Whitewashing Jefferson

Corey Robin has largely saved me from having to respond to David Post. But I do want to address one narrow point:

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.

This assertion strikes me as, to put it mildly, problematic.

  • The Declaration of Independence was evidently very influential and contained any number of noble sentiments, some of which proved to be a resource for people who opposed slavery and white supremacy.  But let’s also not get carried away with exaggerating the causal impact of the Declaration on ending slavery.   The fact is, a particularly brutal form of slavery persisted for upwards of a century after the Declaration in the states governed by Jefferson’s fellow southern political elites, and it it had to be vanquished not through voluntary emancipation but through an extraordinarily bloody military conflict.   And then after the Civil War, in spite of the Declaration the states controlled by Jefferson’s heirs maintained apartheid police states for nearly another century.   The leaders who risked (and in many cases) scarified their lives before and after the Civil War deserve far more credit than Jefferson for ending these appalling social systems.
  • And, as Corey says, Jefferson himself played a major role, in both theory and practice, of establishing the norm that the Declaration’s announcement that “all mean are created equal” wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.

110 comments on this post.
  1. James E. Powell:

    And it’s not like the Declaration expressed new or original ideas. If memory serves, in one of his humbler moments, Jefferson acknowledged that.

    His contribution to the Declaration was his elegant writing.

    The notion that he did anything to eliminate slavery from the civilized world isn’t problematic, it’s not true.

  2. Paul:

    So one wonders how come so many people bend over backwards to defend Jefferson and other Southern Elites/Founders/Framers (Whatever) – but everyone brings the hammer out to smack down the Federalists for the Alien and Sedition Acts and being suppository elitist pro-military thugs (or say on Hamilton for his supposed monarchist tendencies)?

  3. jon:

    Fascinating that you want to go full Revisionist on Jefferson. Fine enough, but why stop there? Where is the recognition that the American Revolution had the practical effect of maintaining slavery in the US for decades longer than in the British empire? Complicity and hypocrisy is not Jefferson’s lone burden, it belongs to all of the Founding Fathers and revolutionaries.

    You might also look at the treatment and social position of Blacks following UK manumission, as well as the contemporary practices of other colonizing western societies and their behavior towards native and subject peoples. Rather than shackling Jefferson to modern attitudes, and castigating him for every deviation from imaginary, ideal behavior, it might be more productive to consider why it took decades longer for slavery to be extinguished in the US at immense cost, while Britain managed the feat more rapidly and with far less pain, if also imperfectly.

  4. Joel Patterson:

    How come? Every kid in school gets a textbook/curriculum telling them that. It’s hard to get rid of a lie once it is in print.
    Plus, deep down, you really don’t want to think your teachers were lying to you.

  5. Paul:

    “Fascinating that you want to go full Revisionist on Jefferson. Fine enough, but why stop there? Where is the recognition that the American Revolution had the practical effect of maintaining slavery in the US for decades longer than in the British empire? Complicity and hypocrisy is not Jefferson’s lone burden, it belongs to all of the Founding Fathers and revolutionaries.”

    I don’t buy that slavery survived in the South because it was making people money and profit and could survive even after no external trade.

    The development of life insurance for leased slaves even made it economical in factories and industry.

    Had the UK retained the Colonies I suspect profit would have retarded the UK desire to kill a valuable set of colonies rather than just a few islands where the sugar cane system required trade to do mortality

  6. Anonymous:

    suppository elitist pro-military thugs

    The butthurt echoes down through the centuries.

  7. Paul:

    Hey I am poor typist on my first cup of coffee and up early, I would edit if I could but good one anyway…

  8. cpinva:

    yeah, i’d have to put a big question mark next to that assertion. jefferson apparently had moral qualms (not that these qualms in any way stopped him from owning and using slaves), and felt the issue would come back to bite the new country in the ass (he was right, it did), but made no obvious efforts (none i’m aware of, anyway) to stop it, either politically, or in his writings. so where he gets that from is a complete mystery to me.

  9. cpinva:

    i don’t recall anyone saying jefferson was alone in this, all the southerners were complicit, and no one has ever claimed otherwise (other than a few, southern, revisionist hacks).

    Complicity and hypocrisy is not Jefferson’s lone burden, it belongs to all of the Founding Fathers and revolutionaries.

    northern complicity, i suppose, was in granting the 3/5ths status, solely for representation purposes, in the new constitution. in their defense, it was the only way to get it ratified. that may not be much of a defense, but i suspect many of them truly believed it would, in the not-to-distant future, become a moot point. obviously, they were optimists.

  10. Dana:

    Scott, you rightfully focus on the persistence of slavery in the south, but this necessarily overlooks the fact that slavery was legal and in a few cases widespread if not systemic in the north on the eve of the Revolution. Yes, the ideas included in the Declaration were not new or unique to Jefferson, but it was not entirely clear at the start of the war that those principles were at stake, or that it was the Americans who were fighting for those principles. The Declaration gave a greater meaning to the Revolution than a war on behalf of a bunch of uppity colonists who didn’t want to pay their taxes. That a planter elite was willing to stake a claim for liberty was a remarkable thing, however narrowly construed. That it was taken seriously to varying degrees by nearly everyone in British North America is also pretty important. Within 10 or 15 years of declaring independence all states north of the Mason-Dixon had passed laws providing for immediate or gradual manumission of slaves. It seems very unlikely that would have happened without a revolutionary cause defined by the Declaration.

