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December 3, 2012 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Author Jon Meacham has a new book out on Thomas Jefferson. It is reviewed in the New York Times: Cultivating Control in a Nation’s Crucible
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.

At the same time, Henry Wiencek has written a "scathing assessment of America’s third president," and the two books together have kicked off some controversy. Wiencek's article in Smithsonian, The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson
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.
In Salon, Meacham claims "I’m not letting Thomas Jefferson off the hook"
And if someone as monumental in our memories as Jefferson can be seen as someone trying to work out real problems in real time, making compromises, settling for half a loaf when you might want a full loaf, then I think that should give us a kind of confidence and a kind of hope that we can overcome the seemingly insuperable obstacles that lead us to think of politics as contentious and frustrating.
And in Slate, Anette Gordon-Reed replies to Wiencek: Thomas Jefferson Was Not a Monster: Debunking a major new biography of our third president.
The book's tone and presentation betray a journalistic obsession with “the scoop.” Getting the scoop can be the life’s blood of journalism. It does not work so well for writing history, which is not always (or almost ever, really) about discovering things previously unknown. This sensibility leads Weincek astray in a number of ways. To begin with, it compels him to write as if he had discovered, and was writing about, things that had not been discovered and written about before. In truth, all of the important stories in this book have been told by others.
Wiencek responds in Smithsonian: The author of a new book about Thomas Jefferson makes his case and defends his scholarship
I am not surprised that Gordon-Reed disliked my book so much, given that it systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves. In The Hemingses of Monticello, she described with approval Jefferson's "plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory." Gordon-Reed cannot like the now established truth that the locus of Jefferson's "kinder, gentler slavery" was the very place where children were beaten to get them to work. At first I assumed that she simply did not know about the beatings, but when I double-checked her book's references to the nailery I discovered that she must have known: A few hundred pages away from her paean to the nail factory, she cited the very letter in which "the small ones" are described as being lashed there.
On 30 NOV, Paul Finkleman in a New York Times Op-Ed countered with :The Monster Of Monticello
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.
David Post at Volokh Conspiracy writes: Why Don’t People Get It About Jefferson and Slavery?
This is truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense. 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.
Corey Robin at Crooked Timber asks: Thomas Jefferson: American Fasicst? and examines his letters to conclude:
Jefferson was not a liberal hypocrite, a symptom of his time. He was the avant garde of a group of American theorists who were struggling to reconcile the ideals of the Declaration with the reality of chattel slavery. His resolution of that struggle took the form of one of the most vicious doctrines of racial supremacy the world had yet seen. That is his legacy, or at least part of his legacy. He was by no means the only one to take this route, but he was one of the earliest and easily the most famous. He is the tributary of what would become an American tradition.
Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic responds to Post: Slavery Is A Love Song
This is a letter that I often turn to. It was written to Laura Spicer by her husband, who was sold away, much as Jefferson sold people away. After emancipation she repeatedly tried to rekindle their love, despite the fact that the husband had now remarried and formed another family. In this letter the husband tells us what it means to be among the refuse of history:
Coates reacts to a "predictable" defense of Jefferson
In TK, 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
Henry Wiencek writes about the 'rumpus' on his blog, while Jon Meacham was interviewed on The Daily Show on 14 NOV: aired segment and full interview.
posted by the man of twists and turns (44 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Weird that they never mentioned Jefferson's child slave nail factory in high school
posted by theodolite at 7:32 AM on December 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


I haven't had a chance to read the many, many links, but I have to take issue with this statement: "It does not work so well for writing history, which is not always (or almost ever, really) about discovering things previously unknown."

Sure, not all history is about discovering new things, but a lot of the best history is about discovering things previously unknown.
posted by jb at 7:38 AM on December 3, 2012


Ok, so who was Edward Coles?
Edward Coles (1796-1868) was special secretary to President James Madison, an envoy to Russia, governor of Illinois from 1822 to 1826, and a staunch abolitionist. He held vast tracts of land in several Midwest states, including Illinois and Missouri.

He was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. The Coles family had been farmers in Virginia since the colonial period. He attended college at both Hampton Sidney College and the College of William and Mary. Soon after graduation, Coles became secretary to President James Madison. He worked as special envoy to Russia in 1816 and land register in Illinois from 1819 until 1827.

