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When Talking About Slavery, Words Really Matter

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This is a few days old, but it is still worth a mention. When archaeologists discovered Sally Hemings’ cabin at Monticello, NBC News and many other news outlets reported it the cabin of Jefferson’s “mistress.” The problem of course is that mistress implies some sort of choice, whereas Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s sex slave. Using euphemisms, whether to protect Jefferson’s reputation or simply by accident reinforces the racial equality at the heart of the American nation that so many white people either deny or don’t want to talk about. And that’s not OK.

Language like that elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jefferson’s mistress; she was his property. And he raped her.

Such revisionist history about slavery is, unfortunately, still quite common. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “whitewashed ” version of its social studies curriculum that referred to enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” and minimized slavery’s impact on the Civil War. One concerned parent spoke out, forcing a textbook publisher to revise some of the teaching materials.

That same sanitization of history happened again with the Hemings news. On Twitter, some users defended the “mistress” label, suggesting, essentially, that Jefferson and his slave may have truly loved each other. One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

Jefferson could have forced Hemings into a sexual relationship no matter what she wanted, though. And it’s impossible to know what Hemings thought of Jefferson. As with many enslaved people, her thoughts, feelings and emotions were not documented. According to Monticello.org, there are only four known descriptions of the woman who first came to Jefferson’s plantation as a baby on the hip of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whom Jefferson also owned.

Jefferson, an avid writer, never mentioned Hemings in his work. He did, however, grapple with issues of emancipation throughout his life. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson spent a substantial section attempting to answer the question, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence [sic] of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Despite fathering Hemings’s children, Jefferson argued against race mixing because black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Other slave-owning founders rose above the times to change their minds about the dreadful institution — including Ben Franklin, who became an outspoken abolitionist later in life, and George Washington, who freed his enslaved servants in his will. But Jefferson did no such thing. He owned 607 men, women and children at Monticello, and though some argue that he “loved” Hemings, he granted freedom to only two people while he was alive and five people in his will — and never to her.

One can still argue Thomas Jefferson was a critical individual in the development of the United States and even that he had great and noble ideas and still note that he had a sex slave and was a massive hypocrite, even for his time. I won’t accept an argument that Jefferson was a good president because he was not, but sure, go ahead and try to make the argument. But none of this is served well by covering up for Jefferson’s long-term rape of a slave. The forced sexual labor of African slaves is as central to American history as the Declaration of Independence or any other idea developed by the Founders. We simply cannot understand the United States, then and now, without placing sex slavery at the middle of the conversation. Yet for many white people, even acknowledging this is a step too far to take.

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  • Veleda_k

    One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted
    wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was
    perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

    Oh, gag me.

    • jmwallach

      Probably relatively common practice at Monticello.

    • Origami Isopod

      I was completely unshocked to see that the writer of that nauseating quote was an older white male liberal. I wonder what his dK handle is.

    • Hogan

      What “change” would that be? Jefferson never freed a slave in his life.

      • Maggielle

        Not arguing with you. I just wish I could know more about Sally Hemings. She was dealt the worst of hands: a slave woman and the prey of a powerful slave owner. But somehow – and we don’t know how, because she left no written record – she worked that problem the best she could. None of her children was ever sold further south. She kept her family together. In her final years, she was “given her time” and allowed to spend the last years of her life living with her youngest sons. How she managed her life and theirs is remarkable. “Agent of change”? Bullroar. Somehow she carved out a measure of agency in spite of her enslavement.

        I’m basing this impression on what I’ve read, so I am happy to be corrected or criticized.

        • Origami Isopod

          One of the shittiest things about history as it’s taught and as it’s widely regarded is how these amazing little stories get buried and forgotten because the people behind them weren’t (and still aren’t) regarded as fully human.

          Not that this is the main reason to teach them, but if we did, I think we’d see a lot more kids energized to learn about history in general.

        • sapient

          Somehow she carved out a measure of agency in spite of her enslavement.

          I agree with this, yet people here find it necessary to speak for her as if they knew what she thought and felt, which takes away the legacy of any agency that she may have had.

          • sapient

            Let me add that historical fiction can make a significant contribution to our attempt to understand the lives of historical figures. But we shouldn’t confuse it with fact, especially when the subject of the fictional portrait was unable to leave a record of her own. it’s very plausible that Sally Hemings felt raped and victimized, and that much of her life was a horror to her. But it’s possible that it wasn’t like that. I’m not trying to give Jefferson the benefit of the doubt so much as to call into question our assumptions about people’s emotional lives based on their legal circumstances.

            • Veleda_k

              You know, you’re right. Maybe Hemmings loved being a slave. Maybe Jefferson offered to free her, and she said no, I love slavery.

              And maybe Jewish people who were forcibly converted in Europe for hundreds of years were really tired of Judaism. Hell, maybe some of those third class passengers who died on the Titanic were suicidal. I mean, we don’t know. And clearly, when we can’t know for sure, the single most vital thing we can do is “just ask questions” about how maybe historical human rights abuses and tragedies weren’t all that bad. And if we can derail the conversation away from the concerns of women of color who are trying to grapple with historical oppression, then that’s even better. Hey, if those women wanted us to care about them, they should have been born 18th century white women.