    Yes, Jefferson had a lot of ideas that are troubling by our standards. He believed that black people were inferior human beings. Many of his fellow slave masters would also find this troubling. Not because he believed they were inferior, of course, but because he believed they were human beings. And he openly acknowledged it. In official documents even. In a society where the legal justification for slavery was based on laws governing the spoils of war and the capture of wild animals, this is an important thing.

    Not doubt I’m coming off here as overly sympathetic to TJ. I completely agree that he spent much of his life dissembling about slavery and rationalizing his role in its existence. But it’s important to keep in mind that before 1775 almost no one advocated ending slavery, and in the aftermath of the Revolution the debate had moved from essentially unquestioned support for slave labor, past whether or not it should exist, to when and how it should be abolished. That period proved distressingly short-lived, but it legitimized abolition in some places and the possibility of it in others, so much so that southerners came to see every political defeat as another nail in the coffin of their way of life.

  11. db:

    Paul,

    I’ll take the other half of, “Had the UK retained the Colonies I suspect profit would have retarded the UK desire to kill a valuable set of colonies rather than just a few islands where the sugar cane system required trade to do mortality.” citing that the abolition of slavery was declared in the (industrialized) UK in the 1790s.

    I’ll also take the other half of, “I don’t buy that slavery survived in the South because it was making people money and profit.” as money & profit are the only reasons to maintain a slave system.

    Now I will assert that the Founders compromised on slavery because several foresaw the immanent elimination of slavery through economic causes. They were proved wrong but that doesn’t change their intent i.e. put up with slavery for a while to get the country on it’s feet. Whether or not you like that decision, that’s the decision they made & we can only speculate about alternatives.

    Paul, I think the “blackening” of Jefferson is the revisionist position, but it hardly matters.

    Finally I will assert that Jefferson was essentially a good man & we can observe in him the damage that the existence of slavery did to all who were touched by the system. Slave or Master, no one benefited. The costs were too great to all.

  12. jon:

    There’s room for both you know. Given that the Revolution was allegedly fought for liberty, freedom and self governance, the Alien and Sedition Acts were diametrically opposed to those values and could be used to criminalize nearly any expression of dissent. And Hamilton was perhaps the most monarchically inclined and vocal of the prominent Founders, and he went out to put down Shay’s Rebellion; similarly hypocritical to the notions of personal liberty and agency, and other self-generating republican virtues.

    In contrast, much of the critique of Jefferson seems to spring from an insistence to freight him with the responsibility to have been fully congruent with the most progressive of modern attitudes. In fact, he was an imperfect creature, fully of his time and place. He did much, and much that he did was flawed and imperfect, and subject to further effort and improvement. Washington seems to me to be rather like a David Petraeus, in that he was always seeking to appear in the best possible light, that he relentlessly curried favor and sought personal and political advancement, and that his military feats were rather limited and overblown. Perhaps the impetus to chip away at Jefferson comes from his having become such an idealized, perfected figure, though I don’t believe he ever encouraged that tendency. He was one of the more intellectual founders, more bookish and genuinely philosophical, and less muscular or mercantile. Perhaps he’s insufficiently muscular and heroic for judgmental lefties and history profs, for them to comfortably accept the large role he had in shaping the nation.

    And perhaps it’s also that the flaws and failings of Jefferson’s personal life and behavior are so far from the high flying prose and noble sentiments of his political work and public persona. He was a slave owner who wanted to abolish slavery. Yet he did almost nothing practical to bring that about. He did not free his own slaves, and was not the most humanitarian in his treatment of them, and he had sexual relations with at least one and children by her. Jefferson is a useful figure because of the contrasts and contradictions he embodies, and in the struggle we can see in him as he seeks improvement but often falls far short. Yet we don’t lambaste other slaveholding Founders who had no issue with slavery, nor do we provide exceptional praise for abolitionist Founders who did not own slaves – we don’t bother to notice when they made their money out of molasses, sugar or rum, the third leg of the Triangle Trade that supported the transport and institution of slavery. Ultimately, I suppose we continue to pick away at Jefferson because he’s such a fascinating and nearly inexhaustible territory. Simpler, less contradictory and less idealistic figures are examined, understood and dispatched rapidly; we learn only so much and we cease to concern ourselves with them.

  13. cpinva:

    specifically, these were school history textbooks geared towards the texas school systems, the single largest purchaser of primary/secondary school textbooks in the country.

    Every kid in school gets a textbook/curriculum telling them that.

    these are the very same textbooks that, for decades, gave us the civil war, not as a war fought for and about slavery, but for “state’s rights”, while conveniently omitting which specific right that entailed. the civil war became, in those textbooks, the romantic “Lost Cause”, of Gone With The Wind fame. all of the country’s history texts were custom-made for the texas school system, whose school board promulgated all that unadulterated horse shit.

  14. jon:

    I was so not going there.

  15. jefft452:

    “Had the UK retained the Colonies I suspect profit would have retarded the UK desire to kill a valuable set of colonies rather than just a few islands where the sugar cane system required trade to do mortality”

    I agree that this calculation would have been made, but I dispute the result of that calculation

    Each one of those few islands generated more revenue than all of mainland British North America combined

    Slave worked tobacco plantations made a hand full of plantation owners very rich, but that does not translate into being “a valuable set of colonies” to the Crown

  16. jefft452:

    “the damage that the existence of slavery did to all who were touched by the system. Slave or Master, no one benefited”

    bullshit

  17. Walt:

    What, so if you’re not willing to say that Jefferson did anything to end slavery, you are automatically “going full Revisionist”? Like these are the only two options?

