Home / General / The Dark Side of Jefferson is the Dark Side of America

The Dark Side of Jefferson is the Dark Side of America


This Henry Wiencek piece at Smithsonian on Thomas Jefferson’s dark side has half-perplexed me, yet the reactions show why it is so necessary. The piece essentially argues that Jefferson was a cold calculating slaveholder who did horrible things to black people in order to profit.

I wasn’t really aware that this was still breaking news.

Wieneck cites a lot of Jefferson scholars and books that have whitewashed his past. But let’s look at their dates: 1941, 1961, “the 1950s.” He mentions a lot of long-dead historians who apologized for Jefferson: Merrill Peterson, Dumas Malone. Joseph Ellis too, though he’s neither so old nor dead and thus the criticism is a lot more legitimate.

What Wieneck doesn’t mention is the growing literature on Jefferson that shows he wasn’t such a good guy when it comes to slaves. Certainly Annette Gordon-Reed’s work is the most important of this, but she is hardly alone. Today, most of my students seem to pretty much accept Jefferson’s slave relationships as part of the times, something that neither damns nor praises the man.

Yet I’ve read 2 weeks worth of commentary on this, along with numerous references to what a must-read this piece is. And it is a good and informative essay, no question.

I think the power of the essay comes from the deeply problematic relationship we have with the Founders. As I noted last week, we constantly look to the Founders as validation for our own positions. This isn’t a good thing. We want Jefferson to be the moral conscience of the American Revolution in order that we can attach him to the issues that bother our moral conscience today. Examined in the context of his times, Jefferson indeed said and did some great things. But he also said and did horrible things, things that make him a hypocrite. Much like we do, or accuse those opposed to us of doing.

Jefferson’s racial views can only be understood within the context of his time and class, that of the plantation elite of the 18th century South. The same goes for the rest of his views. The ideas of Washington, Hamilton, Madison, etc., can also only be understood within their time and place. Yet Americans have engaged in a 200 year collective exercise in ahistorical thinking about the Founders so that they can do political work for us.

This is why it’s still valuable to write articles like this about Jefferson (although I’m not sure that pointing to Washington as a better moral center is all that much more useful). Jefferson’s bad actions and deeds don’t erase his good actions and deeds. We can still see him as a brilliant thinker who pressed forward human liberty while personally oppressing the liberty of human beings. But it does mean that these people shouldn’t be seen as heroes or have their faces blown into the side of South Dakota mountains. It also means that trying to force our policy positions in 2012 to fit the (usually imagined) beliefs of 1770s slaveholders may not create good governance or useful political argument.

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  • Scott de B.

    I’m not sure why a checkered past disqualifies one from being commemorated on a South Dakota mountain. I think we can still admire people and at the same time recognize that they weren’t saints.

    • For one, putting people on the face of mountains is incredibly stupid.

      • John

        Why do you hate freedom?

        • NonyNony

          Or more to the point – why do you hate Rapid City, South Dakota?

          • MAJeff

            Because I’ve been there.

            • Anonymous

              Hey now, some of us still live there

          • DocAmazing

            ‘Cause the mail don’t move too fast in Rapid City, South Dakota.

      • Reilly

        In Lincoln’s case it’s justified if only to say that we made a mole hill out of a mountain.

      • Pestilence


    • jeer9

      Perhaps I’m in a minority at this site, but I like Mount Rushmore and think it a remarkable artistic achievement. Also enjoyed the nearby Crazy Horse sculpture, even though it is unfinished, and I never pass by an opportunity to visit a topiary garden. So there.

    • Njorl

      I think we can still admire people and at the same time recognize that they weren’t saints.

      That we can do, but carving their faces on a mountain is closer to making them saints than it is to admiring them.

      • spirilis

        We???? An artist did it an a right fine job.

        • kes

          Agreeing with the main column, but did want to note that the people who had it done were carving faces into a sacred religious site, and Crazy Horse’s people were opposed to … ummm, graven images? (info gathered at National Park sites on my trips to SD and environs)

          It’s not art, it’s propaganda. Fine propaganda, but would have been more appropriate to have people like andrew Jackson, who supported genocide of Native Americans and would have liked to deface their religious sites.