              • sapient

                You know, you’re right. Maybe Hemmings loved being a slave. Maybe Jefferson offered to free her, and she said no, I love slavery.

                I didn’t say this. Being dishonest about what people say doesn’t help us find the truth.

                • Veleda_k

                  So, you’re saying she didn’t love being a slave? How do you know? Did she tell you? How terrible of you, to make assumptions about how she felt.

                • sapient

                  The institution of slavery was (and is) wrong. Projecting my feelings onto other people whose experience I can only imagine makes no difference to my belief that depriving people of basic human freedom (including sexual choice) is wrong.

  • ploeg

    There are those who refer to the fact that this all started in Paris and wonder why Hemmings accompanied Jefferson back to the United States instead of staying behind in France. This sort of reasoning glosses over the near certainty that neither the Bourbon monarchy nor the early French revolutionary government would have wanted to alienate Jefferson specifically or the United States in general by releasing a slave from bondage. More to the point, it’s doubtful that the French were very much more egalitarian with regards to race than Americans were, as indeed is arguably the case today.

    • Murc

      This sort of reasoning glosses over the near certainty that neither the
      Bourbon monarchy nor the early French revolutionary government would
      have wanted to alienate Jefferson specifically or the United States in
      general by releasing a slave from bondage.

      France had already done that, in fact. Longstanding French legal precedent at the time was that slaves who came to France were automatically freed upon setting foot on French soil. If the Hemmings had declined to go America with Jefferson he could have (legally) done jack shit to compel them by force; the French courts and legal officers would have been all “slavery has been illegal here for over four hundred years, and this woman is not your wife; you cannot get her to go anywhere with you.”

      Of course, Jefferson probably had other means of compulsion at his disposal besides mere force.

      More to the point, it’s doubtful that the French were very much more egalitarian with regards to race than Americans were

      Compared to America at the time, France’s views on race were massively enlightened. I’m not going to say good, because Haiti truly was a circle of hell, but they didn’t have the same sort of grotesque caste system present in America at the time.

      Put it this way. The French put a black man in charge of one of their armies. Try and imagine, in America at the same time, a black officer giving orders to a whole army of white officers and white soldiers. That generals son, a fellow you may have heard of named Alexandre Dumas, obtained access to the highest levels of French society in ways that would have been absolutely impossible for someone of similar ancestry in America no matter the circumstances.

      • gogiggs

        The history of Haiti is just a non-stop shameshow.

      • sonamib

        I’ll grant you that : the French were very good at separating metropolitan law from colonial law. In the colonies, apartheid and slavery were institutionalized, but in France proper that would be too distateful.

  • sapient

    Although I don’t disagree with anything you say here, Erik, women generally were considered property of their husbands, and certainly had no real right to deny their husbands sexual relations. If one is going to speculate about the emotional relationships that existed between people, one should consider that love might have existed even when choice did not.

    I’m glad we’ve evolved somewhat, for now.

    • Erik Loomis

      Yes, and the Early Republic was a period of massive, unchecked, and horrifying rape and domestic violence that often included the killing of women. Who can tell if Jefferson and Hemings loved each other? We can know that a) he never freed her, b) he raped her at the age of 14, c) she never had a choice in the matter.

      • The Wet One

        Simply because I’m relatively uneducated about that period, could you provide me with the name of a book or a citation for your statement above?

        I never thought that period was that bad, but then I’ve never thought a lot of things. Help a guy out in disabusing himself of his ignorance if you would.

        Thanks in advance!

        • Kevin

          Wait…you never thought the 1700-1800’s were that bad for women, particularly slave women? I mean…what?

          • The Wet One

            I’ve never thought that for non-slave women, that period of time was, “… a period of massive, unchecked, and horrifying rape and domestic violence that often included the killing of women.”

            Unless EL was just talking about slave women, in which case, yeah that much I knew. I understand him to be saying that the above description was for non-slave women. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood.

            • Kevin

              Ah, fair enough. And I do think Erik is talking about slaves there specifically. But obviously non-slaves didn’t have it the best either.

      • one of the blue

        Yeah, and to expand on what sapient above said, spousal rape remained legal in every U.S. state and most of the world until at least the end of the 1970’s. It’s what led Andrea Dworkin to write that heterosexual intercourse, at least in the context of marriage, was de facto rape, since the wife did not have a viable right to refuse.

    • Thirtyish

      It is difficult to imagine love, in any full, adult, consummate sense, existing in such an arrangement. Hemings was a slave, and still a child when first approached by Jefferson. Jefferson was a white man with a tremendous amount of power. That’s a hostage situation.

    • Denverite

      It’s not dispositive or anything, but the fact that Jefferson was thirty (!) years older than her lends strong support to the notion that she was just doing whatever it took to survive and not be cast out into the fields (or later, separated from her kids).

      There almost certainly could not have been any physical attraction — what 20 year-old finds a 50 year-old attractive? — so at best it would have been a sexual transaction. At worst (and probably on balance) it was exactly as Erik describes it.

      • Joe Paulson

        I think some are thrown by various fictional accounts that romanticized the whole thing including a movie with Nick Nolte and probably more than one novel.

