Fair Lady" in any case.

  • Phoebe on December 03, 2012 1:19 PM:

    From the Department of Facts With Citations: Those of you trying to argue that critics here are mistakenly applying contemporary worldviews in their judgments of Jefferson's behavior should go read this, and the citations therein.

    Then come back and we'll talk.

  • Steve P on December 03, 2012 2:38 PM:

    As noted above, Sally Hemmings was the very light-skinned sister of Jefferson's late wife--but let's put that aside for a moment, since that fact of legal ownership of a paramour seems to appeal to so many of TJ's fans.

    Roger Kennedy has advanced the theory that the entire thrust of TJ's public life was to advance the interests of his own planter class. The Louisiana Purchase brought into the nation a vast new land suitable for plantations, at a time when their lands to the east were being rapidly exhausted by their wasteful farming practices.

    As for Washington, Weincek and others have noted his completely practical demonstration of freeing his slaves as his last testament to his country. He put Mount Vernon on a practical paying basis based on free labor, and scrupulously freed only those slaves of his own--his wife's being her property. As noted, TJ was too far in debt--the wine, the architecture, the objects of vertu--to ever even think of such a thing.

    Our first Ralph Lauren president--such taste, in service of the banal.

  • sz in fl on December 03, 2012 4:19 PM:

    The Polish hero of the Revolution, Kosciusko, drew up a will leaving Jefferson $15,000 to purchase slaves, including Jefferson's own, and grant them freedom.

    Jefferson never executed the will. His slaves were sold at auction.

    "Deeply creepy" seems an accurate term.

  • beejeez on December 04, 2012 10:17 AM:

    I'd like to respond on behalf of all the morons (see POedLib above) here.

    Of course we judge the figures of the past by our modern standards. If we didn't, we would never learn anything. The question is whether we forgive their trespasses or not. When we do judge them, it should be a reminder that we should keep in mind how future generations regard us.

    As the years passed, my youthful idealized conception of Jefferson has slowly been torn to pieces. Nowhere in the history books of my childhood was it pointed out that almost all of the major founding fathers and early presidents had been slaveowners in spite of the abolitionist sentiment that was growing even then. Today's youth see those times much more clearly than I could and can learn about identifying hypocrisy and compromise at the same time they learn about Enlightenment ideas on freedom, including Jefferson's invaluable contributions to them. This is absolutely a good thing.

  • FYI on February 25, 2013 11:45 PM:

    Contrary to what you say in the piece, Jefferson is not generally considered a conservative hero. For better and worse, his intellectual heirs are primarily on the left.