  • Thlayli

    Spelling nit:

    We want Jefferson to be the moral conscious of the American Revolution in order that we can attach him to the issues that bother our moral conscious today.

    Those should be “conscience”. “Conscious” is an adjective.

  • wengler

    Reading that reminds me just how fucked up capitalist slavery is even compared to other forms of slavery.

    • Heron

      Most slavery in history has been capitalist slavery, and in a more literal way than even colonial slavery. Most slaves during the Roman empire and before weren’t taken as spoils of war, but rather lost their freedom because they couldn’t pay back their loans and so were seized(typically along with their family) as a commodity to cover the interest.

      • wengler

        Hmm… I don’t want to get too pedantic, but a lot of Roman slavery, especially agricultural during the time of expansion at the end of the Republic was a pretty short-term deadly affair. The Spartacus revolt was the background to the fact that Romans had so many damn slaves that it was not that costly to work them quickly to death.

        What Jefferson was specifically referring to was making money by making more slaves.

    • Anonymous

      You’re a white guy, aren’t you?

      • wengler

        You’re a chicken shit anonymous commenter, aren’t you?

  • Today, most of my students seem to pretty much accept Jefferson’s slave relationships as part of the times, something that neither damns nor praises the man.

    Er…doesn’t it damn him?

    I presume you are using “damn” as the opposite of “praise” here, rather than in some stronger sense (i.e., of erasing the positive).

    And, in that sense, it’s a big ole negative AND part of the times. And even for the times (and for Jefferson), it’s a pretty big negative.

    Once, a missing bundle of rod had started a fight in the nailery that got one boy’s skull bashed in and another sold south to terrify the rest of the children—“in terrorem” were Jefferson’s words—“as if he were put out of the way by death.”

    Yeah. Pretty damning. Leaves plenty to praise.

    • thusbloggedanderson

      I am wary of any ethos that leads us to the conclusion that nobody in recorded history was moral until us. Well, some of us. Those posting and commenting at LGM in particular.

      • Fortunately, I’ve articulated no such ethos. Thus you are free to embrace mine uncritically.

        • Runs with Scissors

          Not explicitly, at least…

    • I think it’s “damn” in the sense of damn everything else he did – the tricky question of when you draw a line under a historical intellectual and say that there’s too much poison in the roots to trust any of the fruit.

      • But that makes no sense in opposition to “praise”.

        I mean, in general, and not just with historical figures, we have to balance the good and evil done. We also have to account for moral luck, e.g., I’m very lucky not to be faced with being raised in a society where slavery was tolerated and I would personally benefit from keeping them.

        • John

          But that makes no sense in opposition to “praise”.

          I suspect that this is more of an example of sloppy writing on Loomis’s part than anything else. Facts about people’s lives can’t praise a person, which is what the sentence as written means.

    • Anonymous

      I had to check; Loomis really did characterize rape and abuse as “slave relationships.”

      • The idea that I have been somehow apologetic for whites on slave rape is so laughable as to be at the “take this material on the road” level.

        • Anonymous

          So, address the criticism. What you’ve done in the past is irrelevant if, off guard, you’re still characterizing rape as a complicated but legitimate relationship between slave and master.

          • UserGoogol

            Easy: Erik did not characterize rape as a complicated but legitimate relationship between slave and master. Describing something as a relationship does not imply legitimacy.

            • Anonymous

              No. That doesn’t work in the present–characterizing rape as “sex” or as a function of a relationship–and it only serves when discussing the past to obfuscate what rape and abuse were and where they occured. Normalizing rape and sex is separate and distinct from admitting that it was normal, that is, common.

              • Anonymous

                Normalizing rape and abuse, obv.

  • greylocks

    Founder-worship is antithetical to true democracy. It’s a form of autocratic theism, which is the entirety of its appeal. Can’t get the public to accept your views? Then claim _________ [fill in name of founding father or document] intended your side to prevail.

    • Nathanael

      Well, yes. Definitely.

    • Cody

      I always assumed this is why Republicans engaged in founder-worship.

    • Except that we are so often trying to understand how the Constitution was intended to apply — and to determine that, we need to look at the words of those who were responsible for drafting and adopting the document. After all, to know what a document means, we have to look at what the authors meant it to mean.

