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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.
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