An abolitionist since college, Coles moved to Illinois in 1819 in order to free his slaves, since slaves freed in Virginia were not allowed to stay in the state. Once in Illinois, however, Coles found himself in the middle of pro-slavery agitation in the state. Many settlers in Illinois were from slave states and wanted to bring their human property with them when they settled. Thrust into the fray, Coles announced that he would run for governor in 1821 as an anti-slavery candidate. He won the election, but only because 67 percent of the popular vote was split between three pro-slavery candidates.
While Madison's private secretary,
the idealistic Coles wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of Coles's idols. "My object is to entreat & beseech you to exert your knowledge & influence in devising & getting into operation some plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery," he wrote in 1814. Coles believed the task was so difficult that only a revered Founding Father possessed the moral grandeur to change public opinion in an antislavery direction. He urged Jefferson to think of his future reputation. Even if a Jefferson-endorsed emancipation plan was rejected in 1814, a statement by Jefferson might awaken later generations to slavery's moral opprobrium. Coles also announced his intention to leave Virginia with his slaves as the only course for emancipation open to him.
In his reply, Jefferson complimented Coles on his idealism and endorsed gradual emancipation as a worthy if challenging endeavor. He urged Coles to remain in Virginia as a humane master to his slaves, thereby setting a good example while advocating the end of slavery as an institution. But Jefferson begged off leadership of such a crusade, or indeed any role at all beyond interested observer.
While Governor of Illinois, he was faced with intense pressure from pro-slavery politicans and a campaign to change the state's constitution:
Coles quickly organized an antislavery society with the aid of Morris Birkbeck, and issued an address to the people that exposed the intentions of the convention backers. It closed by saying that if they triumphed "we should write the epitaph of free government." The document, which stressed the immoral aspects of slavery, was signed by fifteen legislators but undoubtedly was written by the governor. The constitutional amendment campaign continued for nearly a year and a half, and the public became intensely involved, perhaps as much as in any election since then. Coles and the antislavery convention cause triumphed 6,640 to 4,972.
The Illinois Human Rights Commission sponsors an Governor Edward Coles Fellowship.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:57 AM on December 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


Eh, if you measure it by reams of paper and gallons of ink, only a very small fraction of "history" is concerned with discovering new things; the vast majority of it is analysis. And that's fine, because good analysis is valuable in its own right and shouldn't be dismissed lightly. The further back you go, the greater the ratio of analysis to digging-up-primary-sources seems to be. E.g., with the exception of the occasional archaeological or archival find, the bulk of ancient or classical history is the analysis of a well-known canon of primary-source materials plus previous scholarship written about them.

Regarding Jefferson, there doesn't seem to be much new information (except perhaps the genetic analyses shedding light on the Jefferson–Hemings controversy) that has turned up recently; certainly the crux of the issue -- that Jefferson was on one hand an architect of the Constitution and was publicly committed to what we'd now call human rights, but on the other hand owned slaves and appeared able to justify this to himself and others -- has been well-known since before the end of his lifetime. What has been changing are not the facts, but how those facts fit in to our understanding of Jefferson both as a man and as a political figure.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:04 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox

Ain't no paradox. The reason Jefferson and his colleagues could write so eloquently about the rights of man whilst holding Africans as slaves is because they were fucking racists.

Thomas Jefferson on the African Race 1781 (pdf)

"Excerpted from Notes on the State of Virginia

They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. . . ."

These aren't notes scribbled on the back of an envelope. These are Jefferson's considered opinions. This from the guy who wrote "all men are created equal." Again there's no paradox here because Massa Tom, for all of his other enlightened qualities, was a fucking racist to the core. He considered black Africans as a "distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances" who "are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."

Thomas Jefferson viewed black Africans as farm animals and as historians don't write much about how Jefferson managed his other farm animals, I'm not so sure we're missing very much from Meacham's scant treatment of this aspect of Jefferson's life.
posted by three blind mice at 8:06 AM on December 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


I haven't been following this argument, but I had already read that letter to Laura Spicer quoted by Coates, and it's one of the saddest (in a way that doesn't numb with horror) and most touching things I think I've ever read about the real, human cost of slavery.
posted by immlass at 8:15 AM on December 3, 2012


Wow, great post, thanks. Bookmarked.
posted by mediareport at 8:16 AM on December 3, 2012


The headline of this Corey Robin post is a bit sensationalistic, but he does raise some interesting points in the post, and stops well short of actually calling Jefferson a fascist. He expands on his point here.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:17 AM on December 3, 2012


thanks, tonycpsu!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:22 AM on December 3, 2012


The American Revolution was
Of the white male upper class,
For the white male upper class and
By whomever the white male upper class could recruit.