      • Mark Field

        No, what we want to determine is how the Constitution IS (not “was”) intended to apply. The only interpretation that counts is our own; what the authors meant is of merely historical interest.

  • Glenn

    I’m curious, is there any other country that has this sort of reverence (inconsistently invoked though it may be) for its founding generation?

    • El Guapo

      Depending on your definition of “founding” – doesn’t practically every country? Name one that doesn’t mythologize the founder, leader of independence, whomever was “in charge” at whatever seminal moment corresponds to “founding” for that particular country (Marti in Cuba, Kim Jong-grandfather in N Korea, etc.)

      • Warren Terra

        Elizabeth I and Victoria in England, Napoleon in France, Bismarck in Germany, John MacDonald in Canada, Weitzmann in Israel, Gandhi and Nehru in India, etcetera … iconic status for founding (or re-founding) leaders is fairly common.

        • Hogan

          But my sense is that political discussion in France/Germany rarely touches on the question “What would Napoleon/Bismarck think about this?”

          • Malaclypse

            When you really think about it, what, exactly, was the original intent of Arthur’s farcical aquatic ceremony?

            • Hogan

              We must examine the legislative history left behind by that moistened bint.

          • Uncle Kvetch

            That’s definitely true of France, at least (probably Germany too, but I know France better). You’ve got all the historical heroes who made France France, and everybody learns about them at school, but the notion that any of them could could provide any relevant guidance in terms of policy in the present would be considered absurd. In modern times, Napoleon established the legal system that’s still in force today, and de Gaulle was responsible for the current constitution, but they’re certainly not invoked in the way, say, Reagan is here, let alone the Founders.

            So you see, once again, we’re exceptional. Yay us!

            • DocAmazing

              Yes, but they named an airport after DeGaulle and a pastry after Napoleon so we’re still the rational ones no takebacks.

              • Uncle Kvetch

                Damn you, Doc. You got me.

              • Anonymous

                The pastry name is not used in France as this is called “thousand sheets” which happens to be an accurate depiction. Also, war generals tend to get their names on things. It is not limited to De Gaulle

                • Anonymous

                  Vive les millesfeuilles!

          • Glenn

            That’s what I was really shooting at, just didn’t phrase it very well.

        • SeanH

          This isn’t really true of England. Nobody (in my experience) ever invokes Elizabeth I as a reason some policy or other should be adopted.

          • Nathanael

            The right-wingers occasionally invoke Thatcher, but apart from that the UK seems to be relatively free of “former politician worship”.

        • ajay

          Elizabeth I and Victoria in England

          Er… no. Mythologised? Seriously? Have you even seen Blackadder? When was the last time, do you think, that someone seriously argued a political position in Britain with the words “This is exactly the sort of thing that Queen Victoria would have done”?

    • When I was in the CCCP back in the day, Lenin was a combination of Jesus, Washington, Lincoln, and Santa Claus. School kids had pins with the Young Lenin’s photo on it.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks
        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          учиться* (preview, пожалуйста)

      • Warren Terra

        The young Lenin? I may have at some point seen a picture of young Lenin, in a biography, but every picture I can recall has him balding and bearded – not especially young.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          Here ya go!

          This picture was incorporated into a number of Soviet propaganda images.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            …most commonly in the middle of a red star pin.

            But also (within a picture of such a pin) here.

    • I think the difference is that the U.S has for most of its history had a rather unitary reverence of its founding generation, whereas many other countries have competing and contrasting figures to revere.

      So in France for the longest time, you had your Neo-Jacobins, moderate Republicans, your Bonapartites, and several varieties of monarchists – and there’s strands of this today in the popular consciousness of French history.

      Likewise, there are people in the U.K who think of Charles I as a martyr and other people who think of Oliver Cromwell as a hero, and they have different historical traditions to build off of.

      But in the U.S, there really isn’t a popular alternative to the pro-Revolution, pro-Constitution side. Even within the realm of neo-Confederates, opposition to the Constitution I would say is outweighed by those who believe in some originalist Constitution destroyed by the “Tyrant Lincoln,” and there are virtually no partisans of George III. Likewise, on the revolutionary left, there isn’t much purchase for a full Garrisonian rejection of the Revolution and the Constitution – the furthest it goes is a Beardsian or Zinnish condemnation, which still tends to end up with a discourse of rights for all.