        It also should be tossed in that she was his sister-in-law (his wife’s half-sister, the daughter of her father). She might first have been raped in France, isolated from her family and home even more, though her brother went on the trip.

        • sapient

          I think it’s important that when we use the word “rape” we’e basing it on the fact that Hemings had no legal right to resist. Although she was only 14, she was older than the age that women could be legally married. Many women were married at an early age, and it was common back in the day for a woman to marry men much older.

          I’m not saying that it wasn’t “rape”, but it might not have been more “rape” than was ordinary marriage. I’m really glad that I don’t live in that era, but I think people have completely forgotten how marriage was actually a form of enslavement of women. Despite all of that, maybe some women were happy and loved their sexual partners. We would have to chat with them to find out.

          • Joe Paulson

            I’m not sure how many here are not aware of coverture and so forth though it still isn’t “enslavement” as in being an actual slave.

            Married white women had limited rights, to be sure, but they had more rights than blacks generally (free blacks might have more contractual rights), definitely more than black slaves. White women had the right to refuse marriage and were protected somewhat from sexual abuse when not married.

            Black slaves did not have such protection generally. So, perhaps, you are laying this on a tad thick. This isn’t just statutory rape as in some 14 year old having sex with a twenty-one year old these days. The power differentials between an owner and a slave was not the same as a husband and wife.

            • sapient

              I agree that white women had more legal protection than slaves. However, once women were married they had no more ability than a slave to refuse their husbands’ sexual demands.

              Also, a woman’s consent to marriage was often dicey. It was quite common for a rapist to offer to marry the victim, and her parents would consent on her behalf in order to preserve her dignity.

              My comments aren’t meant to justify slavery or forced sex (on either slaves or unwilling wives). I also don’t believe that I have the privilege of assuming what Sally Hemings thought.

          • Veleda_k

            I think it’s important that when we use the word “rape” we’e basing it on the fact that Hemings had no legal right to resist

            No shit.

            • sapient

              My point is that Martha also had no legal right to resist once she was married. We seem to assume that women freely consented to marriage, but that’s not a given.

              • Veleda_k

                We seem to assume that women freely consented to marriage

                Who the hell’s we? I’ve never assumed any such thing.

                White women had freedom and rights black slave women did not. I can’t believe I’m having to explain this to someone on this blog. Your investment in trying to downplay Jefferson’s actions (“Maybe she loved him! Slavery was like marriage anyway!”) is both creepy and bizarre.

                • sapient

                  Please explain the extent to which white married women had the right to refuse sex with their husband. And yes, they probably enjoyed the right not to be visibly mutilated and murdered to a greater extent than enslaved people. And that’s incredibly important.

                  I’m sure that many white married women persuaded themselves that all was great. We don’t know what each woman thought, and we don’t know what Sally Hemings thought. We shouldn’t assume anything, because she did not have the freedom to tell us.

                • Veleda_k

                  No, seriously, what is your aim here? A bunch of people on twitter and here are trying to have a conversation about the legacy of slavery and the role language plays in that, and all you want to do is wring your hands and make sad faces, first about how we can’t know that Hemmings didn’t have twu wuv with her literal owner, and when that fell flat, decided that we were talking way too much about black women, and that we needed to move our focus back to white women pronto. What do you want?

                • sapient

                  We should talk about what we think is true. When we talk about the past, we have to use our imaginations, but our imaginations are based on what we can believe is possible. People’s circumstances 200+ years ago were different, and we can discuss what they suffered, but we don’t know how they felt. In a world where “consent” had little legal meaning for women, we don’t know to what degree women actually “consented” to sex. So if we’re going to use the term rape for enslaved women, we should use it for all women, because no woman had the right to refuse certain men’s advances.

                • Veleda_k

                  You should really take this show on the road. I bet black women historians and activists would love to know that they’ve been using the word “rape” wrong all this time. I mean, what does Angela Davis know, compared to your rigorous intellectualism?

                • sapient

                  Maybe they haven’t been using it wrong. Maybe it should be used more broadly. A lot of feminists in the old days thought so. I, myself, think that the term “rape” as a criminal act has a statutory meaning, and that meaning has changed over time. When “rape” has a philosophical meaning, it’s interesting to talk about, but it’s not easy to pin down because we can’t know what a particular woman (or man) was thinking unless that person told us. Most didn’t. Most women couldn’t (for reasons involving literacy and power structures).

                  So, yeah, we can imagine that Sally Hemings was raped because that certainly squares with what we, with our range of choices and worldview, would think. And we can imagine that all wives in the 18th century were raped, because they had no rights once they were married, and couldn’t have easily escaped. And we can hope that some of our ancestors found happiness within the possibilities of their experience. Or not. Fine with me, whatever we choose to imagine, but don’t confuse it with reality.

                • Robespierre

                  When decent people say rape is wrong they usually don’t give a shit about legal quibbles, and shouldn’t.

                • Veleda_k

                  Maybe they haven’t been using it wrong.

                  Wow, that’s super gracious of you. How magnanimous you are, to allow that there’s a slim chance black women are capable of naming and understanding their own history.