And, ironically, that's what made it one of the few unequivocally successful Revolutions in history (that is, not resulting in a New Order worse than what they were overthrowing).

Of course, it did not really overthrow very much of the Social Order of the American colonies. And the "taxation without representation" they revolted against was less economically significant than the changes in tax rates of the last 30 years. So low expectations plus good PR are what made the United States of America.

When you wrap your mind around that, the rest of this country's history makes more sense.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:43 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Again there's no paradox here because Massa Tom, for all of his other enlightened qualities, was a fucking racist to the core

But most of the C18th abolitionists, including the great William Wilberforce, were "racist" in this sense. The "paradox" of Jefferson is not, at all, solved by pointing out that he held racist beliefs about the mental and physical capacities of black Africans. Not to do so would have been to go against the received opinion of virtually all the relevant learned authorities of the day. The argument against slavery was not premised on an argument that black Africans and Europeans are identical in their capacities but upon an argument that whatever their capacities they are human beings and deserving of liberty.
posted by yoink at 9:01 AM on December 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


Gore Vidal goes out of his way to show Jefferson as a hypocritical slaveholding asshole in Burr; he even mentions the nail factory. Reading that for the first time was really an eye-opener for me. Until that point, I'd been firmly in the "great man, a bit flawed because of the slave thing" camp... but it just takes a little bit of consideration of the reality of what owning slaves entailed to see that it's a horrible fucking thing that shouldn't just be elided as a sort of parenthetical remark mentioned with an asterisk.
posted by COBRA! at 9:13 AM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


[A couple comments removed, please refrain from beefing vaguely about unrelated things if you aren't bothering to engage the actual content of the post, or responding to said beefing.]
posted by cortex at 9:13 AM on December 3, 2012


but it just takes a little bit of consideration of the reality of what owning slaves entailed to see that it's a horrible fucking thing that shouldn't just be elided as a sort of parenthetical remark mentioned with an asterisk.

Yeah.

It seems like for quite a while, the expressed, middle-of-the-road, we-should-teach-it-to-white-kids-this-way-in-schools consensus about slavery's place in American history and its real moral dimensions was somewhere between "it was a different time" and "well thank God that's all behind us, eh?" There was this idea that you weren't supposed to be such a rube as to think that the Civil War was fundamentally and seriously about slavery, and you also weren't supposed to be so cynical and depressing as to think that slavery was one of the foundational elements of this country's political and moral structure with a profound and lasting legacy into modern times.

Or at least that's what I remember from my own school experience, and most of the stuff I read/watched before I did a history degree in undergrad and started reading a little more broadly.

It seems like, as time goes on, it gets harder for people to buy all of that. Which I like to think is because the traditional deeply entrenched racism of the American historical narrative has really started to come apart at the seams even at the middle-of-the-road, put-it-in-the-textbooks level.
posted by brennen at 9:31 AM on December 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


Meacham and others were interviewed in a segment of CBS Sunday Morning yesterday: Jefferson's irony: Voice of liberty, slave owner (w/ video).
posted by ericb at 9:31 AM on December 3, 2012


Video interview with Jon Meacham and Henry Wiencek on MSNBC from last week.
posted by ericb at 9:35 AM on December 3, 2012


Brennan, I hope you're right. The "slavery was bad, but it's over." approach is fine for small kids, because that's all they can handle. At some point, you do have to address the fact that the past is full of people just like you, people who believed in love and justice and decency, but who still did horrible things. Or had them done to them. And that maybe your descendants might have the same problems with you that you do with your ancestors; maybe we all still live in Omelas.
posted by emjaybee at 9:37 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post. Thanks tmot&t!
posted by Catchfire at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2012


I tend to think Jefferson was writing for the other educated elites, not the common person. For me, looking at it from that view makes him his contradictions easier to understand.
posted by KaizenSoze at 11:21 AM on December 3, 2012


Ain't no paradox. The reason Jefferson and his colleagues could write so eloquently about the rights of man whilst holding Africans as slaves is because they were fucking racists.

That's true but it's also true that Jefferson and his colleagues were racists because they owned slaves. The particular flavor of racism developed in America was only necessary because the United States was a slave holding society. It's easy to say that bad things happen because people are racists. That puts the focus on the souls of the slave owners. I think that the correct focus is on their actions. They kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured other human beings and they created a society which encouraged such behavior.
posted by rdr at 1:04 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's like people are completely confused that a politician could say one thing and do another.

Unless someone convinces me that the good things he did are permanently marred because of the bad things he did, then this whole concept of Jeffersonian-hate completely baffles me.