      • Dave

        Those “people in the UK” are mostly rather strange types who clearly have nothing better to do, not leading political and public figures in their own right. [Though the Venn diagram of those 2 sets would be interesting to peruse…]

    • Great. So CCCP, Cuba, North Korea. I see we’re in great company. Might as well add Vietnam with Ho Chi Min while we’re at it.

    • Walt


    • Confused

      Turkey. Ataturk.

      • Glenn

        Yeah, that’s a good example, though of course even that’s starting to wane (or at least devolve more to a kind of lip service)

  • Davis X. Machina

    When you don’t have an established church, you wind up with a hole where a calendar of the saints or a Fox’s Book of Martyrs used to be.

    To whom shall we lift up our eyes?

  • Izzy

    I was at Monticello this summer, and was pleased to find the staff dealing seriously an unflinchingly with Jefferson’s treatment of the enslaved people he owned.

    • Keaaukane

      How did they deal with Sally Hemmings? I accept that TJ fathered her children, and for me, somebody who would enslave his own children is a shit, beyond question or redemption.

      • Joe

        The law enslaved the children. He did free some Hemmings in his will. A son ran away and was not pursued. A daughter was given $50 when she left. Others were trained for skill work. We aren’t talking field work here.

        Should he have freed them as children? That could be complicated. He had to petition the state to allow some adult Hemmings in the state once they were freed. What sort of status would they have realistically?

        Sally Hemmings was his wife’s half-sister. I reckon that makes his father in law a shit too. It also makes the whole thing understandable. His wife died young and he had a sexual relationship with her light skinned sister. She even could have staid in France as could her brother but apparently agreed to come back if her children was free at 21.

        Clearly, Jefferson was a tyrant as a slaveowner but it wasn’t quite the usual situation of some owner having sex with a slave and not caring about the children.


        • Semanticleo

          Wasting time, you are. We dismantle historical past, when the harm is minimal. But for today’s icons, we must be perspicacious .

        • I’m really not sure this is true. The Jefferson sexual-racial situation was quite normal in the South, not unusual at all.

          • Ed

            His wife died young and he had a sexual relationship with her light skinned sister.

            And his father-in-law’s long-running liaison with a slave also began after his wife’s death, I remember. Jefferson did look out for his own children, but his other slaves were less fortunate, as the Smithsonian article says.

            I don’t condemn Jefferson for being a man of his time and place and I appreciate this article for focusing on aspects of Jefferson’s relationship to his slaves not related to his sex life. Those 10-year-olds in the ghastly nail factory should present more of a threat to his reputation than the Hemingses.

            It is possible to compare Jefferson unfavorably to another founding father in this area. In his will Washington demonstrated his concern about what would happen to his slaves upon his death and it is plain that the matter exercised him considerably. What happened to the non-Hemings slaves of Jefferson after the death of their master speaks for itself. No doubt Jefferson was not the worst of masters and very few evinced Washington’s sense of responsibility, but Jefferson could and should have been a better master than he was and it is fair to condemn him for that.

            Nice article, thanks for the link.

          • Joe

            The convoluted details (chance of freedom in France? mixed race sister in law of dead wife? & all the details that provided fodder for a lot of fictional accounts) lead me to question how “quite normal” it was though I am not saying that there aren’t other somewhat similar situations. Vice President Richard M. Johnson is another interesting case.

      • Tom

        There is no proof, historical or DNA-wise, that Jefferson had a sexual relationship or fathered children with Sally Hemings. Indeed, in the only DNA test performed on the Jefferson/Hemings line, the results demonstrated that the Hemings desecendant was not of Jefferson heritage.This fact so upset the Heming’s family that they have refused to participate in any further DNA testing.

        The only source for this unproven claim is the psycho-historical trash written bu Annette Gordon Reed, a lawyer and untrained historian.

        This is not to deny any possibility of any Thomas Jefferson/Hemings liasion, but simply to state that any reasonable proof is lacking. The only historical record to substantiate any such a relationship is with Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s brother. There the record is pretty substantial and clear.

