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“A creepy, brutal hypocrite.”

[ 230 ] December 1, 2012 |

Paul Finkelman on the Sage of Monticello:

Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

[...]

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.

As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

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  1. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I do not think it really possible to understand slavery in the vacuum that only looks at US slavery. The slave trade and slavery were pretty universal in Atlantic World of the 18th century and the US component was only a small part of it. The capture and shipping of slaves from the Gold Coast to the Western hemisphere was not done by white Americans. It was done by the Asante in the interior who then sold the captives to a variety of Europeans on the coast, most notably the British, but also the Danes, Dutch, and Portuguese. Americans seem completely ignorant of this, but even the most basic course on slavery in Africa emphasizes that it was indigenous African and European powers not American colonists that drove the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

    Many of the indigenous notables of the Gold Coast that were instrumental in taking the fist steps towards opposition to colonialism also owned slaves. In fact there was a huge backlash among literate and wealthy Gold Coasters when the British abolished slavery here. They viewed it as the English taking away their property. Their ownership of slaves, however, in no way takes away from their accomplishments in helping set the stage for a successful anti-colonial movement. So I do not see why all of Jefferson’s intellectual accomplishments would be negated by his ownership of slaves either.

    • T. Paine says:

      Yes, those horrible Africans, forcing Europeans to buy other humans!

      Sally Hemmings probably also asked for it because of how she dressed.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Do you really think that Europeans went and captured all or even most of the slaves they shipped out of Elmina, Cape Coast, Fort James, and other places? I know that a lot of Americans are shocked when the guides at Cape Coast tell them that the primary means of acquisition of slaves by Europeans was the sale of captives by African slavers, most notably the Asante, but it happens to be true. It is one of the focal points of historical study here in Africa. Evidently it never happened according to “progressive” American history.

        • No, Otto, he doesn’t. Nobody thinks that.

          You haven’t written anything that isn’t already near-universally known. It’s the equivalent of noting that Jefferson owned slaves, or that we overthrew Mossedegh, or that the Vikings had a settlement in North America long before Columbus sailed.

        • Murc says:

          … dude, this is a widely-known fact in America, and it’s been used to excuse the trans-Atlantic slave trade for literally centuries.

          “The Africans sold each other!” has been one of the go-to facts that racists reach for to try and undercut the fact that it was rich-ass, powerful Americans (and Europeans) buying people to work to death.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            In the Gold Coast all the purchasing of captured slaves was done by the “progressive” Europeans like the Danes and Dutch. The Americans did not get a chance to buy any slaves in country because they did not own any slave forts or castles. I am pretty sure we did not even try to establish any. All of the slave forts were European. But, the Europeans could not advance beyond the fire power range of their cannons in the forts and on ships until the late 19th century. So they had to rely upon indigenous powers to sell them captives. The Asante at this time were the major suppliers in the Gold Coast. If you cut out the role of the Asante and the Europeans and only talk about the US you only get part of the picture. Not to mention that even that scheme still leaves out Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and other slave destinations.

            • If you cut out the role of the Asante and the Europeans and only talk about the US you only get part of the picture.

              Depends on the picture. It is, indeed, quite possible to get a perfectly accurate picture of Thomas Jefferson’s career as a slaver without ever once sparing a thought for the Asante and the Danes.

            • Hogan says:

              the “progressive” Europeans like the Danes and Dutch.

              OK, one of us has no idea what the word “progressive” means.

              • J. Otto Pohl says:

                I put the word in scare quotes for a reason.

                • Hogan says:

                  I know, but I can’t imagine what that reason was.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  C’mon Hogan! The rationale is obvious: To smear whilst shielding himself from being called on the smear!

                  (I call it a smear, though it’s a weird one. It feels a bit like Manju’s contrarian line. It certainly fits in the “White people aren’t so bad even though they owned black people because black people sold black people” trope which Otto was just working.

                  Why he’s working these…dunno.)

              • William Burns says:

                I think by “progressive” Otto means “Protestant” which is why he completely ignores the role of the French and Portuguese in the slave trade.

                • Bill Murray says:

                  I think he means they are progessive now and that this taints current policies from these countries.

                • Bill Murray says:

                  and just to be clear, I only just read the next part of the thread, where this is clarified

        • Jamie says:

          I wish I didn’t understand why people want to claim they Really Get History more than the rest of us, and babble on about things we already know, when, for instance, the actual topic on hand is Jefferson. You know, the creepy, brutal hypocrite.

          Post, over at Volokh, is also instructive. “Who cares?”. Indeed, who?

        • Observer says:

          J. Otto,

          Get on board with the America-bashing already. Forget that this was the way the whole world was at the time. You must hold those people that lived hundreds of years ago to contemporary standards.

          You’re not playing the game right.

          • Popeye says:

            Thomas Jefferson was a wonderful Founding Father whose ideals we mere mortals can only hope to aspire to, and was a trailblazer for liberty and freedom and democracy and apple pie. At the same time, he was merely a product of his times, and how could you blame him for owning slaves, supporting the expansion of slavery, breaking up the families of slaves, raping slaves, etc? How was he supposed to know that all men were created equal? It was a different time back then.

          • Xof says:

            Yeah, I totally forgive everything that King Leopold did in the Congo because of current Belgian maternity leave policies.

          • Njorl says:

            Yeah, it’s not like half the country outlawed slavery or anything like that.

          • Walt says:

            I like how “telling the truth” has become “America bashing”. Do you really think so little of America, Observer, that you can only discuss it in terms of lies?

      • Abby Spice says:

        Ha! Excellent point about Sally, that consenting slut. (Jezebel image, anyone?)

    • Murc says:

      even the most basic course on slavery in Africa emphasizes that it was indigenous African and European powers not American colonists that drove the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

      … you can’t sell something without a buyer.

      What, were all those poor American colonists forced at gunpoint to purchase human chattel?

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        The buyers were all those wonderful Europeans like the Dutch, Danes, and British so beloved by American “progressives.” There were no Americans ever at Cape Coast, El Mina, Christensborg, etc. to purchase slaves and load them on to boats. It was the “progressive” Europeans that ran that leg of the trade.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Just to be clear, you think that American progressives admire the political systems of 18th century Europe? That’s your argument?

          Actually, our model is Stalin, especially the period when he started randomly killing doctors.

        • The buyers were all those wonderful Europeans like the Dutch, Danes, and British so beloved by American “progressives.”

          Wait wait wait – you think that American progressives love the European governments that were active during the period of colonization?

          Um, yeah, Otto, great point. You really got us there. Progressive sure do love Dead White European Male colonizing monarchists. Umwut?

          Have you ever actually seen an American progressive line and in person, or is your entire understanding based upon National Review?

        • Colin Day says:

          Without American slavery, what would the demand for slaves have been? There would have been some demand, but how much.

          • Jeff says:

            Colin,

            Only about 7% of slaves arrived to North America. The largest plurality went to Brazil. You can view the figures by Googling: slave trade.

            Really, if you thought that more than 20% of slaves ended-up in North America, then you need to deeply question your facility for considering history. Maybe go back to school or engage some independent study.

