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The Dark Side of Jefferson is the Dark Side of America


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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