Thomas Jefferson, Slaveowner

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Thomas Jefferson, Slaveowner

New York Times critical review of Jon Meachem's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power:

Although this book is so lavishly fact-checked that its endnotes and bibliography run more than 200 pages, Mr. Meacham oddly glosses over unbecoming details. About an unsuccessful courtship that Jefferson conducted in the early 1760s, Mr. Meacham describes contents of his letters but does not quote from them. “His attempts at humor and self-mockery,” the book says, “fall largely flat, and the episode is chiefly interesting for the light it sheds on Jefferson’s sensitivity to rejection, disorder and criticism.”

But this book does not address its principal concern, power, until Jefferson has accrued some. When it comes to the force that he wielded as a slaveholder, Mr. Meacham finds ways to suggest that thoughts of abolition would have been premature; that it was not uncommon for white heads of households to be waited on by slaves who bore family resemblances to their masters; and that since Jefferson treated slavery as a blind spot, the book can too.

Henry Wienick, who also has a new book on Jefferson, writes in the Smithsonian:

The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.

We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

Paul Finkleman responds to both of them: The Monster of Monticello

We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.

Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.

Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

One of my favourite bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, responds to a predictable defence of Jefferson:

It's worth noting that TJ was warped up in a economic system of which no alternative was readily available. Only a single slave owning founding father freed his slaves, Washington in his will.

As is pointed out in subsequent comments this claim, while convenient, is false. Moreover Jefferson lived at a time when it was relatively common to manumit slaves. One need only look at Jeffersons cousin John Randolph...

In 1814, Jefferson's protege Edward Coles--knowing of Jefferson's brilliant anti-slavery writings--wrote to enlist him in the cause of ridding Virginia of slavery. Coles thought to begin this effort by manumitting his own slaves. Jefferson not only declined to help Coles, but told him he was wrong to try to free his own, telling him 

[I]n the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. 
The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.

[This post entirely cribbed from Metafilter]


He was messed up in a lot of ways other than his slave-owning, though that was bad enough.

The fact that he never freed his mistress, even on his deathbed, says more than anything else about that blind spot of his.

The only time he ever considered ending his slave-owning was when he was thinking of selling them to pay off the debts he had racked up from compulsive shopping.

But his fascination with the romantic ideal of revolution, as opposed an appreciation for getting the work done was also one of his shortcomings. He was more than happy to write about the tree of liberty needing regular feedings of blood, but the closest he ever came to battle was running away from his estate when it was threatened by British troops.

By contrast, he was more than happy to scuttle the presidency of John Adams because he wasn't (in Jefferson's eyes) revolutionary enough. even though Adams actually faced the risk of combat, and did the hard work of negotiating with the French crown and bankers to finance the revolution, and during his presidency worked to avoid a war that America would likely not have won.



voice of the damned

Thanks Catchfire. And I agree, Coates is a great blogger(though I've kinda drifted away from his site the last little while). He's more liberal than left, but always plays a pretty straight hand. Can't say I care for his football commentary, but hey, to each their own.

re: Jefferson. Conor Cruise O'Brien published this interesting smackdown back in the 90s...

Caveat lector: Like his hero Edmund Burke, O'Brien basically hated revolutionary politics(especially the French variety), so a cynic could well conclude that he really just hates the left-wing aspects of Jefferson's thought, and threw in the racism stuff just to broaden the appeal of his critique. O'Conor had a rather checkered history in regards to anti-imperialism, claiming to agree with Burke that it was a bad thing in India, but defending British policy in Northern Ireland, including the media censorship.

In regards to Jefferson, O'Brien basically says that he should have no place in modern politics, and that his influence in the current era will likely be confined to fringe tendencies. Something to that, perhaps, because, for better or worse, I hear the strongest echoes of Jeffersonianism among the Ron Paul crowd. Who, despite internet hype, aren't exactly the ones calling the shots in America 2012.  


what's surprising to me is that the NYT actually called the author on it.


Actually it isn't so much Jefferson's revolutionary zeal, as far as I am concerned, but rather his hypocrisy, and the fact that during the actual revolution, and when the country was in peril he did not back up that talk, and attacked those who were doing much of the work.