    • Abby Spice says:

      A couple of my college professors would be up in arms if I didn’t mention this: slavery had been a feature of African life for centuries. But not in the form that it took in the United States. The Africans selling slaves had no idea what awaited them as far as the dehumanization and the unfathomable brutality.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        True, but that is a totally different argument than claiming that the slave trade was entirely an operation run by white Americans. Which appears to be exactly what T. Paine was claiming in his suggestion that indigenous African powers like the Asante played absolutely no role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

        • Which appears to be exactly what T. Paine was claiming in his suggestion that indigenous African powers like the Asante played absolutely no role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

          T. Paine says:
          December 1, 2012 at 10:32 am
          Yes, those horrible Africans, forcing Europeans to buy other humans!

          Sally Hemmings probably also asked for it because of how she dressed.

          D00d, wtf?

          • Bruce Baugh says:

            There are times when J. Otto’s posts remind me of a bit from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 short subject “Johnny At The Fair” – “Johnny feels dark hands pressing him onward. The voices in Johnny’s head get meaner.”

        • Andrew R. says:

          True, but that is a totally different argument than claiming that the slave trade was entirely an operation run by white Americans.

          The people who say this sort of thing are generally seniors in high school who’ve just discovered Zinn and enter their brief Marxist period when they decide that liberal democracy is a sham because Washington owned slaves. But the quoted Times articles isn’t arguing that.

        • DrDick says:

          So English is like your third language or something? That bears no resemblance to what Payne said. He simply points out, as is well documented by historians of
          West Africa, that it was European and American demand that drove the Transatlantic slave trade.

        • T. Paine says:

          Otto, I can’t tell if you’re just acting like you have serious problems with reading comprehension, or if you really do, but either way, please stop embarrassing yourself.

          To clarify, since you’re having so much trouble: The topic of the post was Thomas Jefferson and how he was a more brutal and disgusting slave master than even his contemporaries. You responded with a massive non-sequitir about Africans enslaving each other. I sarcastically pointed out that your argument wasn’t germane, and also could be read as excusing Jefferson’s brutality because…look, it’s Halley’s Comet!

          I did not, however, claim, suggest, imply, morse-code-via-blink, or otherwise communicate what you’re suggesting here. I’m not sure why you think it’s so important to distract from Jefferson’s hypocrisy and vicious slaving, but it doesn’t change the plain fact that it makes you sound like a moron.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            My point was that discounting Jefferson because he owned slaves was rather stupid. We would also have to discount a lot of other people including a number of important figures in the early anti-colonial movement in West Africa if we were consistent. Your response made no sense, but seemed to me to be completely dismissing the role of anybody, but Americans in the slave trade.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              discounting Jefferson because he owned slaves was rather stupid.

              I suppose reading the goddamned op-ed at the link is too much to ask?

            • T. Paine says:

              No, Otto, that wasn’t your point. Or if it was, it was so poorly expressed that we needed Ovaltine Decorder Rings to understand it. I know it’s tough to have it pointed out that what you wrote, at best, made no sense, but you should quit digging.

              • Lurker says:

                Yep, but we must remember that Otto lives in a different continent, and his framework is completely different.

                It is quite possible that for him, denouncing Jefferson for slave-owning implies denouncing more contemporary Ghanan political figures who he fervently supports or is required to support as part of his employment.

            • Hogan says:

              So “discount” is another word you don’t know the meaning of.

        • Malaclypse says:

          True, but that is a totally different argument than claiming that the slave trade was entirely an operation run by white Americans.

          Of course, that claim has been made by nobody, ever.

      • Rhino says:

        A slave in north America was not so much a servant as a piece of farm machinery or draft beast. Even ‘house slaves’ lived under constant fear of the sugar cane plantation or the cotton field. It was an industrialized horror, and one wonders if those African tribes would have sold their enemies to the Europeans if they knew.

        I assume they did not know, at least. My knowledge of the period comes chiefly from ‘Flashman’ and ‘Aubrey/Maturin’ historical novels.

        • cpinva says:

          wonder no more:

          and one wonders if those African tribes would have sold their enemies to the Europeans if they knew.

          they wouldn’t have given two nanny-goat shits. if this is something that might have bothered them, they wouldn’t have been selling their fellow africans into slavery to begin with. they were selling them for cash. they were a commodity, nothing more, nothing less.

          • Murc says:

            I actually wouldn’t make that assumption.

            I’m not hugely up on African culture prior to the 20th century, but there have been plenty of cultures that, while they kept slaves (which is of course vile) had well-developed ideas about what it was and wasn’t moral to do with them.

            The ancient Romans and Greeks were great ones for slavery, for example, but slaves had legal protections that were taken more-or-less seriously, and buying people with the explicit intention of working them to death would have been regarded as a heinous action that no honorable Roman should be part of.

            There are other culture contexts where being taken as a slave in war didn’t mean you stopped being a human being and, indeed, wasn’t even something that was likely to be permanent.

            This isn’t to say your opinion that the African nations involved in the slave trade saw the people they were selling as subhuman commodities is wrong. Only that it COULD be wrong.

            • DrDick says:

              African slave systems were broadly similar to the Greco-Roman one.

              • Heron says:

                I’d say it was more similar to hostage-taking among the Native-Americans, though with the added proviso that there was a more robust regional economy for debt and slaves in sub-Saharan Africa than we have evidence for in pre-Columbian America. It was taken as a given that a slave would eventually “work” their way back into society, and as often as not “slaves” were taken as replacements for dead family members, in which case one would have never ceased being a member of society in the first place.

            • Timb says:

              Not to quibble, but have you heard of Roman mines?

            • Njorl says:

              I think you’re grossly underestimating the cruelty of the Romans toward their slaves. It was a fairly common practice to burn out one eye and one achilles tendon with a hot iron for slaves who worked in mines and quarries. This wasn’t done as a punishment. It was just considered good business practice.

            • rea says:

              buying people with the explicit intention of working them to death would have been regarded as a heinous action that no honorable Roman should be part of.

              No, that’s rather too idealized a version of the Romans. Educated “house slave” types could hope for freedom and citizenship, but less valuable aricultural or mining slaves were indeed systematically worked to death. See, for example, Cato the Censor’s book on agriculture, which advises cutting the food rations for old and sick slaves . . .

    • greylocks says:

      Basically, this is the “other people are doing it so that makes it okay” defense.

    • gocart mozart says:

      Let’s not forget those blue state Upper West side Manhatten progressives.

      Historians have been on the hunt for discrete episodes of the early American story that deliver narrative drama and historical significance, homing in on Indian captivity tales, the adventures of a midwife, and that sturdy favorite, the Salem witch trials. This same impulse has focused fresh attention on New York City and the “Great Negro Plot of 1741.” That episode, which unfolded in the streets, taverns, and courtrooms of Manhattan, was as blood drenched and theatrical as any event in colonial America outside its battlefields.
      The “Plot” started in the spring with a burglary, in which a white tavern owner, his household, and two slaves were implicated. It gathered momentum over the next several weeks when ten fires erupted. It spiraled higher with tangled rumors of a conspiracy of Manhattan blacks in league with working-class whites to overthrow the government and seize the city. It culminated six months later in a bedlam of accusations, confessions, and denials that led to the arrest of 20 whites and 152 blacks, the transportation of 84 slaves, the suicide of 1 jailed slave, the hanging of 4 whites and 17 blacks, and the burning at the stake of 13 blacks. A total of thirty-four people were executed, compared with the twenty killed in Salem.

      http://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/Jul06/bonomi.pdf

    • JazzBumpa says:

      The thing that strikes me about Pohl’s comment is it’s conceptual similarity to the “job creator” fallacy bandied about by Repugnicants.

