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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 549

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This is the grave of Thomas Jefferson.

I am not going to provide a biography of Thomas Jefferson. It’s not really necessary and to do it justice, it would take me a very long time to write. I think it’s more valuable to use this space to think a bit about what we do with such a complicated figure today.

Today, at least among the type of community that includes an LGM comment section, Jefferson is at least as well known for his hypocrisy on slavery and freedom as he is for the fancy words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence and for his presidency. Of all our historical figures, I don’t think anyone has fallen so far in the public esteem over the last couple of decades except for Andrew Jackson. And really, the two are related, despite their very different generations and backgrounds. Both were active creators of the idea of the nation’s base as small white farmers, with suspicion of cities, institutions, and government. For both, the eradication of Native people and the replacement of them with whites, usually with slaves, was necessary for the implementation of that vision. Jackson naturally gets despised today for Indian Removal and for good reason. But Jefferson himself was no better, writing and telling Native people themselves that they needed to become white or go extinct. Jackson saw Jefferson’s vision through. Moreover, both became beloved figures of the early 20th century Democratic Party, very much including the New Dealers, who deified both (see the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner as one still extant example). Those New Dealers absolutely shared that same vision of freedom based on small farmers and land ownership with suspicion of cities, even those deeply involved in urban issues.

And then of course there was Jefferson using Sally Hemings as a sex slave. Now, we can’t know what the details of their actual relationship and their feelings for each other. What we can know is that she had no legal choice in that matter. We can also know that sex slavery was a huge part of the slave world, far more common than we usually acknowledge or discuss. Of course, this puts the lie to Jefferson’s words. But the bigger question is why it took us so long to realize it. Somewhat akin to the careers of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen today, who were able to make films for decades after their misdeeds were known and then somewhat suddenly, they became off limits (and that only in the U.S.), everyone knew about Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings back to its exposure by a Federalist newspaper editor. It was just swept under the rug, only occasionally being talked about, until Annette Gordon-Reed published her groundbreaking book, which has since changed the world, including how slavery is discussed at Monticello. What changed is us, not our knowledge of Jefferson, except for the DNA evidence that undermined the diehard deniers.

So what do we do with all of this? I think there are a couple of things. Inspired by Walter Johnson’s Boston Review essay about slavery and capitalism that rejects liberal notions of human rights as the real issue and instead pushes for contemporary restorative justice, and which my students are reading today, I think we strongly reject so-called “liberal guilt” and instead demand that the nation live up to what remains positive about Jefferson’s legacy by pushing for programs such as reparations and job creation programs and affirmative action. The white liberal guilt complex can often serve as a way to do nothing, to focus on the bad of the past for its own sake rather than as a tool to make the present and future better. For me anyway, the purpose of studying the past is about influencing the present and so when I expose my students to the worst of American history (which is very much how I teach), it’s to create a better world today. Sure it’s about breaking down damaging American mythologies today, but it’s also about building new ideas about America too. And so with Jefferson, breaking down the myths about him is critical, but so too is not simply dismissing him as a hypocrite and then creating new mythologies around other figures to make a political point, which is my main problem with the Hamilton play, which seriously distorts the man to define the broad-based us of modern liberals against the bad conservative hypocritical Jefferson and his modern heirs. That’s not useful either.

Ultimately, what was great about Jefferson was also what was terrible about him. As Ibram Kendi explores in his great Stamped from the Beginning (my students read the Jefferson chapter two days ago), the entire Enlightenment, a movement we usually look at in an almost completely positive way, was also the moment when scientific racism began, including the invasion of black bodies, experiments on their corpses and on their living beings, etc. Jefferson was very much part of this world, but so was Franklin, Voltaire, and so many others. You can’t take the natural rights and electricity experiments without the desecration of black bodies and the theories that blacks were different species than whites, which reached its apotheosis with the Nazis. It was all part of the same intellectual world. The key to Jefferson is taking legitimate inspiration from his good ideas while rejecting his awful and racist ones, all the while acknowledging those terrible ideas instead of pretending like they didn’t happen. So the Declaration of Independence, the Notes on the State of Virginia, the Northwest Ordinance, and the University of Virginia were all the thoughts and actions of a brilliant man who pushed forward some great things and ways of thought for the American people, both in spite of and because he was a slaver who claimed to be opposed to the institution but took advantage of it his entire life.

The other thing I guess I will note is that Jefferson was actually an awful president. The Embargo remains the single stupidest foreign policy decision in American history, unless we simply judge these things by the number of dead people they lead to, which provides a certain sense of moral clarity I guess but is pretty much useless in evaluating actions within the context of their times. Saying that the solution to being a weak country who is being picked on by the big boys is to trade with no one at all and then plunging the nation into an economic depression is fantastically idiotic. He really wasn’t that great otherwise either, dithering over Napoleon’s offer to sell the U.S. all of Louisiana because he didn’t think he had constitutional authority to take the land demonstrates how his ideology really could get in the way of governance. Sure, credit him for sending out Lewis and Clark to explore that land and for his interest in science. He still wasn’t a good president.

Anyway, there is much we can talk about with Jefferson, so I will end this and we can have it out in the comments.

Thomas Jefferson is buried at his home of Monticello, outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! I actually don’t have that many presidents left to visit, but if you want me to finish the job, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Andrew Johnson is in Greeneville, Tennessee and William Henry Harrison is in North Bend, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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