                • Veleda_k

                  And, shit, you think I haven’t thought about this? I have. A lot. Hell, I’ve wondered what the very concept of “love” means in societies of such stark inequality. What do the concepts of consent and love mean in this unequal society?

                  You know where I don’t trot out those thoughts? In environments where all I’ll be accomplishing is to direct attention away from black women towards white. And I don’t do it in such a way as to soften men’s abuse

          • Karen

            Sally Hemings had exactly the same right to resist Jefferson’s penis as his boots did to resist his smelly feet or his chairs did to reject his ass. The difference is that Sally Hemings was another human being.

            • sapient

              Martha Jefferson had the exact same right to resist as Sally Hemings did, although (and how would we be sure) maybe there would have been more opprobrium. Legally, their right to resist was the same.

              • Kevin

                What is your point here? That since Martha couldn’t resist, maybe Sally Hemings loved him? Honestly, what is the point you are trying to make, because it’s fucking bizarre.

                • sapient

                  Do you know whether or not Martha loved Jefferson?

                • Kevin

                  I know I could honestly care less and it matters not a bit to the discussion of whether slave owner Thomas Jefferson raped his property, and never gave her freedom.

                • sapient

                  You do know that Martha was also property.

                • Kevin

                  Not in the same way. You bore me with this bullshit. Done.

                • sapient

                  In the same way that she couldn’t have said no to sexual advances.

          • Origami Isopod

            This is a disgusting line of argument.

            • sapient

              If you’re talking to me, you should elaborate. Maybe you’re not, and that’s fine.

              • Origami Isopod

                You are concern trolling. Women, girls, who belonged to men and did not have the right to resist their sexual advances do not need their complex emotions devil’s-advocated.

                • sapient

                  Perhaps, but that’s true of wives as well.

                • Kevin

                  Sea lioning (also spelled sealioning and sea-lioning) is a type of internet trolling which consists of bad-faith requests for evidence, or repeated inane questions, the purpose of which is not clarification or elucidation, but rather an attempt to derail a discussion or to wear down the patience of one’s opponent.

                  Does that work for sapient here?

                • sapient

                  I am not asking for evidence. People state that Hemings was raped. I don’t disagree. I also think Martha was raped. Neither had the ability to refuse.

                • tsam100

                  Here’s a life-line—“white women had it bad 2” is trolling similar to pointing out that slave traders were sometimes black. The point here is that Sally Hemmings was, in every aspect of her life, a victim of the revered founding father, and the whitewashing and suggestions that this was one of those forbidden love stories is just another form of racism.

                • Origami Isopod

                  To Be Scrupulously Fair, not really, because this is a discussion board on the subject. He’s not following anyone back to their personal social media.

              • Denverite

                If you’re talking to me, you should elaborate. Maybe you’re not, and that’s fine.

                Lord knows that OI and I have had our differences, but I think that her basic point is that the whole “you don’t know that she *didn’t* love him, so stop calling it rape” shtick is morally repugnant. She was a teenager owned by a middle-aged (or based on longevity standards of the time, middle-aged-plus) white man. If he’s fucking her, the onus is on you to provide evidence that it wasn’t rape.

                • sapient

                  Well, they’re all dead. But the onus is on you that any sexual experience between two married people wasn’t rape, since men were entitled to sex. As to the age differential, that was very common even in marriage, and Hemings was over 12, which was the legal age at which women could marry.

                • JUICY_JOEL

                  But the onus is on you that any sexual experience between two married people wasn’t rape, since men were entitled to sex.

                  I seriously don’t see what you’re getting at here other than “married white women probably got raped too so shut up about Sally Hemmings (also whos to know if she actually got raped).”

                • sapient

                  I won’t imagine what Sally Hemings thought, and neither should you. In that sense, I am shutting up, and perhaps so should you.

          • Murc

            Although she was only 14, she was older than the age that women could
            be legally married. Many women were married at an early age, and it
            was common back in the day for a woman to marry men much older.

            No! No, it wasn’t!

            That’s one of those things that people think is true but that isn’t true. Most women married in their late teens and in their twenties to men of a similar age. Child marriages, though legal, were super uncommon.

            It was more common, although not actually all that common, among the aristocratic class in feudal society for women to marry at very, very young ages for political reasons, but those marriages were usually not consummated until the women in question were much, much older, because, in fact, even people back in those less enlightened times recognized that there was something super gross and creepy about fucking a fourteen-year-old, and that making one give birth wasn’t good for either them or the child.

            This didn’t stop it from happening sometimes. Edmund Tudor thought it was totally cool to rape his thirteen-year-old child bride, who damn near killed herself bringing the future Henry VII into the world. This was regarded with a kind of polite horror; nobody stopped him, but basically his entire family (and hers) was all “dude, what the FUCK is wrong with you, you creepy fuck.”

            • JUICY_JOEL

              Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: Married women in the 1700s were sex slaves just as much as actual literal slaves. Discuss.

            • sapient

              All I said was that “many women were married at an early age”, which is true, at least in my own ancestry line. I also said that it was legal to be married at 14, and probably common enough, if not the norm, because 14-year-olds do have sex and get pregnant, and that was the way the “problem” was often solved. The idea that marriage has always just been a joyous happy moment for all concerned is a myth.