        • Keaaukane

          See the Wiki article cited above. It contradicts your statements. It also states that the Smithsonian and the operators of Monticello believe that TJ was the father.

          I respect TJ for his intellect. I doubt he would approve of willful blindness, as you seem to be doing. But TJ remains, for his personal behavior, a shit.

  • But it does mean that these people shouldn’t be seen as heroes or have their faces blown into the side of South Dakota mountains.

    Every religion has to have its gods and its saints.

    Ever seen Stone Mountain?

    • sparks

      Oh, hell. That means Ayn Rand is going to have a mountain defaced for her face. Probably sooner than later, too.

      • DocAmazing

        Maybe the Buddhas at Bamiyan could be repurposed…

        • sparks

          (resist making looksist joke, resist making looksist joke)

  • Heron

    Jefferson was also an embezzler and a fraud. When Kosciuszko left the US and returned to Europe, he left various financial assets in Jefferson’s care, who then proceeded to misappropriate them for his own uses.

    • Nathanael

      Jefferson was more an embezzler than a fraud. But this *is* the man who died a million dollars in debt — he spent whatever money he got access to, enjoyed it, and never had any real intention of paying it back.

      Now, here’s the thing: he got away with it. Who gets away with that? He was very, very smart.

      • Heron

        Smart? I’d say shameless fits him better. He made sure to only steal from people who’d have a hard time taking him to court for it, either because of the unofficial social laws of Southern society, or because they were far away, or because they were the “men of honor” types who felt there was something low about checking up on someone you trusted.

  • Semanticleo

    Holy Shite. First we tear Cronkite off his hinges, now Jefferson.

    What shall we say if Obama screws up the next debate?

    Iconoclasts; Unite!

  • Erik – I think this is one of those academic vs. public history things. Yes, within the academy, we teach the dark side of Jefferson, and you can even find the Sally Hemmings thing in Newsweek and the like. But in most schools that aren’t in Texas, I think Jefferson is mostly taught as Declaration full stop.

  • “I wasn’t really aware that this was still breaking news.”

    Took me 5 minutes to catch my breath, because I was expecting some lubricious TJ-fellating here. +5, Loomis. Thanks.

  • DanMulligan

    Two points:

    1. I know it is unpopular now, but are there NO moral constants? Is slavery, as you say, just to be understood as a thing of its time or can you not say fathering children into slavery with someone damned to be your property is inherently — and always — evil? Do you really think this man, who was so well read and so intelligent did not ask this question?

    2. So, where does Scalia’s BS fit with this? Just asking.

    • Sure he asked the question, all the time, but then he looked around him and saw that his entire society, and all of the people who were kind and human when he was a child, are living by that set of rules. The task you’re setting before Jefferson, before any man in his time and place, is to internalize the belief “I’m not crazy; everyone else is crazy.” That’s a steep hill to climb.

      • Anonymous

        Where do the varied and plentiful abolitionists of his time fit into that apologia?

        • witless chum

          They were exceptional and some of them didn’t base their opposition to slavery on the sort of principled reasons we do. If you’re going to demand that people be exceptional, you’re going to, by definition, be disappointed most of the time. Jefferson was not, in this, exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.

          I don’t know how Robert Bruce (no. 17) treated his tenants in Annandale, but I suspect that it didn’t live up to the modern understanding of human rights. That doesn’t mean I am not impressed by his skills as a knight and general.

        • Varied and plentiful?

          In 1700s Virginia?

          Um, no. That’s a fine argument if we’re talking about someone in the 1850s, but we’re not.

      • ajay

        Contra this, it’s worth noticing that, a few years before the very wonderful Declaration of Independence was signed, the courts of the horrible tyranny of George III had declared that slavery was not OK, and that no one in England could be enslaved. Sommersett’s Case. (England only; Scotland followed in R. v Wedderburn in 1774.)

        But obviously Jefferson would have ignored that, because the judge in Sommersett’s case was the lackey of a horrific oppressor. And surely no one could suggest that one of the reasons for a slaver in a slave state to support independence might be to ensure that his human property would be safe from a ruling using Sommersett as precedent.