      Asanti become the job creator analogs, and the demand side is, as always, ignored.

      Or am I reaching too far?

    • Heron says:

      It’s true that there was a native slave trade already there before the Spanish and Portuguese started patronizing the ports, looking for cheap colonial labor, but it was in no way near the size, scope, or brutality that it would later take on as the American colonies kicked into high-gear and the slave-trade followed suite. It’s also true that native Africans were the primary direct “enslavers”, though this was done less through inter-tribal warfare and more through what amounted to loan-sharking networks than is commonly believed. In fact, debt and capitalism has generally been far larger drivers of slavery in human history that warfare and imperialism.

      However, as undeniably true as those two facts are, it is equally true that what drove the slave trade to grow from a small regional business into one of the first truly international economic concerns was foreign, i.e. American and colonial, demand for cheap labor. Everything that was terrible about slavery -its size, its brutality, its dehumanization, its filthiness, the militarism that protected it, the racism which would be invented to justify it- was a result of Colonial demand for slave labor.

      So really, while your facts are right, your argument is absolutely wrong. The slave trade grew to feed demand. It became barbarous, moving from the kind of “indentured servitude” where a slave could expect to eventually earn back their place in society which most human societies have practiced at some point to the truly industrial conveyor of agentless agricultural labor that marked slavery in America, because the colonies craved so much labor that their demand could not be humanely filled. It became dehumanizing because the European conception of labor had always been criminalizing, infantilizing, and dehumanizing, and because disrespectful violence is pretty much the cheapest way to keep hundreds of unpaid laborers in check. While Africans certainly participated in slave-procurement and slave-holding, they, with equal certainty, were not anywhere near the main force behind it.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Look the main importers of slaves were the colonial powers (Europeans) in Brazil and Caribbean and not the US. The mechanism for delivering those slaves was Europeans not Americans purchasing slaves along the coast of Africa. Advancing beyond the coast was impossible due to yellow fever and malaria. So both the Europeans and some indigenous groups like the Asante played an important role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which was only one of several slave trades. The Trans-Saharan and Trans-Indian Ocean slave trades also existed and there the Arabs played a key role. Not taking into account the role of people other than White American Southerners gives a rather incomplete and distorted view of the various international slave trades.

        • rea says:

          Well, it’s quite true that the Caribbean and Brazil were much bigger markets for slaves than the southern future US, and that slaves in thsoe places were treted with greater brutality. This is one of those pointless atrocity competitions though, like Hitler being worse than Pol Pot.

        • The Dark Avenger says:

          Keep f*cking that chicken, J. Otto, the discussion was about how bad a slave owner Jefferson was, not that he was a bad person ipso facto because he was a slave owner per se, or anything about the slave trade in general.

        • Heron says:

          Did I say northern-European southerns were the only people purchasing slaves? That other people shared their economic interests does not lessen or cancel out their amorality, nor does it make the system they participated in and lobbied to protect any less bad.

  2. ACM says:

    One of the really interesting thing in that editorial is that Finkelman takes a shot at Wienchek, who has made a name for himself by calling most other Jefferson scholars “apologists.”

  3. Erik Loomis says:

    That Wieneck book is receiving almost universal condemnation from the historical profession. Frankly it looks like a gotcha hitjob more than a real work of history. This isn’t to apologize for Jefferson–he was a slave holder in a slave holding time. But when Annette Gordon-Reed is saying that this book is ridiculous on the subject of Jefferson and slavery, that’s saying a lot.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Yeah, I think this is what provoked Finkelman to write this piece. The fact that Wieneck’s book is critical of Jefferson doesn’t make it good, and if it’s as problematic as the first reviews suggest might undermine attempts to counter Meacham-style hagiographies.

      • Timb says:

        Scott, am I alone in having nothing but contempt for Meachem….although after reading David Post over at Volokh, I am forced to grudgingly concede there is a bigger dickhead in the room than Meachem

    • ACM says:

      Yeah, it looks piss poor. It’s also kind of hilarious when someone goes after academic historians from the left, but hey, it’s always a fun thought exercise. In particular, to claim that historians haven’t been fairly engaging Jefferson’s slave owning past is absolutely absurd. They have been since the 1970s, at least.

      But that’s what makes this editorial so awesome: it basically turns the tables on Wiencek. Finkelman’s not saying anything that isn’t already common knowledge among historians of the early national period. I can’t help but think that one of the reasons for this piece is to show that Wiencek’s holier-than-thou moralism can be taken down as easily as he thinks the Gordon-Reeds can.

  4. Clark says:

    Thomas Jefferson: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free. . .”
    Wait, there’s more: “nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion have drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

  5. Dan says:

    Is there some American progressive movement that apologizes for European slave traders and denies the part of Africans in the slave trade that I’m unaware of? Because I have no idea what Otto is ranting about.

    • Murc says:

      Otto is, what, six to eight hours ahead of US time? Maybe he’s already started drinking.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      T. Paine was clearly suggesting that there was no independent agency by the Asante and other African powers involved in selling slaves to European (not American) slave traders. In fact he seemed to claim that Europeans captured all the slaves brought to the Western hemisphere themselves without buying a single one from indigenous African powers.

      • The Dark Avenger says:

        T. Paine suggested no such thing:

        The Managers the Trade themselves, and others testify, that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting Kings to sell subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another, in order to catch prisoners. By such wicked and inhuman ways the English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly; of which thirty thousand are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year; besides all that are slain in the unnatural ways excited to take them. So much innocent blood have the managers and supporters of this inhuman trade to answer for to the common Lord of all!

        In fact, T. Paine was probably the only American to suggest that Kings have no right to sell their subjects into slavery.

      • Joseph Slater says:

        No, he wasn’t.

      • Decrease Mather says:

        1. Where does T. Paine suggest this?
        2. Why is he the exemplar of progessivism?

      • Maybe you’re misunderstanding T. Paine because of all the autotuning? Give it another listen.

      • Pestilence says:

        No he really wasn’t clearly suggesting anything of the sort.

        He was pointing out that African involvement in slavery doesn’t give others clean hands – they chose to buy what the Africans offered to sell … and by the iron laws of economics, the increasing demand for slaves at the destination drove an increase in supply.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          I never suggested it gave others clean hands. In fact I pointed out contrary to everybody else here the European involvement which has been completely ignored to project slavery as a uniquely American sin. It was not.

          • I pointed out contrary to everybody else here the European involvement which has been completely ignored

            There is not a single person “here” who has written anything “contrary” to this point.

            There are, however, numerous people “here” who have pointed out that your oh-so-contrary observation is, in fact, universally known and utterly banal.

          • Xof says:

            Yeah, it’s not like there’s ever been a Hollywood movie or something about the British involvement with slavery, or anything. It’s been totally erased from history.

          • IM says:

            It was. Because you are doing a sleight of hand here: Even in time of Jefferson most of his slaves were born in country. Made in the USA, no evil african/european import.