              • Origami Isopod

                The idea that marriage has always just been a joyous happy moment for all concerned is a myth.

                Which nobody has said here. The only one positing whether the … relationship between Jefferson and Hemings might have had its happy moments has been you.

            • Origami Isopod

              Thank you, Murc. I’m so tired of this canard, fueled by canons like GoT, continuing to circulate among even educated people (especially among the sorts of creeps who like to justify their hebephilia).

              I’ll also note that the poorer people were, the longer they delayed marriage, because they simply didn’t have the scratch to set up their own households and feed any children resulting from the union.

              • Murc

                De nada, Origami. I like to hear myself talk. :)

                Interestingly, it was ASOIAF that led me to initially learn more about this. Much like real history, that series has the problem (in this regard) that it focuses largely on the aristocracy, who had a different set of circumstances and norms than, you know… normal people.

                But child marriages, and much older men marrying children… sure, that happened. You can pull a lot of examples out. To an extent it was even approved of or at least ignored if the circumstances surrounding it made it “okay.” There have always been bros who will look at the sixty year old boning the teenager they economically control and go “nice! high-five!”

                But it was far from common; it was very unusual, in fact, worthy of comment, and even a lot of people who by our standards would be howling misogynists would look at a gross old guy and his teenage “bride” and go “dude. What the fuck.”

          • gogiggs

            On the one hand, maybe, sure, maybe.
            On the other hand, is this the hill you want to die on?
            Because it comes off “super-creepy”.

            • gogiggs

              Having read more of the thread since I posted, apparently, this IS the hill you want to die on, which is super-super creepy.

      • ploeg

        what 20 year-old finds a 50 year-old attractive?

        I dunno. Maybe you can ask Anna Dostoyevskaya.

        But that’s 20 and 45, and Anna was a free woman. 14 and captive is a world of difference away from 20 and free.

      • Origami Isopod

        There almost certainly could not have been any physical attraction — what 20 year-old finds a 50 year-old attractive?

        You mean, all those Hollywood movies have been lying to me?

      • DrS

        “what 20 year-old finds a 50 year-old attractive?”

        Whole eastern European and Asian countries full of them, if the banner ads I sometimes see here are on the up and up.

    • Origami Isopod

      Well, yes, Stockholm syndrome existed before the term was coined.

      • sapient

        I agree.

        • DrS

          Before Stockholm

          • sapient

            Before the syndrome was named, I think is the issue.

            • DrS

              Ah yes. We must always be on task.

              Forgive my drollery.

              • sapient

                Droll? Oh, right! LOL!

    • Asano Sokato

      White “women generally were considered property of their husbands;” African women were property.
      White women “certainly had no real right to deny their husbands sexual relations;” African women had no rights.

      However oppressed white women were, the African women were slaves.

      • sapient

        That is true. It probably made a difference for many white women’s situation. For some, it made little difference.

  • Sly

    The fact that Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s dead wife because his father-in-law also raped his slaves, and that contemporary accounts say that the two looked somewhat alike, manages to be the least disturbing aspect of the story.

  • hellslittlestangel

    What reputation does Jefferson have to protect? He was a slave-owner who regarded women as only slightly better than slaves, undeserving of the right to vote or to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson was a hypocrite who wrote like a philosopher and lived like Simon Legree.

  • Karen

    Jefferson was a writer whose work I admire but whose behavior when he wasn’t writing was reprehensible. He joins Wagner, HP Lovecraft, and a few others in that category.

    • dhudson2728

      Hey now, putting ol’ HPL in the same category as TJ is unfair. While Lovecraft certainly expressed repugnant opinions, he never acted on them, nor was he in a position where his opinions actually mattered. TJ was a wealthy hypocrite and predator who had enormous influence, HPL was a lonely orphen who was scared of his own shadow. (Dude was afraid of lettuce, FFS.)

      • Karen

        Good point.

      • Origami Isopod

        HPL published his repugnant opinions. He doesn’t get a cookie because he didn’t enslave anybody.

        Also, before anyone else brings it up: He was racist even for his time.

        • dhudson2728

          Who said anything about cookies? I just said it isn’t fair to put him in the same category as Jefferson. HPL was a bigot, but he never raped or tortured anyone.

          • Hogan

            He lacked Jefferson’s opportunities.

            • dhudson2728

              Can we limit criticisms of a person to things they actually did?

              It’s especially ridiculous to suggest that HPL would have owned slaves, much less raped them; that would have required him to be in regular contact with black people.

              • Drew

                I don’t think it’s reasonable to *limit* criticism for that reason. Distinguishing between things they did and things they advocated for, sure.

                • dhudson2728

                  HPL did not advocate slavery or the rape of slaves, and anyone familiar with his writing would know that he would not have participated in either.

                  We have enough reason to condemn HPL for without making shit up.

                • Drew

                  I don’t know much about HPL, I was speaking to the general principle you were espousing. I don’t see how it’s reasonable to insist that we not criticize someone for, say, being an anti-semite, even if they don’t call for the persecution of Jews or directly oppress Jews themselves. We can *distinguish* that kind of person from, say, a KKK member, but it’s deeply silly to argue that we should “limit criticisms of a person to things they actually did.”