  18. DrDick:

    There is also the fact that most of the slave merchants importing slaves from Africa were New Englanders. Northern textile mills also depended on cheap slave produced cotton for their success. Many of the Northern universities have substantial endowments from the profits of slavery. There were even significant numbers of slaves in the North in the Early Republic, though nowhere near the scale of the South.

  19. Scott Lemieux:

    Rather than shackling Jefferson to modern attitudes

    Jesus, can people stop debating this strawman already? Anyway, the “revisionism” here is the guy arguing that Jefferson did more to end slavery than almost anyone else in human history.

  20. Erik Loomis:

    If Jefferson had really meant “all men are created equal” or wanted to do something to end human slavery, he also could have respected the nation of Haiti. But he completely ignored the Haitian attempt to build closer ties between the two nations.

  21. Observer:

    jon,

    Thanks for the honest and interesting comment.

    I find the need to attempt to destroy the founders or the constitution fascinating. It’s no surprise, really, since the constitution is one of the major impediments to the radical change this crowd would like to see.

    And while the constitution provides for change, it’s only possible if most the people agree on those changes. That will never happen for the radical socialists and communists that want a different order.

    All of this degradation of the constitution and the belittling of the founders is necessary for their agenda.

  22. Uncle Kvetch:

    It’s true, you know. We’d have the juche we crave now if it weren’t for that meddling Constitution and its pesky dog.

    More pancakes?

  23. Observer:

    Hi Erik,

    I think you’re deliberately ignoring the fact that in much of the industrialized world at that time, savage black people from tribes in Africa were not considered “people” in the modern sense. If they were, how could anyone defend slavery?

    If you look at some of the diaries and even some of the sermons preached, the prevailing view is that they were not.

    Just as flat-earthers were proven wrong, are they now to be ridiculed for holding the prevailing scientific views?

  24. Anonymous:

    the Founders compromised on slavery because several foresaw the immanent elimination of slavery through economic causes. They were proved wrong but that doesn’t change their intent i.e. put up with slavery for a while to get the country on it’s feet. Whether or not you like that decision, that’s the decision they made & we can only speculate about alternatives.

    This makes the common but incredibly mistaken error to attribute a unified mentality to “the founders” regarding intent of the constitutional order they created. Some of them had such hopes. Others wanted the institution of slavery protected. There was no single “founders” plan at work here.

  25. scott:

    Wow. The Declaration of Independence AS “very influential” and full of “any number of noble sentiments?” Too generous. i suppose the fact that Lincoln explicitly based most if not all of his ideological commitments on the Declaration is just one of those fun facts of history that we shouldn’t make too much of? Really, I’m all in favor of Jefferson de-mythologizing, but reading the Declaration of Independence out of American history as a source of sometimes radical political action swings the pendulum a bit too far the other way. It may be convenient for your admitted project of pooh-poohing the effect of words and “noble sentiments” on political action, but it’s force-fitting what actually happened to your own point of view.

  26. Joshua Buhs:

    HI Observer,

    Who are these flat-earthers?

  27. Leeds man:

    the flaws and failings of Jefferson’s personal life and behavior are so far from the high flying prose and noble sentiments of his political work and public persona.

    You could say that about a lot of serial killers as well. I think flaws and failings stop being personal well on this side of the conscious brutal exploitation of hundreds of people.

  28. JoyfulA:

    Did I not read that the latest approved Texas history outline does away with a unit on Jefferson and adds a unit on Phyllis Schlaffley?

  29. Leeds man:

    Magna Carta next, motherfuckers!

  30. DrDick:

    For the reading impaired, the contrast made here is between Jefferson’s words and his actions, which are in clear contradiction.

  31. DrDick:

    Observer and his fellow travelers.

  32. joe from Lowell:

    He was one of the more intellectual founders, more bookish and genuinely philosophical, and less muscular or mercantile.

    Indeed, and as the article (did you read it?) demonstrates at great length, he devoted a great deal of that intellect to advancing an ideology of white supremacy.

    Perhaps he’s insufficiently muscular and heroic for judgmental lefties and history profs, for them to comfortably accept the large role he had in shaping the nation.

    Yes, that must be it: lefties and history profs are devoted to the muscular and militarist. Umwut?

    And perhaps it’s also that the flaws and failings of Jefferson’s personal life

    The linked article (did you read it?) is not about Jefferson’s “personal life,” but rather, his contribution to the intellectual and political development of our country. It just happens to focus in on as aspect of that contribution that you don’t want to acknowledge.

  33. joe from Lowell:

    Complicity and hypocrisy is not Jefferson’s lone burden, it belongs to all of the Founding Fathers and revolutionaries.

    None of the other slave-holding Founding Fathers are commonly idealized as anti-slavery figures.

  34. joe from Lowell:

    I find the need to attempt to destroy the founders or the constitution fascinating.

    For my part, I find the need to distort criticism of American political figures into straw-man arguments, and to label it insultingly, in an effort to shut it down completely and maintain a juvenile hagiography, quite tedious and uninteresting.