            • Linnaeus says:

              Yeah, I think it’s worth pointing out that after 1808, importation of slaves into the United States was illegal, although some smuggling continued. But the US slave trade after that year was mostly internal.

          • T. Paine says:

            No one suggested this, until you brought it up. Your comment wasn’t germane to the post. And if you didn’t mean to suggest that African slavery gave others clean hands, you did a piss-poor job of it.

            • J. Otto Pohl says:

              No my point was that dismissing Jefferson because he owned slaves is dumb. A lot of the early anti-colonial figures in West Africa also owned slaves. Should they have been discounted as well? If they were then colonialism might very well have lasted a lot longer than it did. You know I actually live and work in Black Africa on a permanent basis. But, it is real easy for “progressives” to claim everybody else is racist.

              • commie atheist says:

                dismissing Jefferson because he owned slaves is dumb.

                Straw in the wind, all we are is straw in the wind…

                • Observer says:

                  Year 2070

                  Egghead Academic Know-It-All: “That rat bastard President Obama actually ATE MEAT…and he wore LEATHER shoes.”

                  Willing Minion Ass-Licker: “That Motherfucker!!”

              • Talking smack about Thomas Jefferson is not the same thing as dismissing or discounting him as a historical figure, or as a contemporary political leader.

                In case you haven’t noticed, people here like to talk smack about important political figures.

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  Except Obama, you never talk smack about Obama.

                • There isn’t exactly a shortage.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Except Obama, you never talk smack about Obama.

                  Do you actually read the words people write?

                • The Dark Avenger says:

                  Saying that Jefferson was purely evil because he owned slaves does not contribute much to understanding anything.

                  A: Nobody made the claim here that Mr. Jefferson was purely evil because of the way he treated his slaves.

                  B Human hypocrisy is usually interesting, as in Mr. Jefferson’s case with the subject of slavery.

                • Anonymous says:

                  J. Otto Pohl,

                  Just know that most of the commenters here are n’re-do-wells. They are not the academics the bloggers are and they aren’t successful business people either.

                • NonyNony says:

                  Except Obama, you never talk smack about Obama.

                  Okay now I KNOW you’ve got reading comprehension problems.

              • T. Paine says:

                Once again, Otto, you’re pretending that we can’t go up and re-read what you wrote. In no way did anyone suggest “dismissing” Jefferson. You’re the one who brought that up. Also, I like your “racist” non-sequitur – it’s a valiant attempt to change the subject from your original non-sequitur, but does nothing to erase the fact that Jefferson really was a terrible racist and a vile slave master.

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  I wrote that viewing slavery as solely an American thing is distorting. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was international and needs to be viewed in that context. Saying that Jefferson was purely evil because he owned slaves does not contribute much to understanding anything.

                • Hogan says:

                  Saying that Jefferson was purely evil because he owned slaves does not contribute much to understanding anything.

                  Good thing nobody has said that. I mean, is anyone denying that he wrote the Declaration and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom? Is anyone denying that he founded the University of Virginia?

    • DrDick says:

      Otto has no idea what he is ranting about, as usual. Mostly it comes down to progressive scholars are worse than Stalin and political bigotry is the only reason he cannot get a job in the US.

  6. Erik Loomis says:

    Given J. Otto Pohl’s writings, it’s a wonder he never got an academic job in the U.S……

    • Erik Loomis says:

      But of course it worked out for him perfectly since he’s in Ghana, also known as Heaven. Just ask him. And that’s why he shows no bitterness at all.

      • Anderson says:

        That’s a little bitchy, especially from someone who’s supposed to be aware of the job market in the humanities.

        • Dana says:

          I don’t get the sense that there’s a lot of awareness here about the state of the job market in the humanities. If there were, we’d have at least half as many posts about it as those Paul Campos has provided on the law job market

          • Vance Maverick says:

            I believe Erik is well aware of the state of that job market. Which doesn’t make his remark less bitchy. Which, in turn, doesn’t mean Otto deserves less mockery — rather, better-considered mockery.

            Tangentially, I have spent the night in a slave fort in Ghana. This would have been about 1976, when I was 10 years old, so I didn’t pick up much of the irony that was buzzing thickly around me.

            (And further tangentially, yes, I’m aware of the many meanings of “irony”. And this was irony in the Alanis sense, i.e. “dramatic irony” if you think of your life as a drama.)

          • Linnaeus says:

            We’re aware, but maybe it’s too troubling to talk about.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      Have you read any of my published writings? I don’t think you have. It would probably be best if you knew something about them before you spouted anymore nonsense.

      Here is the publication data on my last peer reviewed publication.

      J. Otto Pohl, “Soviet Apartheid: Stalin’s Ethnic Deportations, Special Settlement Restrictions, and the Labor Army: The Case of the Ethnic Germans in the USSR,” Human Rights Review, vol. 13, no 2 (2012), pp. 205-224.

      • Joey Maloney says:

        Unless you denounce broccoli in the preface, I’m not interested.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        If it has anything to do with modern Progressives believing in early European imperialist governments, I’m quite sure it’s worth reading.

        • Joseph Slater says:

          I thought Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza told me that the problem with Obama was that he was ANTI-colonialist. But now I hear that the problem with modern progressives is that they loved the old imperialist powers. It’s so hard to keep this stuff straight.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          Why don’t you actually go and read the article. Until you have read some of my professional publications you have absolutely no grounds to criticize my academic abilities.

          • GeoX says:

            Except you haven’t given anyone reason to assume that your published work is any less ridiculous than your blog comments.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I’m actually not criticizing your academic abilities. What I’m saying is that the random things you say combined with the pugnacious way you say them combined with the chip on the shoulder you hold against the supposedly leftist academic world might not look real well to job committees, if any of it comes through in person.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Until you have read some of my professional publications you have absolutely no grounds to criticize my academic abilities.

            While it’s certainly possible for one’s formal published work to be radically different in kind than one’s informal discussions, usually there is some sort of connection between them. After all, we do form (partial) judgments about scholarly ability (for example) based on interviews, discussion, etc.

            If what you were commenting on were well outside your professional scope (e.g., I’m professionally a computer scientist and thus am generally talking out of professionals cope on this blog with some exceptions when the topic is philosophy, computer science, or education), then failure to measure up to norms of professional competence in those areas generally are at most weakly related to professional competence in your home area. But…these are in your home area right? And close to your research interests?

            Well there is the fact of peer review. But, honestly if the new “progressive” line is that blog comments and journal articles are equivalent then you are even more deluded than I thought.

            I wouldn’t use them as grounds for a conclusive judgement, but it’s hard to see that your comments provide absolutely no grounds for assessing your academic abilities…

            …and, of course, it’s not like Erik is sitting on a hiring committee. It’s just a snarky blog comment and should be assessed in the same light you want yours to be assessed!

            • J. Otto Pohl says:

              My area of history is not chattel slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. We have a lot of other people doing that here. Most of them specializing in indigenous slavery. But, some also research the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. My area of expertise is Soviet treatment of various national minorities particularly ethnic Germans. Generally history is divided into sub-disciplines like that.