                  Sigh, I just reread the comment thread and it looks like you were responding to someone suggesting that HPL would have owned and/or raped slaves and weren’t really disagreeing with me. I need coffee.

                • dhudson2728

                  I was going to say, I’m pretty sure we are in agreement. I was a bit abrupt in my reply to you, and for that I apologize, I was just surprised at how controversial my initial statement seems to have been. Saying that a racist asshole is not as bad as a slaveowner who beat and raped his slaves does not mean that the racist asshole is somehow a good guy, but rather, that the slaveowner is very, very evil.

                  Enjoy your coffee!

                • Drew

                  Thanks. I’m sorry, I am extremely cranky and hostile first thing in the morning. It was not appropriate for me to go off half-cocked and I’m sorry.

          • Origami Isopod

            Karen put him not on the same level of evil with Jefferson but in the category of writers “whose behavior when [they weren’t] writing was reprehensible.”

            • dhudson2728

              Oh, in that case, never mind. I certainly wouldn’t argue against that characterization.

              Though sadly, his racism is one of the underpinnings of his writing; he was terrified of the Other (all Others, really), and this is one of the things that gives his stories their power. Unfortunately, in those stories in which the Other are other human beings, it also makes them horribly racist. Luckily, some of his stories concentrate on Inhuman Others, and are mostly free of bigotry. But I totally understand why some people can’t stand his work, and I approved of the decision to stop using his bust as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award.

        • Murc

          Also, before anyone else brings it up: He was racist even for his time.

          And that time was early 20th century America, a period that is competitive for the slot of “racism at its highest ebb since the Civil War.” HPL was kinda too racist for those dudes. That’s pretty racist.

          • dhudson2728

            Okay, I wasn’t going to get into this, but I’m curious: on what grounds do you say he was more racist than average for the time?

            Don’t get me wrong, he was a horrible bigot, and I completely understand why some people would refuse to read his work. But he wasn’t a member of the KKK, he never advocated violence against others. He strongly opposed the Nazi party, and, of course, he married a Jew.

            HPL wasn’t some sort of uber-racist, and to suggest that he was is to diminish the evil of the guys like Henry Ford. Or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter.

      • JamesWimberley

        “Dude was afraid of lettuce, FFS.” I sympathise. When I stare into the abyss of that inedible purple crinkly stuff, it stares back.

        • firefall

          .. and winks, salaciously.

  • Duvall

    The term “mistress” is also an odd choice given that Martha Wayles Jefferson had died five years earlier. It’s like they want to express some degree of disapproval but are afraid of being honest.

    • jmwallach

      Concubine is too oriental.

    • reattmore

      Martha Wayless Jefferson was Sally Hemmings’ (half) sister

  • cpinva

    this is definitely worse than the reconstructed slave cabins, at The Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s home in TN), being identified as “The Servant’s Quarters”. I nearly got thrown out of there by security, because i flipped out when i saw what they had done. Jackson’s slaves weren’t “Servants”, any more than Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s “mistress”. Neither of them had agency over their own bodies. Words matter, a lot. Until such time as we face the brutal truth of this country’s history, we can’t begin to fix it.

    • jmwallach

      Hmm, there was an interview with the curator her quarters on a CBC show and it sounded a lot more balanced than what you’re describing.
      Segment is “Jefferson House”
      http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.4189447/july-4-2017-episode-transcript-1.4191734#segment1

      • cpinva

        yeah, i read it, so what? “Balanced” in what way? That a descendant of both Hemings & Jefferson, who has identified as black her entire life, is now the curator of Ms. Hemings’ slave quarters doesn’t change the past.

        • jmwallach

          I don’t think it changes the past but it sounds like they are at least honest about her being a slave and the conditions she lived in. I admit that I read your post as a commentary on Monticello because I have had too much wine waiting for another set of emails to drop.

  • Veleda_k

    Also, if a 14 year old “falls in the love” with the adult who legally owns her and has complete control of her life, that’s not love, that’s Stockholm Syndrome.

  • Joe Paulson

    Imani Gandy had to deal with a bunch of “Sally and Tom sitting in a tree” type replies the other day on Twitter. She wasn’t having it.

    • Origami Isopod

      Imani Gandy. :) But yeah, she doesn’t put up with that kind of bullshit.

    • nixnutz

      I read a lot of that. I think there have been plenty of astoundingly unhealthy relationships in history–so anything’s possible, I guess–but the degree to which folks were invested in their weirdo fantasies is pretty fucked up and telling.

      • Kevin

        Northern version of the lost cause myth I think. It’s the “my ancestors couldn’t have been evil, look at the wonderful things they did”. So they invent these fantasies, similar to southerners with “slaves fought for the south”. It’s all to avoid looking at history as it is, which is often ugly.

      • Origami Isopod

        Not that you’re wrong on a moral count, or that I’m paying these people a compliment, but it’s less “weirdo fantasies” than projection of an oppressive façade of … normality, for want of a better word, onto relationships that were wildly wrong.

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    Speaking of Washington freeing his slaves, this question was addressed in this YouTube series, Ask a Slave:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1IYH_MbJqA&t=171

    It’s pretty amusing (it’s based on real questions she received while working as an actor at Mt Vernon).