  35. joe from Lowell:

    I think this is a good point.

    The case for rewriting Jefferson’s hagiography is not that his contributions were less than advertised (except, perhaps, the silly “did more than anyone else to end slavery” bit, which is itself revisionism from even the old hagiography), but that his demerits need to count for more.

  36. Marc:

    Jefferson catalyzed the end of the divine right of kings. He fiercely supported separating the religious from the civil sphere. Both aspects were closely tied to maintaining the rigid “chain of being” social structure that made things like slavery possible.

    The indirect effects of what people like Jefferson did are extremely powerful. Defining him solely in terms of direct action on slavery ignores the actual context of the time and place where he lived, and takes all of his other accomplishments for granted without giving him the corresponding credit.

    I’ll cut the author of the Jefferson Bible, the opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the architect of the wall of separation of church and state considerably more charity than I see among those for whom his entire life begins and ends as a slaveowner, thus evil and without any value.

  37. DrDick:

    And this is relevant to anything, other than acknowledging the obvious fact that America and Europe were overwhelmingly racist in the 18th and 19th centuries?

  38. joe from Lowell:

    You are misrepresenting history.

    Slavery in the Americas predates the pseudo-scientific claim that black people were not people. They were recognized as such for centuries under the colonial regimes. Black people owned property, including other black people, in the southern colonies, for instance. They were sometimes considered indentured servants, and given their freedom at the end of their terms of service.

    Prior to the rise of Enlightenment ideology, there was simply no problem with people owning other people. It was thought to be a natural order that some people would be slaves. The pseudo-science you wish to use as a cause of racist ideology and political arrangements wasn’t invented until late in the game, to gin up an excuse why the racism and slavery that long predated it were acceptable within a system that purported to endorse equality and universal rights – and Thomas Jefferson contributed as much to this project as anyone.

  39. Malaclypse:

    I’m starting to believe that Jennie’s claim to be a black man may have been somewhat less than completely accurate.

    Probably an honest mistake though.

  40. joe from Lowell:

    those for whom his entire life begins and ends as a slaveowner, thus evil and without any value.

    I’m going to keep saying this for as long as people keep writing comments like yours: the critics of Jefferson here are not talking about his “private life” as a slaveowner, but are just as focused on his intellectual and political contributions – his “public life” as a major political actor and thinker – as you are.

  41. Observer:

    Prior to the rise of Enlightenment ideology, there was simply no problem with people owning other people. It was thought to be a natural order that some people would be slaves.

    Exactly!

    Thank you for expressing so eloquently the real issue.

  42. The Dark Avenger:

    Where’s my ice tea Soviet, MF?

  43. Malaclypse:

    I’m stunned to discover that Jennie does not actually know when the Enlightenment was. Nobody could have seen that coming, given his normal well-informed and lucid commentary.

  44. The Dark Avenger:

    If he/she is from the American South, 5 will get you 10 that she/he has single nucleotide polymorphisms that can be traced back to the African continent.

  45. joe from Lowell:

    Since we’re talking about Thomas Jefferson, who was not “before the Enlightenment,” but rather, a major Enlightenment figure in his own right, and since we’re discussing an article that demonstrates the great efforts he went to in his quest to defined enslaved black people as non-persons, the pre-Enlightenment attitude about the rightness of owning people is most certainly not “the real issue” when it comes to Jefferson’s relationship to slavery.

    Actually, the “real” issue is that Jefferson helped make sure that the new, Enlightenment-era contradiction between the idea of universal rights, and the existence of a system in which some people were held as slaves, was resolved by defining those people as non-persons, rather than by extending the newly-appreciated rights to them.

  46. joe from Lowell:

    I’m stunned to discover that Jennie does not actually know when the Enlightenment was.

    He also thinks that “the industrialized world” existed in the time of Thomas Jefferson.

  47. David Mathias:

    a particularly brutal form of slavery persisted for upwards of a century after the Declaration in the states governed by Jefferson’s fellow southern political elites, and it it had to be vanquished not through voluntary emancipation but through an extraordinarily bloody military conflict. And then after the Civil War, in spite of the Declaration the states controlled by Jefferson’s heirs maintained apartheid police states

    I wish that I knew more about American history. I want to believe that particularly brutal (compared to what?) slavery and apartheid states would have lasted even longer in the U.S. (of course, their unhappy legacies still exist), as they did in other parts of the Americas, without the noble sentiments of Thomas Jefferson. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Does anybody know a lot about John Calhoun? I suspect that he was an important figure in taking the unstable racist liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and turning it into an early form of U.S. conservatism.

  48. joe from Lowell:

    particularly brutal (compared to what?) slavery

    Compared to other forms of slavery throughout history. Roman slaves were better off than Louisiana slaves, for instance. People enslaved by other Africans.

  49. Another Jon:

    compared to what?

    It’s pretty common knowledge (except among US slavery apologists) that the American (and, to be fair, Carribbean) institutions of slavery are among the most brutal that have ever existed. Slavery has been a common world-historical phenomenon, and it’s always terrible, but few other slave regimes have featured the total absence of slave rights with the culture of cruelty and dehumanization that characterized American slavery.

  50. Malaclypse:

    as they did in other parts of the Americas

    Except most of the world, and large parts of the Americas, got rid of slavery both earlier, and without a civil war.