I mean, if you could point out some place at UVA that still to this day will only accept the children of white land-owners, or that the Constitution was written so that it only provided advantages for people of one race over any others, then I'll at least listen to your arguments.

But hating the guy for doing the same thing that, quite literally, every other upper class citizen in his state was doing at the exact same time is mind-numbingly moronic.

If there were a single politician that has done more for their own country than this guy, I'd love to hear about it. But being that there probably aren't many, we should probably get over this sort of misplaced vitriol, simply because it's just as illogical as stating that 'all men are created equal' and then owning slaves at the same time.
posted by Blue_Villain at 1:06 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're using 'literally' in a way that's unfamilar to me. Could you expand on that?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:15 PM on December 3, 2012


But hating the guy for doing the same thing that, quite literally, every other upper class citizen in his state was doing at the exact same time is mind-numbingly moronic.

It's not that Jefferson was awful, it's that he's overrated, and not just overrated in a generic way, but overrated specifically for his contributions to ending slavery. (Not a straw man argument.)
posted by tonycpsu at 1:29 PM on December 3, 2012


Oddly enough, the documents that he penned on paper are exactly what gives us (Americans, at least) the rights to discuss things like how government officials behave(d) in their private life without fear of persecution. A freedom that not all of the world shares.

So, any arguments that lead with "he's overrated" kinda fall flat in that aspect.
posted by Blue_Villain at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2012


His role in writing our founding documents disqualifies anyone from pushing back against the notion that he had a major role in bringing about the end of slavery?
posted by tonycpsu at 1:40 PM on December 3, 2012


"All men are created equal."* Riiiiight!

* -- Except those who were enslaved. Until the 13th. Amendment they were considered 3/5ths. a man
posted by ericb at 1:53 PM on December 3, 2012


Not even three fifths, since they still couldn't vote.
posted by tonycpsu at 1:57 PM on December 3, 2012


True ... very true.
posted by ericb at 2:07 PM on December 3, 2012


i wonder what shit future generations are going to condemn us for

also, how human rights are going to work once energy stops being cheap
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:37 PM on December 3, 2012


i wonder what shit future generations are going to condemn us for

Some guesses:
- Letting people die for lack of basic health care
- Keeping people alive on machines far past what is humane
- Factory farming, and probably eating meat altogether
- Not recognizing gay marriage/parents
- The racism and abuses of the justice and prison system
- The rampant incidence of rape and sexual assault of women children
- The exploitation of labor practices abroad that would not be tolerated 'at home'
posted by Salamandrous at 3:31 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


But hating the guy for doing the same thing that, quite literally, every other upper class citizen in his state was doing at the exact same time is mind-numbingly moronic.

Blue Villain, in one of the linked articles, Paul Finkelman wrote But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not.

That's not the only instance in the Finkleman link in which Jefferson, when measured against his contemporaries, not modern standards, comes up short. And Finkelman's is not the only link that gives examples; in his treatment of his own slaves, in his personal advice to friends and peers, in his political philosophy and in his public work, Jefferson's failure on the issue of slavery is manifest when compared to other men of his state and class.
posted by layceepee at 5:47 PM on December 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Listen, I'm not sticking up for slavery in the least. It was a horrible thing, and it still has a lasting impression today. If anybody is taking that from what I'm saying, then they're mis-interpreting what I'm saying.

But there's no point in getting upset when learning that one individual did this. It's mildly interesting in the same way the Globe/Enquirer/TMZ or whichever tabloid of your individual choosing finds dirt on Hulk Hogan, or Lindsay Lohan, or Milton Berle (if that's your thing).

If you look at some of the most lasting accomplishments of mankind that we still have today, things like the Great Wall of China, Pyramids at Giza, and now the American Constitution, they were all done by people who treated other human beings far far worse than many people can even imagine today.

Why is this surprising and/or astonishing to anybody? It's just celebrity mud-slinging with a historical twist. At least we're to the point where we can objectively say that things are better now than they were in the past, thanks largely to the work that this man did.
posted by Blue_Villain at 6:41 PM on December 3, 2012


Blue_Villain: "But there's no point in getting upset when learning that one individual did this. It's mildly interesting in the same way the Globe/Enquirer/TMZ or whichever tabloid of your individual choosing finds dirt on Hulk Hogan, or Lindsay Lohan, or Milton Berle (if that's your thing).

If you look at some of the most lasting accomplishments of mankind that we still have today, things like the Great Wall of China, Pyramids at Giza, and now the American Constitution, they were all done by people who treated other human beings far far worse than many people can even imagine today.