  • Murc

    Okay. I’m gonna say it.

    That picture is soul destroying. I feel like a worse person for having looked at it. Someone drew that, and then wrote the blurb underneath, and then someone else published it.

    I mean, Jesus Christ. What was WRONG with people?

    • nominal

      I was thinking the same thing. “Boys Book of Fun? WTF? I feel,like a maiden aunt from a JanevAusten novel, but I can’t help thinking who makes this sort of filth?

      • Origami Isopod

        It really goes to show you how deep those attitudes went, if they were considered suitable for boys’ reading.

    • witlesschum

      I know. But sentiments like this always makes me wonder what we’re doing that someone’s gonna say this about.

  • TheBrett

    I won’t accept an argument that Jefferson was a good president because he was not, but sure, go ahead and try to make the argument.

    Hmm. I’d say the Louisiana Purchase outweighs the otherwise serious blunders that happened under his watch (including the Colossal Self-Own that was the Embargo Act of 1807). And unlike Andrew Jackson, he at least didn’t set the country’s financial system back decades while causing an economic depression on his way out the door.

    • Murc

      I’d say the Louisiana Purchase outweighs the otherwise serious blunders that happened under his watch

      I would submit that just automatically putting the Louisiana Purchase into the “good” column is one of the great unexamined problems with Jefferson’s Presidency.

      The Louisiana Purchase was great… for white Americans. It was also the enabler of a long series of genocides. And that’s ignoring the fact that the land was not France’s to sell or America’s to buy, and that by and large the indigenous peoples of this continent would likely have been better off if the Louisiana Purchase had remained in French hands, as the French didn’t think they had a manifest destiny to steamroll to the Pacific and eliminate all who stood before them. It also helped to embolden the slave power.

      It could definitely use some serious re-evaluation.

      • TheBrett

        I do not think the US is a worse-off country for getting the Louisiana Purchase, even if the acquisition and following conquest of it involved a great deal of evil. Same for the territorial acquisitions after the US beat Mexico in the appallingly imperialistic Mexican-American War.

        I also have a degree of fatalism about it. I think France was probably going to lose it to American squatters anyways over time, and the same goes for much of the Southwest and Northwest. Only reason it didn’t happen with more of Mexico and Canada was because of racism and successful fighting-off of US filibuster efforts in the antebellum 19th century US respectively, and because the British really were the dominant military and economic power of the 19th century and picking a fight with them was incredibly bad news.

    • nobody

      Jefferson is given a lot more credit for the Louisiana Purchase than warranted. France sold it because they recognized it was only a paper claim that they were in no position to ever enforce. So they sold it rather than have it appropriated outright without compensation. Inevitably waves of American settlers would move West without regard to French claims and force out any veneer of French governance a la Texas.

      • TheBrett

        I agree, although the cost might not have been as favorable for the US in that situation as it was with the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was initially willing to pay two-thirds of the sum they ended up paying just for New Orleans.

        Then again, I suppose the credit for that has to go to Robert Livingston (who actually pounced on the offer) versus Jefferson (who merely went along with it).

  • gogiggs

    The only racists are people who think racism exists!

  • nobody

    Although free white women wives didn’t have it great, it was much worse for enslaved black women who were “mistresses”. As “proof”, consider that every enslaved “mistress” would trade places with a white wife without hesitation. Conversely no white woman would ever entertain switching places.

    I also think that white women wives in early America, while oppressed to a degree, are still much less so than Saudi Arabian wives today.

    • JamesWimberley

      It’s also a mistake to focus too much on formal individual rights rather than the social context of their enforcement or non-enforcement. Most abused white wives had male relatives with some interest in their welfare, a real constraint on the behaviour of husbands. Even orphans often had surrogate families or protectors, and at a pinch could ask pastors for help. The USA is a big country, and just disappearing was a much better option for a white woman than a black slave. I’ve never heard of Fugitive Wife Acts.

    • Origami Isopod

      As “proof”, consider that every enslaved “mistress” would trade places with a white wife without hesitation.

      And consider that white wives frequently abused those “mistresses” with impunity. Ta-Nehisi Coates has discussed the writings of Thavola Glymph, whose Out of the House of Bondage and other works discuss the complicity of white women in the slavery system. Also, IIRC, Albion’s Seed discussed this in graphic detail, too.

  • Gator90

    “The forced sexual labor of African slaves is as central to American history as the Declaration of Independence or any other idea developed by the Founders.”

    Goddamn, that was well said, Erik.

  • Yes, no matter how you spin it, whether she loved him or they loved each other, at the end of the day she was chattel, to be done with as he pleased.

    • TopsyJane

      Jefferson promised his wife on her deathbed that he would never marry again and he did not. Hemings is said to have borne a close resemblance to Martha Jefferson, unsurprisingly since they were half-sisters. John Wayles, Martha’s father, took Sally’s mother Betty Hemings as a concubine after the death of his third wife. He did not acknowledge or free any of their children.

      As Annette Gordon-Reed has observed, it’s unlikely that Jefferson’s relations with Hemings amounted to decades of “Come here, gal.” Nonetheless, as C.V. Danes rightly points out, she remained chattel.