  51. DrDick:

    This is true pretty much everywhere before capitalism. It is better framed as mercantile slavery than specifically American, as this was also the system employed by all the European powers from about 1600 onward. It gets associated with the Americas because there were not many slaves in Europe at that time.

  52. Joe:

    Jefferson set forth some principles as to liberty and democracy that others took more seriously in action than he did, but he is to be honored with proper nuance for them all the same.

    It is important here to note, as he did himself, that the ideals weren’t just his. He was chosen to write the DOI because of his literary skills. The actual principles were shared by many, some who were more willing to put them in action, even in the slave south (e.g., the era had a big expansion of free blacks even there). Ideals need good promotion and organization (see his Democratic Party), so he played an important role here. If we don’t take this too far, it’s okay to honor him for it up to a point.

    Meanwhile, he promoted a view of scientific racism and is rightly (and was even at the time) scorned some for being an ivy tower sort of idealist that isn’t willing to put his money where his mouth is. This tendency to bend his ideals to some extent shows his value (see Louisiana) as a realist but at some point he was hypocrite.

    This is not shocking but the scorn of the op-ed is appropriate to the degree others are blind to the fact. He also shallowly supported even violent revolution that also inspired later traitors.

    Finally, as noted, the DOI itself etc. only did so much. The next generation unlike Jefferson saw a true application of the principles would require actually changing the slave system, the hard work Jefferson didn’t want to do and in fact feared to do. This generation used his words, in a mythical sort of way, as helpful to their cause. This has a power, but like other myths, we need not actually take it totally at face value.

  53. joe from Lowell:

    “American” in the sense of “North and South America” would be best. The condition of slaves in the European Caribbean, Central American, and tropical South American colonies was even worse than in almost all parts of the U.S.A. and its predecessor colonies.

  54. Hogan:

    That was Marx and Darwin, right?

  55. Hogan:

    Lincoln wasn’t writing academic history; Linooln was telling a story intended to advance the cause of anti-slavery by locating its origin in the heart of slaveowning. It was a good and highly effective story, and he told it well. Doesn’t make it literally true.

  56. Hogan:

    This generation used his words, in a mythical sort of way, as helpful to their cause.

    Really? The entire generation? Then why did we have a civil war?

  57. joe from Lowell:

    What part of the phrase “very influential” do you consider to be contradicted by your observation that it influenced Lincoln?

    What part of “very influential” strikes you as “reading the Declaration of Independence out of American history as a source of sometimes radical political action?”

  58. Xof:

    Much of it is that history, at least at the secondary school level, is taught in a way that complete elides the problems of slavery from the Revolution: The United States was the perfect flowering of Enlightenment thought, and then somewhat later the Civil War appeared out of nowhere… quelle surprise!

    Jefferson as real person with extremely complex thoughts and behaviors fits badly into that narrative.

    I’m not going to decide that, in fact, all men are not created equal no matter how terrible Jefferson was to his slaves. But everyone wants to reduce their emotional transaction costs: It’s easier to adopt Jefferson as a hero than to sort through what he actually did and evaluate it.

    And, of course, the United States has always had a near-psychotic inability to stare slavery in the face and understand what it meant for the country, then and now.

  59. joe from Lowell:

    The next generation unlike Jefferson saw a true application of the principles would require actually changing the slave system…

    Well, some of them did. The problem is, the other half of that generation saw that a true application of the principles would require them to defend their “property rights and state sovereignty.”

    This generation used his words, in a mythical sort of way, as helpful to their cause.

    Yes. Both sides of that generation, and they were both right. Both the abolitionists and the slavers found very strong grounding for their causes in the words of Jefferson.

  60. joe from Lowell:

    I think things have changed quite a bit, though. To a large extent, the people who were Civil War/slavery revisionists in the 1960s have won, and the keepers of the old Jefferson hagiography are fighting a rear-guard action.

    Of course, this being America, progress is uneven.

  61. Robert Halford:

    I’m no Jefferson apologist, and David Post’s point was not well-taken. Nonetheless:

    1) In Jefferson’s period, and throughout the nineteenth century to come, the notion that (a) slavery was wrong but (b) black people were “naturally” socially, morally, and intellectually inferior to whites, was not the pro-slavery, maximally racist position. It was the position held by white progressives — you can see it equally in radical abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens, or their descendants like the first Justice Harlan. White radicals believed that all had equal rights under the law (or to traditionally-defined “public” accommodations, like transportation), but only a vanishing minority of the radical minority believed that blacks were in fact intellectually, morally, and socially equal to whites. Even during radical reconstruction, the idea was that blacks were to be guaranteed legal and political equality, but the white defenders of reconstruction retained a strong belief in the natural and social inferiority of blacks. Thus, Jefferson’s positions as stated in Notes on the State of Virginia and quoted by Robin, while abhorrent, were not only theoretically compatible with abolition and the granting of civil and social rights to blacks — they were in fact held by many of the most racially “progressive” whites of the nineteenth century.

    2) I don’t think we want to overstate Jefferson’s personal contribution to the doctrine of scientific racism. To the extent that it was an outgrowth of post-1800 self-interest by southern slaveholders, it was more or less inevitable anyway. And even in strict intellectual history terms, Jefferson himself was not a lodestar (I don’t believe) for the scientific-racism component of the antebellum southern racist writers, although of course they aligned themselves closely with Jefferson’s states-rights doctrines and the like.