              So I am not an expert on slavery, the slave trade, US, or African history. But, everything I have ever heard by Africans in the two years I have been here on the slave trade emphasizes that it was international. The role of the US overall was relatively small and the Europeans, colonists in Brazil and the Caribbean, and indigenous Africans such as the Asante all played an important part. I gather US historiography violently disagrees with African historiography on this point.

              • Hogan says:

                I gather US historiography violently disagrees with African historiography on this point.

                If you mean “US historiography thinks it’s possible to say true and useful things about Thomas Jefferson without always having to embed slavery it in its international context,” then yes. But plenty of US historians have written about the trans-Atlantic slave trade outside the US. Of course, some of them are Marxists, so you probably wouldn’t approve.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                My area of history is not chattel slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.

                But your area is history.

                My research focus is logic based knowledge representation, but I hope I can speak a bit better than a random layperson on lots of other compsci topics. Indeed, I make it a point to be reasonably aware of lots of subareas.

                So, I think the point holds. The closer to your area, the more reasonable it is to take your commenting as some sort of indicator of your general competence. At the very least, you should know what you don’t know.

                So, I don’t see how your saying something silly (if it is silly) about Jefferson isn’t some sort of grounds for making an inconclusive judgement about your academic abilities. And a casual blog comment seems reasonably supported by such evidence. (Which is the flip side.)

                Of course, it’s always possible that you’re superduper awesome inside your specialty and rubbish outside it. But that’s not a good thing, eh?

                (And your first comment betrays a pretty severe lack of either reading comprehension or topicality: Your comment was primarily about the slave trade, not about the practice of slavery in the US. Your coda here continues this. But what drove the slave trade is more or less irrelevant in investigating what sort of slaveowner Jefferson was or whether he was a hypocrite.)

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  I have not said anything about the international slave trade that is factually wrong. You think it is silly to point out the international aspects of slavery on a post attacking Jefferson as a very evil man because he owned slaves. Fine, but I still fail to see what any of that has to do with anything I write for publication. If you are going to attack my professional publications and work you should at least read them, rather than basing it on unrelated blog comments.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  You think it is silly to point out the international aspects of slavery on a post attacking Jefferson as a very evil man because he owned slaves.

                  Except [speaking slowly, using small words] that was not what the post was about.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  I have not said anything about the international slave trade that is factually wrong.

                  I don’t think anyone’s said otherwise.

                  I will note that “not being factual wrong” is a pretty low bar. Writing an essay that contains no factual errors does not mean that the essay isn’t any good. Relevance, for example, is an important intellectual virtue.

                  I’m surprised I need to explain this!

                  You think it is silly to point out the international aspects of slavery on a post attacking Jefferson as a very evil man because he owned slaves.

                  Well this throws more light on your reading comprehension skills, both of my comments and of the OP.

                  Even if, contrary to fact, there were a post arguing that Jefferson was a very evil man because he owned slaves, the structure of the trans-Atlantic slave trade would be of dubious relevance. I would trust that this is obvious, but I guess I cannot so trust when conversing with a historian of your calibre.

                  Fine, but I still fail to see what any of that has to do with anything I write for publication.

                  No one said that it did, not even Erik’s first comment. What you write for publication is not the only measure of your academic skill or perhaps total academic profile.

                  (Note that Erik clarified that he was not even talking about academic skill per se but the fact that you come across rather poorly in such a way that would make it easy to see why you would be an unsuccessful candidate. Now, perhaps in addition to your amazing publications you also are enormously charming, considerate, and insightful in real life conversation. Stranger things have happened. But it would be a surprise.

                  Personally, the way you read and construct arguments doesn’t make me very sanguine about your overall academic abilities. I did look at your paper, but I’m really in no way competent to make a judgement about it nor do I have the time to amass enough competence to say anything. Or the will, really. I found the first parts rather undercited, but I really don’t know the standards of the field.)

                  If you are going to attack my professional publications and work

                  But…no one’s done that. I explicited have defended making partial, tentative judgments on your overall academic skill on the basis of other things…but that wouldn’t be an assessment of your professional publications.

                  You really are defending yourself from phantoms.

                  you should at least read them, rather than basing it on unrelated blog comments.

                  And again, just as the standard you desire for assessing your blog comments is low, so too should you relax the evidential demands of other blog comments. I fail to see why the symmetry might fail.

                  Thus far in this thread you’ve misread, misjudged what’s relevant, misunderstood criticism, etc.

                  Not a shining moment!

                  Now all this is still compatible with you being a fine teacher and scholar…but it doesn’t support such judgments and it provides some support against it.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Now, perhaps in addition to your amazing publications you also are enormously charming, considerate, and insightful in real life conversation.

                  I’m thinking that “an even sharper set of knives” is not something you need this holiday season…

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  Look you are making attacks on me that are just not true. I have no trouble with the people I work with and live around. I am not sure why you would think so. You are confusing the arrogant white leftists here with the African scholars I work with every day. The attitude of African academics is radically different from that of American ones. There is a much greater emphasis on cooperation and less on trying to prove that other people are stupid based upon blog comments.

                  You yourself even admit that you are not competent to judge my last publication. But, it did pass peer review. Which means that other academics who did understand it and are experts in the field did approve it for publication. So it did meet the general standards academic standards of publication. You ignore this and continue to claim that I am stupid because you think a few blog comments I made were dumb. Look you don’t agree with anything I write fine. But, unless you can make a coherent argument based upon my actual academic record you have no justification for attacking it.

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  Throwing around terms like “arrogant white leftists” is definitely a good job market strategy.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  Look you are making attacks on me that are just not true.

                  Well, “true” is different than “unjustified”.

                  I’m not claiming truth. There’s way to little evidence to make any strong claims about you. I am well aware that people often have very different encounters with me that lead them to very different judgements of all sorts of aspects of my life, personality, etc.

                  That being said, and as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, that doesn’t mean that there is no evidence in these contexts. Which you seem to be claiming. Which is weird and wrong. I’m much more interested in the second order claims about evidence than the first order claims about your competence. What’s interesting is that you keep doing stuff which validates the (negative) first order claims. The misreadings are a great example. You’re establishing a very strong prima facie case that you are horrible at reading and interpreting texts. Maybe you just lose you cool on a blog and in the calm of your office you’re an interpretation rock star. I kinda doubt it, but it is possible.

                  I have no trouble with the people I work with and live around. I am not sure why you would think so.

                  I don’t really have any thoughts about how you interact with people in real life. I’m just pointing out that the available evidence (on this blog) for you being e.g., charming is not positive. It would be folly to read too strongly from this evidence, but it’s the evidence I have. Again, if you turned out to be coherent in conversation it would be (to me) a (pleasant) surprise.

                  You are confusing the arrogant white leftists here with the African scholars I work with every day.

                  This is interesting.

                  The attitude of African academics is radically different from that of American ones. There is a much greater emphasis on cooperation and less on trying to prove that other people are stupid based upon blog comments.

                  Also interesting given that you started this whole thing with a classic attempt at gotcha. Alas, it failed spectacularly and thus makes you look not only like a arrogant tool but incompetent as well.

                  But the right thing here is to stop digging! There was, perhaps, an interesting segue you could have made to thinking about how Africans deal with their founding figures and lessons we could draw from that in interpreting Jefferson.

                  But you didn’t make that segue. It’s not too late! I, for one, am interested in such a conversation.