        Oh, look:http://bloomingtonwilpf.org/localagenda/jamessomersett.pdf

        “News of Mansfield’s decision soon appeared in the colonies, both north and south. In 1772 at least 20 newspapers printed at least 43 stories that said in one way or another that Somerset’s Case had freed black slaves in England.
        This was a serious development, one that threatened to rekindle the colonial fervor for independence. The recent unrest over taxation without representation and the Boston Massacre had already calmed down, but emotions about slavery ran too deep. In 1766 Parliament had adopted the Declaratory Act, which authorized Parliament to govern the colonies in all matters. Southern slaveholders got the message: If Parliament could control colonial slavery, and Somerset became colonial law, Britain might free colonial slaves…”

        Wasn’t there something about “treason in defense of slavery”?

        • England and Virginia were two very different societies. Freeing all the slaves in England is little different from banning coal mining on Cape Cod.

          • ajay

            Well, joe, that’s not what the slavers of Virginia seem to have thought at the time.

            • The slavers of Virginia, who fought in a war to break away from England, didn’t think of themselves as living in a different society from England?

              If you say so.

              • ajay

                No, they didn’t think that the Summersett decision in England was irrelevant to the future of their slaves in Virginia. In fact – see the link – they fought a war to break away from England in part because they saw it as the only way to stop living in the same society as England – one in which an English court decision might mean that their slaves might soon be freed. An independent America could make its own laws about slavery. A colonial America, forced to ensure that its own laws complied with English law, could not.

                • You’re conflating political unity with cultural unity.

                  I’m talking about the latter.

                  That the Summersett decision went over in England with barely a ripple, while motivating Virginians to take up arms, demonstrate pretty clearly the cultural gulf between the two socities.

                • Lyanna

                  That the Summersett decision went over in England with barely a ripple, while motivating Virginians to take up arms, demonstrate pretty clearly the cultural gulf between the two socities.

                  Well, yes. One society was invested in human property. The other wasn’t.

                  I see no reason to excuse the first society, or its elite. Virginians knew damn well why the English opposed slavery. They just didn’t care, because they wanted to keep on raping and beating and exploiting their slaves. I’m supposed to make excuses for them, for this?

            • I suppose it’s possible that they clung to an outdated cultural narrative, the same way people today often think we live in the same society as Thomas Jefferson, but the difference between a slave society like 1780s Virginia and a society in which slavery is absent or highly unusual, like England at the time, is quite vast.

          • Anonymous

            So, your excuse for Jefferson is that he lacked worldliness. Got it.

      • Dave

        Sorry Joe, that’s bollocks. There were thousands of abolitionist sympathisers, dozens of active preachers for the cause, all through TJ’s lifetime. The British House of Commons came close to passing abolition as early as 1789, and the political fight was clearly on from there. Ben Franklin was patron of an abolitionist society. TJ was an over-entitled asshole reaping the rewards of his good luck in being born to the master-race, and pretending to feel sorry about it, in the abstract.

        • There were thousands of abolitionist sympathisers, dozens of active preachers for the cause, all through TJ’s lifetime.

          In different places. Thomas Jefferson didn’t live in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts.

          You’re projecting a contemporary common American culture onto a very different period.

          • Lyanna

            In different places. Thomas Jefferson didn’t live in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts.

            He wasn’t hermetically sealed off from them, either. He could have listened to the abolitionists and changed his mind. He didn’t.

        • rea

          AS usual, Jefferson views on this issue were . . . complicated.

          From the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. taken out due to objections of otehr southern delegates:

          He [George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

      • Heron

        All he had to do was look north of Delaware to see a society that didn’t, for the most part, run on slavery and noncollectable upper-class debt. That leaves unmentioned the various European polities where slavery was either very rare, mandated legally to be humane, or non-existent. Colonial slavery was a specific institution established for specific reasons by a society that generally didn’t have much tolerance for the practice outside of that context.

        • Different societies, not his. Not the one he was raised in, and lived his life in.

          • Lyanna

            No. Not completely different societies. At the very least, there was considerable overlap of intellectual and cultural life. Ideas crossed state borders all the time.

      • Hmm.

        The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.

        Sorry, Joe, but yours doesn’t seem to be a grounded in historical detail analysis.

        • I haven’t the foggiest idea what your passage is supposed to have to do with the concept of socialization and moral reasoning.