  • Drew

    It’s interesting that the image (I’m not sure exactly how old it is) refers to a lady “of color” and that is what is considered the right term today. I remember several years ago when I first heard someone say “person of color” because it sounded so similar to “colored person”, an outdated term. I was pretty surprised. Funny how usage evolves.

    • Nym w/o Qualities

      I’ll be satisfied when the rest of us are called “melanin challenged.”

  • Kevin

    Apparently, when talking about slavery, what really matters is “we can’t know what was in the slaves hearts, maybe they liked their masters!” according to even some here (well, one…)

    Or: White women had it bad to, so is it really fair to talk about slavery?

    I should know better, but it still amazes me to see people on the left make these arguments.

    • Erik Loomis

      Yeah, that was one of the most embarrassing arguments I’ve seen a commenter make here in a long time.

      • Kevin

        Honestly, I’m still gobsmacked by it. She was property. Jefferson could have beaten her to death at any moment. He could not do that to his wife. To argue that white women not having full rights means slave women aren’t a different class is just insane, and it’s sad that people make it.

        There was nothing good about slavery. Full fucking stop.

        • sapient

          He surely could have beaten his wife though. Maybe not to death, but beating was allowed. I don’t feel like finding a case if you doubt this, but it was “the rule of thumb.”

    • firefall

      I must admit when I see someone make that sort of handwave, I just assume they are not in fact ‘on the left’, despite clamour to the contrary.

      • Origami Isopod

        I wish that were true.

        • sonamib

          Yeah, that strikes me as a “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

  • firefall

    One can still argue Thomas Jefferson was a critical individual in the development of the United States

    I’d say that’s undeniable, but his influence seems to have been almost all malign, from the slavery problem to supporting unequal voting rights & the Senate to his addlepated lunacy about reverencing the yeoman Farmer and privileging him over the citybred scum (sorry, I forget the exact invective he used)

    • Jon_H11

      Separation of church and state. Freedom of the Press. Non-enumerated rights being reserved.

      You can’t really say that there aren’t some good products of Jeffersonian-ism. Nothing in history is unsullied (often to a horrid degree).

  • kathy Klos

    Hmm looks like my wife logged in on my computer so I posting under her name not my own… (Paul Klos and I am too lazy to recover my password)

    Calling a slave a mistress is a travesty. The general status of women is no shield since free women were still well free and that is something a black slave in the south with race based slavery was very much not. A good comparison is say Pericles and his actual mistress Aspasia. She had fewer rights than a male citizen, but she retained the right to leave and go home if she chose. The relationship might be colored by power but it was still mutual. Hemings never had that choice to call her other than a used and owned slave is incorrect. Jefferson does not really deserve his whitewash, Its all to bad Hamilton and Adams could not keep their political game together as well as Jefferson and Madison.

  • Hondo

    We have never faced up to our original sin, and we never will. I think these will ultimately be our undoing.
    Ideally, the delegates of the non-slave states should have required the slave states to end slavery as a condition of their participation in the constitutional convention. And once the government was formed, instituted total economic sanctions against the all the slave holding governments, encourage and assist escaped slaves to come north, do whatever it could to disrupt the slave economy.
    The election of Trump reminds us of how racism still governs the actions of most US citizens, as it has throughout our history. Our tolerance of slavery, and the mistake of letting the former confederacy off the hook after the Civil War are two major ingredients of the poison pill that will doom this experiment in self-government to failure.

    • kathy Klos

      Too be fair it is easy to make money and roll with it. The UK likes to talk big but seeing how long they liked empire in Africa and India, I would wonder if they would have been so anti slavery if they had retained the whole south. Oh no I know very happy since they very nearly intervened to aid the CSA. Self interest is hard to shake and easy to close one’s eyes too.

  • John F

    Checking in, looking around, wow this thread is derailed shitshow…

    Anywho, to take one of the themes seriously, with respect to upper class white women we can sometimes get hints of their relationships with their husbands through surviving correspondence. We obviously don’t have that with Sally Hemings, all we have is as Loomis said:
    “a) he never freed her, b) he raped her at the age of 14, c) she never had a choice in the matter.”

    If you wanted to be really charitable to Jefferson you could add that Hemings’ (and Jefferson’s) children were ultimately freed.
    If you wanted to be really really really charitable to Jefferson you could say that MAYBE she had a chance to leave when in France…

    • Kevin

      I don’t see any reason to be that charitable.

  • Jon_H11

    Looking for enlightened racial politics in American history is a depressing endeavor if there ever was one. Basically there were no active white intellectuals prior to the 1930’s who aren’t depressing and repulsive to read on the race issue (even the majority of the abolitionists).

    It’s amazing that we even got to where we are considering the only people who had sane positions at the time were incredibly marginalized: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Du Bois.

    On the positive side I think the fact that such a marginalized group was able to convert so many to the truth gives some evidence that “the arch of history bends towards justice”, as Theodore Parker, one of the very few arguably good whites a the time coined.

  • Words do matter, which is why there are certain things that “patriots” aren’t supposed to say. Such things puncture cherished national myths and are therefore not to be uttered in civil national discourse. Call it “political correctness” if you like, as long as you remember that this variety has real power behind it and is truly pervasive as well as perverse.

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