                  You yourself even admit that you are not competent to judge my last publication.

                  I myself do admit that! Thanks for noticing! Thanks for thanking me for looking at it!

                  But this is irrelevant as I’ve argued extensively.

                  But, it did pass peer review.

                  You do know all the issues about peer review, right?

                  Which means that other academics who did understand it and are experts in the field did approve it for publication. So it did meet the general standards academic standards of publication.

                  And?

                  You ignore this and continue to claim that I am stupid

                  My god! I did?!??!

                  My point was that discounting Jefferson because he owned slaves was rather stupid.

                  Wait! That was you!

                  So I’m going to need a citation for my commentary on your intelligence. I certainly have commented negatively on your reading comprehension and argument construction and esp. your ability to make relevant comments. But those are all compatible with a high level of intelligence. They are also compatible with the ability to construct publishable papers. (Merely getting published is also a fairly low bar, though a real one!)

                  because you think a few blog comments I made were dumb.

                  I really wish you would stick to reading what I wrote and responding to it after you’ve had time to diget it preferably after you’ve had time to understand it.

                  Look you don’t agree with anything I write fine. But, unless you can make a coherent argument based upon my actual academic record you have no justification for attacking it.

                  But again, I’ve not attacked your academic record, just your academic competence. And then, only very weakly. Obviously, the brute fact of you holding an academic position, completing a PhD, publishing papers, etc. are strong evidence that you aren’t strongly incompetent. But those aren’t sufficient to say, “Whoa, great academic”.

                  The ability to carry out a coherent discussion in a off the cuff way is one, not dispositive, indicator of academic competence. It’s a terrible all things considered indicator because there are all sorts of ways in which one can do great things while, for example, being easily flustered.

                  If you want to argue that blog commentary is your intellectual achilleas heel, I doubt you’d meet any resistance (certainly not from me). Indeed, you might also get some sympathy.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  I’m thinking that “an even sharper set of knives” is not something you need this holiday season…

                  My feet may be clay, but my wits (and knives) are ceramic.

      • The Dark Avenger says:

        Yes, it was only 10 years ago that the horror of Stalin’s deportations was finally brought to light……………..

      • Timb says:

        And here is David Post’s Volokh conspiracy paper defending Stalin for modernizing Russia and defeating he Nazis

    • Rhino says:

      That’s rather beneath you, Erik.

    • Slocum says:

      Otto incredibly annoying, but you should be thankful you have a job, too, given the academic job market. Dick move, man.

  7. Joe says:

    Jefferson was a hypocrite. “So what.”

    http://www.volokh.com/2012/12/01/why-dont-people-get-it-about-jefferson-and-slavery/

    The truth is yet again somewhere in between. I can do w/o the finale of the op-ed where he in effect targets the whole “founding generation.”

    • commie atheist says:

      Jefferson was an artist, man. You gotta look at what the man wrote, not at how he lived his life. “All men are created equal…” That’s the shit right there, man.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      The truth is that few people in human history did more, over the course of a lifetime, to “place the road on the road to liberty for all” — and indeed, to eliminate human slavery from the civilized world — than Jefferson.

      Ex-squeeze me?

      • Everyone in the Union army over the rank of ________________ did more to end slavery than Thomas Jefferson.

        Sergeant? Lt. Colonel?

        • A creepy, brutal hypocrite. says:

          “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” — Abraham Lincoln

          • I can’t make heads or tails of what your thinking is supposed to be, but I fear it is as deranged as your formatting.

          • rea says:

            One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” –Abraham Lincoln

      • Joseph Slater says:

        Yeah, that whole post is pretty astounding.

      • Timb says:

        Just by writing a line!

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I’m impressed by the complaining about looking at Jefferson ahistorically followed directly by a non-contextualized quote from Abraham Lincoln.

      • Joseph Slater says:

        Also, compare it to David Bernstein’s post right below noting that some early 20th century progressives were racist in the way pretty much all major white political movements were racist at that time, and that kind of implicitly damns all progressives for all of history.

        Jefferson being actually worse on race issues than many of his contemporaries, on the other hand . . . so what?

  8. Bart says:

    First they came for our forefathers…

  9. Bruce Vail says:

    One angle worth discussion in considering the ownership of slaves by G. Washington and T. Jefferson is the question of family wealth and how that subject was viewed at the time.

    Both Washington and Jefferson came to own slaves through marriage to wealthy women. In a sense, the slaves were not their property alone, but family property. This is relevant in that one explanation for Jefferson’s failure to free his slaves is that their ownership was the birthright of his daughters, so to free to his slaves was to deprive them of the inherited wealth that was they expected.

    It is also my recollection that Washington’s emancipation of his slave’s was only to take place after the death of Martha, who was the original owner of slaves anyway.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      Do you know of writings of Jefferson’s to the effect of “Gosh, these slaves are people, and as equal as anybody, but if I were to treat them that way, I’d be tossed out of Virginian society on my ear”?

      You’re not wrong, but this just means you’re tracing reasons why Jefferson thought the way he did, not reasons he was unable to act as he thought.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Yes, the preservation of personal comfort and family wealth is no justification for hypocrisy, and worse.

        I’m not ready to agree with Finkelman, however, that Jefferson was a monster. A great figure in American history? Yes. A great philosopher and moralist? No. Can’t we just judge Jefferson as an American political leader without elevating him to god-like status, or alternately flinging him into the dung heap?

    • J. L. Bell says:

      Both Washington and Jefferson inherited slaves at a young age. I believe Washington was only eleven when he became the legal owner of other people.

      They both came into more slaves through marriages to widows.

      In Washington’s case, that widow also had children, so he faced a legal burden to preserve her property for them. George also wanted Martha to be taken care of in the style to which she had become accustomed, so in his will he delayed the wholesale emancipation of his slaves until she died. Martha became worried and freed some earlier than that.

      However, Jefferson’s wife didn’t bring children into the marriage and didn’t survive him, so he wasn’t managing her “family property” for her heirs. He also did a much worse job than Washington in keeping out of debt.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Jefferson and his wife had two daughters together, and they (along with their husbands) were the heirs to his estate, such as it was.

        Some of Jefferson’s property was slave property that his wife had inherited from her father, a successful planter. So, yes, he was managing family property, including slaves, with the intention of passing it on to his own children and grandchildren.

        Parenthetically, it is believed that Sally Hemmings’ mother was the slave concubine of Jefferson’s father in law. That means that his legal wife and his slave concubine were half sisters — this offers a new dimension to the characterization of Jefferson as ‘creepy’….

        • J. L. Bell says:

          The comment I replied to suggested that both Washington and Jefferson had legal obligations to preserve “family property” that was distinct from “their property alone.”

          Washington was managing Custis family property because his Martha had children who were not related to him by blood. If Martha Washington had died before George, her property was supposed to go to her children by her first marriage.

          That legal situation didn’t pertain to Martha Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson had no legal obligation regarding the “family property” she brought into the marriage.

      • ajay says:

        In Washington’s case, that widow also had children, so he faced a legal burden to preserve her property for them.

        Yes, well, he also faced a legal burden to not turn against the King to whom he had sworn to be loyal. He faced a legal burden not to conspire with the enemies of his country and raise a rebellion. Didn’t stop him though (even though it unquestionably put his family in danger).