Why is this surprising and/or astonishing to anybody? It's just celebrity mud-slinging with a historical twist. At least we're to the point where we can objectively say that things are better now than they were in the past, thanks largely to the work that this man did
"

No one holds up the Ming Dynasty or Khufu up as eloquent defenders of liberty, though. The reason people key on Jefferson's attitudes about slavery is the utter hypocrisy of them. It turns out that all the wonderful things he said about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness didn't apply to most of the people in his life, and moreover that he wasn't just content to let that run its course, but was actively working to ensure the continuation of slavery for his own personal gain. George Washington also owned slaves, but his treatment of them doesn't get brought up as much because he neither trumpeted himself as a great voice in favor of personal freedom nor was trumpeted as such, at least not as loudly as Jefferson was. That the single person who most powerfully articulated the core values of American society and government turns out to have been completely unwilling and unable to fulfill them when it came to people over whom he had direct control says a great deal, I think, about how we got to where we are as a country when it comes to race.

The statue of Martin Luther King in the new memorial in DC stares directly across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial, which is a pretty potent symbol. Jefferson made a whole lot of promises that took nearly 200 years to even start coming good, thanks in large part to the actions of men like Jefferson himself.
posted by Copronymus at 7:19 PM on December 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you look at some of the most lasting accomplishments of mankind that we still have today, things like the Great Wall of China, Pyramids at Giza, and now the American Constitution

You really can't see how one of these things is not like the others? One of these things just doesn't belong.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:20 PM on December 3, 2012


Imagine if the builder of the Great Wall had been knocking down lots of other people's walls to build theirs. Then, later nationalists lionise them for their contribution to wall building, and get upset when someone else pointed out how the builder undermined the walls of others in propping up their own, and maybe they didn't have such a great contribution to wall history as they and their fans would claim.
posted by jb at 6:32 AM on December 4, 2012


I mean, if you could point out some place at UVA that still to this day will only accept the children of white land-owners

KA?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:01 AM on December 4, 2012


"Thomas Jefferson viewed black Africans as farm animals and as historians don't write much about how Jefferson managed his other farm animals, I'm not so sure we're missing very much from Meacham's scant treatment of this aspect of Jefferson's life."

… but we know that black people aren't farm animals.

"or that the Constitution was written so that it only provided advantages for people of one race over any others, then I'll at least listen to your arguments."

You mean like this constitution?

I like a lot of Jefferson, but still feel like his commitment to slavery diminished him, and diminished this country.
posted by klangklangston at 9:10 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


You mean like this constitution?

Yeah, this. This is the thing. You don't have to manufacture reasons to think that Jefferson (and his contemporaries) were compromised by slavery. It's right there in the documents and the institutions they created.
posted by brennen at 9:44 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"You mean like this constitution?"
That's a great example, but not one that can be attributed directly to Jefferson. It was a compromise between the states (you know, it did sorta mention that in the link). To be fair, Jefferson was the representative from Virginia at the time, along with George Washington, John Blair, and James Madison, Jr., some pretty heavy political hitters at the time.

But it was also something that the Northern states deemed acceptable, otherwise they wouldn't have signed onto it. So blaming Jefferson for this is just inaccurate.

My point is that putting his actions into today's mindset is neither valid nor even remotely indicative of anything. Would those actions fly today? Hell no, but it was a completely different time then, with different social norms and expectations.

Dismissing his accomplishments because he was one of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who treated human beings horribly only works if you're going to also admonish the other people of the time for doing the same thing. Otherwise it's just another cherry-picked episode of TMZ's Celebrity Justice.

Those three names I listed above, they also owned slaves, in fact, all of the first five presidents of the US owned slaves... while they were the President. So in order for the concept that Jefferson was a horrible person because he did this must also include the examples of other historical figures who also did this. And once you do that you see some insight on the perspective of the time.

History is all about perspective. And apparently many readers here on the blue are simply not able to get outside of their own heads (and moral standards) to see history for what it is: a different time than now. (Otherwise it'd be listed on the Current Events section of that fourth grade test we all had to take.)

This is the exact reason why "Those who cannot remember their history are doomed to repeat it" is a memorable quote. Because we all believe that 'now' is better than 'then'.
posted by Blue_Villain at 9:46 AM on December 4, 2012


Blue_Villain:So in order for the concept that Jefferson was a horrible person because he did this must also include the examples of other historical figures who also did this.