    3) Until at least 1800 and the rise of the cotton economy in the United States, the predominant notion among the founders (both North and South) was that slavery was a wrong that would eventually, with the passage of time, wither away. There then would be a question of what to do about the slaves that remained and how they might be integrated (or not integrated) into the nation. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (the prime evidence for Jefferson’s scientific racism) was published in this period and on this assumption. Jefferson was not so much “justifying” or opposing slavery as posing the intellectual problem of what to do upon (what was then thought to be) its inevitable decline and end. It’s important not to conflate the debate during this period with the post-1815 debate over what to do about a dominant and expansionary slave power.

    *By the end of his life, both the South and Jefferson had changed, and he was shocked by the Missouri compromise debate and willing to defend the expansion of slavery into the territories.

  62. Joseph Slater:

    Exactly. The idea — repeated in the comments to Post’s post — that treating slaves cruelly even by the standards of the time can be dismissed as part of someone’s “personal” life is astounding. Did we all miss that part of feminism 101 where we learned that wife-beating was, on a fundamental level, not a “personal” failing?

  63. Xof:

    It’s why Jefferson-as-actual-person is a fascinating character, and well worth exploring, much more so than either the Evil Genius or Secular Saint readings. My reading is that he was far too smart a man not to at least be aware of his own both hypocrisy and contradictions, and the hypocrisy and contradictions of the forming nation. But an intelligent person can rationalize as readily as reason, and he could not see a way out of the contradictions that did not come at (to him) an unacceptably high personal cost.

    Cowardly? Yes, without question. But the behavior of a human being, rather than an icon.

    I recognize that Jefferson, throughout history (and in myself).

  64. Joey Maloney:

    That was me, btw, posting before sufficient coffee of my own.

  65. Jeffrey Beaumont:

    I think the point about slavery changing around the turn of the nineteenth century, with the expansion of cotton growing in the South is a good point. The context and expectations did indeed change.

    I think the rest of Mr. Hartford’s point are solid as well. I think a lot of the apparent vehemence behind this accurate reconsideration of Jefferson has to do with the fact that he is usually the darling of the revolutionary generation. The bigger they are the harder they fall, etc.

  66. Mike Schilling:

    upwards of a century after the Declaration

    No.

  67. Hogan:

    Closer to four score and seven, surely.

  68. PatrickG:

    Just following the example of the OP…

    The leaders who risked (and in many cases) scarified their lives before and after the Civil War…

    Typos are fun, forgive me for a bit of gentle poking.

  69. Pestilence:

    Jefferson Oliver Cromwell catalyzed the end of the divine right of kings

    FTFY

  70. Bijan Parsia:

    In contrast, much of the critique of Jefferson seems to spring from an insistence to freight him with the responsibility to have been fully congruent with the most progressive of modern attitudes.

    Exactly not! Part of what’s interested me about the more recent revisionism that I’ve encountered is the evidence that not only was Jefferson was a slaveowner (which I knew), a hypocrite slaveowner (which I also knew), but a nasty,cruel slaveowner (I wasn’t so aware of) and a money driven hypocrite (i.e., his sentiments and moral judgement yielded to his desire for cash).

    I think we can fairly judge him by the standards of his time, in light of his times, by his own ideals, as well as by what we think is right now.

    Contrariwise, I find a lot of these “BUT WHAT ABOUT HIS ERA!” moves to have the effect of squelching sound evaluation.

  71. Joe:

    First, don’t take my words so literally, and if you do, JFL has the right idea — different groups used it mythically in promotion of different ends.

  72. Joe:

    This is good as a whole and #2 shows we shouldn’t exaggerate Jefferson as a symbol good or bad. As to #3, as noted, “Jefferson” includes what he did later in his life, so the change in slavery is notable but can fit into the discussion of “Jefferson” overall.

  73. David Mathias:

    I stand by what I wrote on this blog comment, either as a question or openly acknowledging that I could be wrong.

    I think it is more relevant to compare slavery in the U.S. to other forms of slavery in the New World as opposed to slavery in the Old World.

    Also, the fact that British, French and Spanish America (although not Brazil) abandoned slavery before the U.S. (ignoring the question of when they abandoned apartheid police states) does not change the fact that many of those countries are characterized by poverty, exaggerated inequality, and political instability, which I am ready to say is in part caused by an ingrained resentment by the elite for the descendants of slaves (and of American Indian peons), which has not been as significant in the U.S. I am willing to believe that the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and similar figures is an important reason why the U.S. is different from those other American countries (not that they are bad places but that their unresolved issues from slavery seem to have been even more intense than in the U.S.).

    If you want to disagree with my openness to these possibilities, then that is fine.

  74. joe from Lowell:

    Northern textile mills also depended on cheap slave produced cotton for their success.

    Much to the credit of the Lowell National Historic Park, the first thing you see when entering the Visitor’s Center is a large bale of cotton, complemented by pictures of slaves in the fields.

  75. joe from Lowell:

    many of those countries are characterized by poverty, exaggerated inequality, and political instability, which I am ready to say is in part caused by an ingrained resentment by the elite for the descendants of slaves (and of American Indian peons), which has not been as significant in the U.S.

    When comparing the United States to other former slave nations in the Western Hemisphere, I would suggest that the larger difference is the presence of a majority non-slave region of the US. There were no “free states” Haiti, El Salvador, or Brazil, whereas in the US, the free states were dominant.