        I suppose he just cared about some things more than others.

  10. dollared says:

    This gets back to the peverse incentives that rule a world. Noting the complexity of Jefferson’s behavior while correctly noting his great importance to the progress of freedom and civil rights in the world: accurate but not new.

    Calling him creepy and brutal: not accurate but stirs the pot.

    Next: Slate on why we don’t have turkey eggs for breakfast…..

    • dollared says:

      rule our world, that is.

    • Adrian Luca says:

      Jesus, dude. Did you even read how Jefferson treated his slaves? “Creepy” and “brutal” is being kind. Even the guide who led my tour around the grounds of Monticello in June marveled at Jefferson’s cruelty.

      • Indeed.

        We talk about this in terms of “Jefferson owned slaves,” as if he signed some papers and some formal legal arrangement existed.

        Men in that time and place work up every morning and knew that, before they went to bed, they might have to beat somebody. It was just an accepted, not particularly notable understanding in the back of their heads, that they had known since they were kids. The saw their fathers beat people, and those fathers taught them the right way to do it.

        When is the last time, dear read, that you hit somebody? Really hauled off and hit an unwilling person hard enough to hurt? It’s been decades since I did that. About a year ago, I almost came to blows with someone, and I was upset about it for weeks. Hitting other people is a horrible, brutish act. Even if you win a fight, you are diminished, made into something like an animal for a little while. You’re snorting and your chest is heaving and you’re thrashing around violently, your basest instincts controlling what you do…awful.

        And yet, these people just accepted as an ordinary part of their lives the understanding that they might have to grab somebody, drag him (or her!) off as he begged for mercy, and physically batter him.

        It has to do something to your psyche to live like that. Just saying that slavers “owned” people doesn’t convey the reality of what that means.

        • Bruce Baugh says:

          Damn, Joe. That’s one of your best comments ever, I think. Thank you for writing it up.

        • Adrian Luca says:

          Yeah, forget about what slavery did to slaves. Won’t someone think of the Jeffersons!

        • dollared says:

          I agree and really appreciate the impact of what you said. But at the same time these were people that worked draft animals to death, kept only working dogs and put them to death whenever they proved inconvenient, and otherwise behaved consistent with their time and not ours. We have to be careful to fully understand their context, including the casual brutality you describe, without attributing to them the unusual depravity that such brutality would require in our current age.

    • dl says:

      So, why don’t we have turkey eggs for breakfast?

  11. chris y says:

    Dr Johnson had Jefferson’s number at the time: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

  12. cpinva says:

    i must admit to some bit of confusion. mr. finkelman describes mr. jefferson as, essentially, an 18th century simon legree: a brute, creepy, horrific, racist, raper, undeterred supporter of slavery, and all its most odious, bestial components. he provides many cites, as support for these assertions, some of which don’t at all, and some of which kinda, sorta, maybe support his basic thesis. barely, and mostly only if taken completely out of context.

    not to suggest that mr. jefferson was some kind of raving abolitionist or something, clearly he wasn’t. however, this was the person who also, according to all the histories, pointed out that legalizing slavery, in the constitution, would eventually result in what turned out to be the civil war. and not in a good way.

    well, yeah, of course jefferson supported slavery, it’s what made monticello sort of economically viable, when he wasn’t spending all his cash on experiments, and additions to it and poplar forrest (which is a cool house. if you get a chance, go see it). jefferson was a genius, but a horrible business person.

    the bottom line is that finkelman provides no actual contemporaneous evidence supporting his brutal description of the man, and all the evidence he does provide, is pretty well known: jefferson owned slaves. jefferson didn’t manumit them during his lifetime, or many after his death. jefferson may have had children with one of his slaves, sally hemings (yes, i know, DNA. this evidence, as those producing the reports said, proves only that a jefferson male had progeny with her, it doesn’t prove that it was mr. jefferson himself. don’t take my word for it, look it up yourself.).

    none of this has been kept a secret, at least not for the past 20-30 years. yet, none of it proves that mr. jefferson was more than your average (except maybe feeling guilty about it) slave owner of the time, bad enough really. we wish he wasn’t, it would make it a lot easier to put him on a pedestal. unfortunately, like all the founding fathers/mothers, jefferson was human, and had feet of clay.

    • ajay says:

      It is perenially fascinating to try to imagine the mindset that regarded keeping human beings as property as an issue on which honourable men could agree to disagree, but regarded rich businessmen having to pay slightly more taxes than they felt they ought to as an atrocity which merited bloody revolution.

      • Mike Furlan says:

        You are describing the racist core of Libertarian thought. Slavery was going to “go away by itself” and it certainly would not require any state intervention. The anti-slavery fight, to the extent that it strengthened the Federal government, was more evil than slavery itself. Remember that the income tax made its first appearance during the Civil War.

    • Colin Day says:

      Isn’t this the Jefferson who wrote something about the Tree of Liberty being watered by the blood of tyrants? Or are civil wars only good if they liberate white people?

      • Abby Spice says:

        No, no, don’t be silly. They’re only good if they liberate white men. And not the poor kind. Ugh. Non-property owners are the worst.

        • Swordsmith says:

          This was pretty widespread thinking at the time, and hard to break out of. Until after the American and French Revolutions, when someone referred to “the people” they generally meant the nobility – in British eyes, even wealthy Americans weren’t “people,” which rankled. (Hence lines like the “none else of name” when discussing casualties in Henry V.) That most of them weren’t able to extend their views to other races or to women is also not especially surprising – even their language made it hard. (The idea of races being separate was s ingrained that the word “racism” wasn’t coined until 1949.)

          • ajay says:

            Until after the American and French Revolutions, when someone referred to “the people” they generally meant the nobility

            Citation needed, I think. Because pretty much everywhere in Shakespeare (since we’re quoting Shakespeare) “the people” is used more or less in opposition to “the nobility”.

            See here:
            http://www.rhymezone.com/r/ss.cgi?q=%22the+people%22&mode=k

            • Swordsmith says:

              I’ll have to dig up the citations, but they’re all over the place. I have a list somewhere but it dates back to grad school days and I have to find it. Pretty sure Keegan cites it as well.

              • ajay says:

                Same with Milton. I can’t find anything in his prose where “people” means anything other than either “the general population” or “the churchgoing population” (normally that’s “the people of God”).

                Same with Hobbes. In Leviathan, “The people” is either “the general population” or “their representatives in a popular assembly”. It’s never “the nobility”.

                I think you’re confused here.

  13. CD says:

    Jefferson’s apologists try to change the question to Jefferson’s personality — was he a good or bad guy, how good, how bad. This is the standard defensive posture re racism today: ignore the evil done in the world, and try to change the topic to the state of your own soul.

    What the Jefferson apologists will not, cannot face is Jefferson’s real cruelty to other real human beings. Not his personality, not the state of his soul, but *the evil he did in the world*. You can see it in David Post’s final, massively callous paragraph, in which harms to others are elided into personal attitudes and the final dismissive “So what? Really – so what?” You can see this in the numerous topic-shifting apologists above in this thread.

    This was real harm to real human beings. Please, try to think through that.