Wiencek's Smithsonian article:
In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will. He proved that emancipation was not only possible, but practical, and he overturned all the Jeffersonian rationalizations. Jefferson insisted that a multiracial society with free black people was impossible, but Washington did not think so. Never did Washington suggest that blacks were inferior or that they should be exiled.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:15 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Salon has coverage of the back-and-forth OpEds in "Who is the real Thomas Jefferson?"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:31 AM on December 4, 2012


"That's a great example, but not one that can be attributed directly to Jefferson. It was a compromise between the states (you know, it did sorta mention that in the link). To be fair, Jefferson was the representative from Virginia at the time, along with George Washington, John Blair, and James Madison, Jr., some pretty heavy political hitters at the time. "

That's a great example of moving the goalposts. If you weren't asking for a direct point on which the Constitution favored one race over another, you should have said so, especially when you're prefacing a remark about which arguments you consider moronic.

"But it was also something that the Northern states deemed acceptable, otherwise they wouldn't have signed onto it. So blaming Jefferson for this is just inaccurate."

Well, no. Blaming Jefferson solely for it would be inaccurate. Blaming him as part of a collective is incredibly accurate — it's in fact what happened.

"My point is that putting his actions into today's mindset is neither valid nor even remotely indicative of anything. Would those actions fly today? Hell no, but it was a completely different time then, with different social norms and expectations."

You're right — it's totally unfair to blame Jefferson for hypocrisy between his stated ideals and his practice. After all, he lived before Lincoln invented abolitionism.

THIS JUST IN: New evidence shows that abolitionism was a moral force during Jefferson's life, and that IN THIS VERY THREAD people are pointing out contemporaries of Jefferson who sought to engage his idealism with abolitionism.

"Dismissing his accomplishments because he was one of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who treated human beings horribly only works if you're going to also admonish the other people of the time for doing the same thing. Otherwise it's just another cherry-picked episode of TMZ's Celebrity Justice."

I am not dismissing his accomplishments, and am totally willing to admonish other slave owners — especially if they wrote things like "All men are created equal." Dude did a lot of great stuff, but you're offering a bullshit apologia in order to minimize having an adult view of a founding father.

"Those three names I listed above, they also owned slaves, in fact, all of the first five presidents of the US owned slaves... while they were the President. So in order for the concept that Jefferson was a horrible person because he did this must also include the examples of other historical figures who also did this. And once you do that you see some insight on the perspective of the time."

Yes, they were all hypocrites, some more than others. That everybody was doing it is not a great defense, especially when they knew better (Madison, especially, agitated against the slave trade but never freed his own slaves.)

"History is all about perspective. And apparently many readers here on the blue are simply not able to get outside of their own heads (and moral standards) to see history for what it is: a different time than now. (Otherwise it'd be listed on the Current Events section of that fourth grade test we all had to take.)"

That this extreme historical relativism fatuous is readily apparent by reducing to absurdity: From the perspective of the Nazis, the Jews weren't human and the Holocaust was just a final solution to the problem of the Jews destroying German society.

Further, this appeal to relativism is only possible if you ignore the perspectives and feelings of black people both then and now. It's using privilege as a white sheet to throw over the dirty laundry.

"This is the exact reason why "Those who cannot remember their history are doomed to repeat it" is a memorable quote. Because we all believe that 'now' is better than 'then'."

How did we get to the point of considering now better? By critically examining the past. Apologias such as yours short-circuit that process.

(This is a tangent from the larger point, but this itself is an ahistorical view and one that is contested all over. Pre-Enlightenment people generally tended to think that the world was ever as it was to them, with a countervailing narrative that the past was actually better. Even now, we see conservatives hold up the '50s as a more moral time.)
posted by klangklangston at 2:57 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Corey Robin continues: Jefferson's Race Obsession
Jefferson’s haunting obsession, in other words, is black freedom, not black slavery — and indeed he spent quite a bit of time drawing up legislative codes in Virginia that would have imposed major liabilities and restrictions upon the movement and freedom of free blacks.
Ta Nehisi Coates: Thomas Jefferson Was More Than A Man Of His Times
Picking up on this notion that one of our great Founding Fathers was merely like every other white Virginian, I think people who make this defense really undercut themselves. Part of what makes Jefferson fascinating (and great) is that--perhaps more than anyone of his generation--he articulated in writing the moral and practical problems of slavery.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:09 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Coates continues:

Some Clarification on Thomas Jefferson, on Jefferson's refusal to execute Thaddeus Kosciusko's will(?), which may or may not have freed slaves.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:31 AM on January 3, 2013


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