          • I haven’t the foggiest idea what your passage is supposed to have to do with the concept of socialization and moral reasoning.

            Really? Well, it’s meant to apply specifically to your description, which is not a general reflection on how to weigh socialization in moral reasoning, but a particular, I think incorrect, instance.

            Thus, I don’t think your passage applies very well to Jefferson. You wrote:

            Sure he asked the question, all the time, but then he looked around him and saw that his entire society, and all of the people who were kind and human when he was a child, are living by that set of rules.

            No, he asked the question and answered it (against some portion of his society), then found out that the wrong belief was profitable and changed his behavior. It seems very unlikely that Jefferson’s moral sense was either overwhelmed or mislead by his socialization. That tells against him in the evaluation.

            The task you’re setting before Jefferson, before any man in his time and place, is to internalize the belief “I’m not crazy; everyone else is crazy.” That’s a steep hill to climb.

            Not particularly for Jefferson. He did that and then, afaicdt, reversed it when he found the profitability. So, worse on him.

            Now money etc. are powerful motivators and I’m exceedingly grateful not to face the situation of being permitted to enjoy enormous material benefits at the immediate expense of others. As I get RAs, I can feel the pull…and this is with relatively minor rewards.

            But that’s mostly social situation and occurrent protective structures, not childhood socialization of the dewy sort you describe.

            • Is there any amount of money that would motivate you to sell black children away from their mothers?

              You don’t suppose that your socialization, and the implicit understandings of the society you live in, have anything to do with that, do you?

              • I certainly like to think so!

                But also consider the difference between:

                your socialization,


                and the implicit understandings of the society you live in

                One is internal and the other is external. I certainly like to think my socialization is strong enough so that if I were transported to slave owning society that I would vehemently resist.

                But so? I also like to think that if I were a person with the genius of Jefferson that I would follow through the obvious and known to me consequences of my deeply held believes in spite of financial (and social) incentives.

                But I’m wary. People do bad things in lots of circumstances.

                I’m still unclear why you think my point was off. While the social situation (including his training) gave Jefferson’s opportunities and inclinations for evil not available to me (for which I’m grateful), that doesn’t mean that there weren’t other salient and indeed dominating factors.

                It seems clear that Jefferson knew better and did worse. Compared to many, his socialization is a comparatively weak explicatory or mitigating factor.w

                • Also, do you think Jefferson would, if transported to today’s society and given a bit of time to aclimate, join the human trafficing trade?

                  Circumstances, opportunity and character matter. Character is hugely controlled by luck. All this is fine. That doesn’t mean that we need to offer a discount on the moral worth of actions of people. We might need to take some care about evaluating their character (so, for example, we should take care not to be smug about rectitude we enact wrt lots of things e.g., not owning slaves).

                  But that doesn’t mean we can’t evaluate characters in the light of their situation. I think Jefferson comes off rather poorly with respect to slave owning and slave treatment. His hypocrisy makes him more responsible for the character flaw than a dumber, more ignorant person. (The wrongness of their actions are similar, of course.)

  • Isn’t part of what’s going on here the legacy of the weird dominance of American history education by Confederate apologists in the first half of the 20th century? All of those slaveowners had to be not so bad.

    • Nathanael

      Bingo. That’s the main problem here. The problems with slaveowners were recognized by the abolitionist side… but never by the neo-Confederates who took over the national propaganda system (including the history curriculum) from 1876 until the 1970s.

      _Lies My Teacher Told Me_ spends a lot of time on this history.

      • wufnik

        Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised takes this on–her discussion of the treatment of reconstruction in textbooks is particularly enlightening, not to mention alarming.

    • Lyanna

      I’d say that’s 99% of what’s going on, yeah. All those gentlemanly white folks in powdered wigs couldn’t be contributing to this atrocity, oh, no!

      Also it’s PC gone amok and “divisive” and hateful towards white people if you tell the truth about slavery. Apologias for the institution still abound.

  • “Americans” in 1789 might as well have been Babylonians living in 600 BC, for all we have in common with them.

    They were a semi-barbaric people who didn’t know any better than to throw human shit into the street from third story windows. Their culture is more foreign to us than are modern Koreans or Argentineans.