    • dollared says:

      Yes, and Lincoln lived in a world where women couldn’t vote and owned property, and he acquiesced to it and it resulted in horrible mistreatment of women, including possibly Lincoln’s treatment of Mary Todd.

      Should I join you in your inability to understand historical context?

      • dollared says:

        “vote or own property”

        • Swordsmith says:

          Some women could own property. You just ha to become a widow first… The implications of which were taken to heart by several of the women profiled in Mary Hartman’s book on Victorian Murderesses, for instance.

      • CD says:

        You’re still weaseling away form confronting Jefferson’s treatment of fellow human beings. “Historical context” does not make human being any less human – it’s a way for you to defend your own callousness.

        • dollared says:

          Yes, and you know, he even used horses to plow his fields, making them drag plows 12 hours a day and having them butchered for meat when they couldn’t handle the strain! And he probably didn’t let his dogs in the house!

          To call him a monster, you have to show that his cruelty was exceptional, beyond what was standard in that time. Otherwise you are applying our standards to their time. It is a form of misrepresentation of the truth.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            you have to show that his cruelty was exceptional, beyond what was standard in that time

            Which, of course, is exactly what Finkelman did.

            • dollared says:

              Forgive me for persisting, but I think you must be overestimating the kindness, generosity and democratic ideals persisting amongst the Virginia gentlemen of his day. Corey Robin’s nattering is a perfect example of an anachronism – the imposition of later context over a past age. There.was.no.fascism.in.colonial.Virginia. There was longstanding elitism and longstanding racism. Jefferson’s attempt to layer Enlightenment rationalism over those completely dominant prejudices certainly contains a precursor of the scientific racism of 150 years later, but that was 150 years later. And yes, it sounds a bit like fascism, but lots of things rhyme if you take them out of context. To call it fascism completely ignores the fact that Jefferson’s age was the age of the first challenges to absolute monarchs, not the age of industrial totalitarianism.

              So, I repeat: it would have been great if Jefferson had superseded the prejudices of his day, but to call him a monster is to state that he was exceptionally cruel and inhuman for his day and his culture. He was not.

              and yes, no hagiography of Jefferson should fail to note the depth of his failure to see that his lofty rhetoric applied to all people. But considering that 100 million + Americans have trouble applying Jefferson’s principles to brown people and all women in 2012, we should cut him just a bit of slack.

              • Hogan says:

                Corey Robin’s nattering is a perfect example of an anachronism – the imposition of later context over a past age.

                Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

                Seems to me he’s invoking the standards of Jefferson’s time, only with more specifics and less vague handwaving than you.

                • dollared says:

                  You really are missing the point. Robin was suggesting that Jefferson was a fascist based on his assertions of white racial superiority. That’s like me arguing that the Incas were Marxists because they demanded community based contributions to production of certain goods. And of course, it’s Slate-ist “provocative” bullshit designed for clicks, not for illuminating a complex truth.

                  And as for Jefferson’s “exceptional” cruelty, start by showing me that most Virginia planters refused to beat their slaves or, as a practice, did not sell slaves except as family units. As for the “outlaw emancipated blacks” laws, weren’t those the holy grail for his southern planter peers for two centuries? Why yes, yes, they were. Nothing exceptional has been proven.

                  Again, it’s disappointing in the context of our admiration of Jefferson. But Jefferson is not history’s greatest monster. He’s just yet another wealthy non-aristocrat in the 18th (or 19th century) whose rhetoric in defense of his own desire for equal status with aristocrats became the first steps down a slippery slope of universal human equality that continues to this day.

              • ajay says:

                Jefferson’s age was the age of the first challenges to absolute monarchs

                No, that would be the 17th century. Cromwell and Ireton and Fairfax and Skippon were shaking the thrones of Europe before Jefferson was even born.

    • Mike Furlan says:

      To a large extent the American Revolution was a revolt against the idea that the rights of an Englishman would be indiscriminately endowed on all residents of the North American colonies without regard to race.

      Without the scare that the Somersett’s Case generated it unlikely that the Southern colonists would have even entertained the idea of revolution. Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation was the final push that led to our first “birth of a nation.”

  14. John Biles says:

    I think any assessment of Jefferson has to recognize that he both did things to limit slavery and didn’t do as much as he could have done.

    He helped to make sure the Northwest Territory had no slavery. He endorsed banning the slave trade in Virginia during the Revolution. He approved the 1808 banning of the Slave Trade. He knew slavery was problematic. The Declaration of Independence stating that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ would become a tool for future generations to push to make it true.

    And he continued to keep slaves, often didn’t treat them well, had kids by one of his slaves, and in general, he was a slaveowner with all the flaws inherent thereunto.

    Without him, we’d be a lesser country but he and the rest of the Founding Fathers had a lot of flaws. Overdemonizing him is a mistake; declaring him a saint is also a mistake.

    I think Finkelman overdoes it, but certainly, there’s a lot Jefferson did which was terrible.

    But we find many saints in the past.

    • John Biles says:

      We will NOT find many saints in the past.

      Sorry.

      • I don’t think we should dismiss or discount Jefferson’s contributions. I don’t think we should demonize him.

        I do think we should look very hard at how he helped establish the line of southern politics that became the Confederacy. This is someone whose figure and ideas were so important to setting up our political system, and are such a large part of our national identity, and he was an ideological white supremacist whose iconic status among the Confederacy was not based on distortion.

        I’m not interested in the Jefferson-as-hypocrite story regarding his personal life, but his contribution to the line of pro-slavery domestic politics that led to secession is a point that needs more attention. Good for Finkelman for bringing it up.

        • Bruce Vail says:

          Quite right.

          If we are to accuse Jefferson of being a monster, then it should be for his role in the formation and development of Republican-Democratic Party (later shortened to Democratic Party) which was the instrument of the slavocracy form some 60 years, and the party of Jim Crow for another hundred years after that.

      • Swordsmith says:

        There’s a wonderful line in Roger Zelazny’s story “This Moment of the Storm” about how “we need heroes’ statues more than we need heroes.” Some people are easier to lionize when they are no longer inconveniently alive and their flaws are no longer on display.

    • Hogan says:

      He endorsed banning the slave trade in Virginia during the Revolution. He approved the 1808 banning of the Slave Trade.

      So did a lot of slaveowners in Virginia. Banning the importation of slaves made the ones they owned more valuable. Think of it as a protective tariff.

  15. Joe says:

    Query: did Jefferson actually do anything to honor his anti-slavery principles that actually burdened him in any way?

  16. Corey Robin says:

    I decided to weigh into the Jefferson wars, particularly responding to that David Post piece over at Volokh. If you follow his links to the paper he wrote on this, you’ll see he’s really playing fast and loose with the text.
    http://coreyrobin.com/2012/12/01/thomas-jefferson-american-fascist/

    • Joe says:

      You note he was not a “liberal hypocrite,” but he seems to be some sort of hypocrite. He did provide certain sentiments as to the evils of slavery (along with supporting white supremacy) but repeatedly didn’t want to do any heavy lifting to actually do much about it. There were ways to go about it but he repeatedly found some way to get around actually doing them.

  17. [...] fascism was more related to his views on race than on slavery per se).  Scott Lemieux blogged for Finkelman and against Post on Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Yesterday, Kathleen Geier of the Washington [...]

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