    Slavery was ended in the Dominican Republic and Belize when the European powers ended it for them, and then later, they became independent. If the Union had ended slavery in the Confederacy, and then the Confederacy had been granted independence, it would have been just as “characterized by poverty, exaggerated inequality, and political instability” as Latin America, Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding.

  76. DrDick:

    I don’t fundamentally disagree with this, though I have not seen any evidence that the few slaves living in Europe were treated any better than house slaves (which is what most of them were there) here. I just think it lets the Europeans off too lightly, since the slave laws and policies in the Americas initially were established in Europe.

  77. David Mathias:

    Maybe Thomas Jefferson’s importance for human rights is more international than just in the U.S., so the entire world would have emerged from societies based on the exploitation of slavery more slowly and painfully if not for Jefferson and his colleagues.

  78. joe from Lowell:

    I didn’t mean to suggest they were. In that sentence, “European” is supposed to modify “Caribbean, Central American, and tropical South American colonies.”

    I wasn’t even thinking about slaves in Europe itself.

  79. DrDick:

    That is why I prefer the framing “mercantile slavery”, as it avoids those kinds of confusions. I actually understood what you meant, but was simply pointing out the potential for misunderstanding (well documented in this exchange, FWIW).

  80. Ian:

    Prior to the rise of Enlightenment ideology, there was simply no problem with people owning other people.

    In post-classical Europe there was virtually no slavery. Serfdom and indentured servitude, certainly, but Europeans were not treated as property to be bought and sold. (Excluding “the traffic in women,” which is a very specific kind of buying and selling.) Yet these same European nations showed no moral difficulty in rapidly enslaving huge numbers of Africans and Native Americans. For the European and American slaving nations there was always a fundamental difference between Europeans and Africans; the pseudo-scientific discourse (which of course persists today) is merely its latest iteration.

  81. T. Paine:

    Also, the fact that British, French and Spanish America (although not Brazil) abandoned slavery before the U.S. (ignoring the question of when they abandoned apartheid police states) does not change the fact that many of those countries are characterized by poverty, exaggerated inequality, and political instability, which I am ready to say is in part caused by an ingrained resentment by the elite for the descendants of slaves (and of American Indian peons), which has not been as significant in the U.S. I am willing to believe that the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and similar figures is an important reason why the U.S. is different from those other American countries (not that they are bad places but that their unresolved issues from slavery seem to have been even more intense than in the U.S.).

    Wait, what? Are you forgetting about how whites used violence and unconstitutional discrimination to keep black people from voting/amassing wealth/going to white schools/etc. until the 1970s? How black people, in general, have less wealth than white because of government discrimination through the same time period? How this sort of thing persists unofficially today (not as widespread or effective, but still present)?

    Seriously, what do you even mean when you talk about “ingrained resentment by the elite for the descendants of slaves…[not being] as significant in the U.S.?” Did you miss the most recent election, and the voter-ID chicanery that accompanied it in states where the neo-Confederates run things?

    Your thesis makes no sense.

  82. James E. Powell:

    I was going to say the same thing and add a reference to the Glorious Revolution almost 100 years earlier.

  83. ajay:

    In post-classical Europe there was virtually no slavery. Serfdom and indentured servitude, certainly, but Europeans were not treated as property to be bought and sold.

    No, that’s rubbish. Sorry, but it is. What do you think the Ottomans were doing? The Almohads? The Mongols? The Vikings? Look at Wikipedia, “Slavery in mediaeval Europe”, for some hints.

  84. joe from Lowell:

    Ian,

    Your comment is a description of which people post-classical Europeans thought could be owned and enslaved (non-Europeans). It doesn’t rebut the point that they had no problem with buying and selling people. White American slavers didn’t enslave other white Americans, either.

  85. Malaclypse:

    Reagan, in Jennie’s world.

  86. Joseph Slater:

    Yes, and missing that was one of the many jaw-dropping blind spots/errors in Post’s piece that didn’t get enough attention in the VC comments.

  87. DrDick:

    If you go back about 100,000 years, we are all black Africans.

  88. Joseph Slater:

    That seems to be taking the great man theory of history past the breaking point. There were plenty of contemporaries, in the U.S. and abroad, who were actually anti-slavery, and I’m guessing that — especially in other countries — they did a lot more to end slavery.

  89. cpinva:

    i would not be at all surprised.

    Did I not read that the latest approved Texas history outline does away with a unit on Jefferson and adds a unit on Phyllis Schlaffley?

    the texas school board (the body that approves all primary/secondary textbooks for the entire state) is commonly known for its aversion to actually educating texas’ children, prefering instead to inculcating them with fundamentalist religious crap. it is no surprise then when these children reach majority, they become rick perry.

  90. cpinva:

    horseshit.

    All of this degradation of the constitution and the belittling of the founders is necessary for their agenda.

    boo-fucking-hoo. the only “agenda” here is putting both in a more realistic light. instead of making them demi-gods, legitimate historical reseach points out their humanness, making anything they did subject to their weaknesses and failings as humans, including the constitution. i mean, it’s not like slavery had any real impact on the country or anything, now is it?

  91. Scott Lemieux:

    Or, in other words, upwards of a century.

  92. Hogan:

    I always thought “upwards of” meant “more than.”

  93. jrkrideau:

    Jefferson? What about William Wilberforce or even Sir Guy Carleton?