    But, just as the Babylonians managed to produce the Code of Hammurabi, so did the 18th century Americans manage to produce the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

    • Dave

      And there are those who would argue that those documents have done as much, on balance, for the general wellbeing of humanity as a bucket of shit thrown from a third-storey window. Next question?

      • I guess the next question would be, why would you pay any attention to such people?

  • Nathanael

    So here’s the thing about Jefferson. After studying him, I don’t think he was exceptionally moral.

    But he was an exceptionally smart mofo.

    The man was absolutely brilliant.

    He was also pragmatic to the bottom of his soul — hypocrisy was simply not a concern to him, and violating his principles in the name of expediency was something he did on a regular basis. But because he was so damned smart, he pretty much always got away with it. (Go, study Jefferson’s history; this will pop out at you pretty much immediately, from his political campaign slandering his good friend Adams to the Louisiana Purchase.)

    (Being brilliant and pragmatic is probably the reason he didn’t believe in an interfering god.)

    Now, here’s the thing: we could do with smart mofos running the government. It’s proven to be much, much, much better than having stupid mofos like G W Bush. So I respect Jefferson.

    • Nathanael

      Note that I respect him the same way I respect Woodrow Wilson or Bismarck — he’s probably actually going to be one of the better choices for running the government, and yet you would want to watch the man like a hawk.

      • Josh G.

        Except that Wilson’s presidency was an absolute disaster. He was quite possibly the worst president in American history. His foreign policy had worse long-term effects than anyone else’s. (American involvement in WWI -> Versailles -> rise of Hitler -> WWII -> Holocaust: hard to beat that.)

        • ajay

          American involvement in WWI -> Versailles -> rise of Hitler -> WWII -> Holocaust

          Yes, because it’s not like letting the Germans win WW1 would have resulted in Europe being dominated by a militaristic empire with an anti-semitic maniac in charge.


          • Josh G.

            The most likely outcome of American abstention from WWI would have been a long stalemate, not an outright German victory. The result would have been a war that would probably drag on until the early 1920s, but as a result the warmongers on all sides would be completely discredited and no one could claim to have been “stabbed in the back”.

            • ajay

              Well, actually the most likely outcome would have been another year of stalemate on the Western Front (no Kaiserschlacht, because the point of that was to win before the Americans arrived), followed by a British and French blitzkrieg the next year, and victory.
              See “Plan 1919”.

    • Nathanael

      Yes, for those who still find this unclear, I am saying that Jefferson’s hypocrisy — aka his taste for expediency — is actually a large part of what made him great, and may actually be in some ways admirable.

      I think that raises a lot of questions about what is worth admiring.

      • Pestilence

        Whats admirable in a private person, and in a public servant, have long been seen to be utterly different, I thought. But maybe not so much in the USA.

        • Hogan

          The first rule of the US Machiavelli Club is don’t talk about the US Machiavelli Club.

    • Josh G.

      He was also pragmatic to the bottom of his soul — hypocrisy was simply not a concern to him, and violating his principles in the name of expediency was something he did on a regular basis. But because he was so damned smart, he pretty much always got away with it. (Go, study Jefferson’s history; this will pop out at you pretty much immediately, from his political campaign slandering his good friend Adams to the Louisiana Purchase.)

      Garry Wills discusses another instance of this in A Necessary Evil. The Embargo Act, and especially the manner in which this act was enforced, was completely against essentially every principle Jefferson ever professed. Yet it all happened during his administration with his express approval.

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  • wufnik

    Actually, if you’re looking for a moral center, Tom Paine would be your guy.

  • Cody

    I always assumed the slave mistreatment was a feature, not a bug, in the most common founder worship.

  • Halloween Jack

    I think that the real relevance of the article wasn’t that nobody has written about this before, but that the Smithsonian published it. There are three major monuments to American presidents in Washington, DC, and Jefferson’s is one of them, plus of course being one of the few on currency. It’s a remarkable bit of iconoclasm for the organ of a government agency.

  • Completebettyjo

    Judge Alito scoffs at your conclusion. Judge Alito knows what the founding slaveholders fathers wanted and that is what matters today. You can only have arms you can carry, because the milita never had cannons (ignoring that outcome of that whole Shay’s rebellion thing.)

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