  94. Monstrous but not alien | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

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  95. mpowell:

    I’m not really sure I’d give Cromwell all that much credit, but it seems to me that what was going on in England was a lot more important than what was going on in the US. The King of England was already a severely limited position in 1776 compared to a Louis XIV and I kind of doubt that the full transition to parliamentary authority in the UK was impacted much by US goings on. It’s customary to pretend that the US had a big impact on the rest of the world, and maybe the French at the time made a big deal out of it because it was more palatable than admitting they were taking their example from the English, but I doubt Jefferson or the US had much to do with the rest of the western world moving in a democratic direction from then on.

    Of course, given how significant the US eventually became, insuring a relatively strong democracy in the US was quite a valuable thing in the late 18th century. But in 100 years when historians look back on the US republic’s descent into a one-party fascist state and the subsequent world war that results maybe the founders will not be remembered so fondly for locking the US into a far too unrepresentative and unresponsive bicameral legislature and presidential system with a very high burden for constitutional reform. (hopefully not)

  96. mpowell:

    To be fair, it is pretty valuable to an agenda of honest consideration of the value of certain dangerous and destructive governance norms that we give attention to the actual history that gave rise to them instead of pathetic hagiography.

  97. ajay:

    I’m not really sure I’d give Cromwell all that much credit

    He raised a rebellion against the last King of England who ever claimed the divine right to rule, and beheaded him for tyranny. That was a bit of a shift in attitudes.

  98. stjust:

    In defense of history

    A serious—that is to say, objective and materialist—assessment of Jefferson views his role in the context of broader social processes. As Engels said in his brilliant pamphlet Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: “To ascertain the driving causes which here in the minds of acting masses and their leaders—the so called great men—are reflected as conscious motives, clearly or unclearly, directly or in an ideological, even glorified, form—is the only path which can put us on the track of the laws holding sway both in history as a whole, and at particular periods and in particular lands. Everything that sets men in motion must go through their minds; but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much on circumstances.”

    The fact that Jefferson freed only a handful of his slaves during the period when slave labor flourished internationally does not necessarily prove him to be a hypocrite. As his writings indicate, he did not believe an immediate and total abolition of slavery was desirable or possible. Further, he questioned whether whites and former slaves could live together peacefully, given the prejudices of the former and the bitterness of the latter.

    Jefferson’s views on the question of race are frequently presented in a one-sided fashion, equating his speculations at one point about black inferiority with the rantings of modern white supremacists. Jefferson’s views on this question evolved, and he evinced a generally enlightened and compassionate attitude toward the victims of slavery.

    Writing to the accomplished black mathematician Benjamin Banneker in 1791, he said, “Nobody wishes more than I do to see … proofs that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America. I can add with truth that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit.”

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/1998/dec1998/jeff-d31.shtml

  99. Hogan:

    There were precedents for colonies revolting against and breaking away from their mother countries and establishing republican institutions (the Netherlands, for one). There were no precedents for trying and executing an anointed king. (Assassination, yes, but not an official judicial process.)

  100. Joe:

    Yes. It was a type of myth. This is a good month to think about myths. Problems do arise when people take them too literally and/or miss some important context.

  101. rea:

    He raised a rebellion against the last King of England who ever claimed the divine right to rule

    The coins still say, “Elizabeth II D. G. Reg.”

    Queen by the grace of God . . .

  102. Hogan:

    And by the Act of Settlement 1701.

  103. pluky:

    “savage black people from tribes in Africa.”

    WTF – try people kidnapped, or from conquered less powerful nations, in Africa. The myth that West Africans at the time of the slave trade were “savages” bereft of art, learning, craft and all the other accoutrements of high culture is just that, a myth.

  104. mpowell:

    I guess it depends on how much the events served as precedent. After Cromwell died 10 years later, the royals returned so this didn’t obviously represent the turning point. I’m fully prepared to believe that Cromwell mattered a large amount in shifting perspective. Here I would defer to a historian’s opinion regarding how much Cromwell’s actions enabled the Glorious Revolution, which seemed to me to more directly lead to the shift in the power structure of England’s government (since the new arrangements were not overturned soon after) or whether Cromwell’s temporary success was merely a reflection of already changing attitudes.

  105. Hogan:

    If you’re trying to tell me the frost giants aren’t really winning and Skoll isn’t about to catch the sun chariot, then I shall have to wish you good day, sir. I said good day!

  106. Rob Major:

    And guess who sits on the Expert Panel to which the Texas State Board of Education looks for guidance for its history curriculum? None other than David Barton, the far right Christian Nationalist charlatan pseudo-historian who wrote … wait for it … the aptly named “The Jefferson Lies,” which was so full of nonsense that its publisher eventually pulled the book off the shelves out of sheer embarrassment.

    Didn’t you people know that Jefferson was a born again, bible-believing evangelical Christian? (I suppose this would explain one thing — TJ’s skill at saying one thing and doing another). Yessiree, just ask Mr. Barton, he’ll explain how he knows that to be the gospel truth.

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  108. ajay:

    Not the same thing.

  109. ajay:

    There were no precedents for trying and executing an anointed king. (Assassination, yes, but not an official judicial process.)

    That’s the real key. Kings had been overthrown many, many times by superior force – usurpation, invasion, revolt – but the idea that you could try a king in a court of law was a new one.

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