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a US presidential slave ownership reference table
December 30, 2013 4:57 AM   Subscribe

Which US presidents owned slaves?

How many presidents owned slaves? It ought to be a simple question but a search on the web produces a lot of contradictory answers. One reason is that there are really two questions: 1. How many presidents owned slaves during their lives? 2. How many presidents owned slaves while they were president? In the table below I attempt to answer both questions.
posted by threeants (82 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why does the John Adams quotation come out in Paul Giamatti's voice?
posted by goethean at 6:07 AM on December 30, 2013 [13 favorites]


Thanks for the research and work.
posted by rmhsinc at 6:09 AM on December 30, 2013


(page compiled by Robert Lopresti)
posted by threeants at 6:11 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


The quotes, in particular, are a reminder of the racism that permeated much of the conversation about abolition. Those who were against slavery seem to have often opposed it out of fear -- a certainty that slaves would rise up and kill their masters, and a desire to keep that conflict far away from their own homes in the North. If the South wanted to risk dealing with slaves, that was their problem and their own decision to make.

It's just so many layers of awfulness. Peel one back and there's something even uglier underneath.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:16 AM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


The US capital is located in DC/Maryland because Virginia slaveholders weren't happy about bringing their slaves to abolitionist Philadelphia.
posted by goethean at 6:21 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:27 AM on December 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. (Grant)

Ooooh...that would have been interesting.
posted by goethean at 6:32 AM on December 30, 2013


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

I wonder if Sally Hemings wished him dead.
posted by de at 6:37 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

Nah, it's always been easier to preach it rather than practice it, whatever "it" is. No doubt Jefferson was able to justify in his mind somehow.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:40 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.
I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us....

--Abigail Adams (Letter to John Adams March 31, 1776)
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:44 AM on December 30, 2013 [15 favorites]


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

It's not really a mystery to me. His slaves were a large portion of his wealth. He was a debtor for much of his life, and his sole source of income was his slave-driven plantation. It's easy to acknowledge something is wrong, but a lot harder to impoverish yourself in that acknowledgement.
posted by me & my monkey at 6:44 AM on December 30, 2013 [24 favorites]


Nah, it's always been easier to preach it rather than practice it, whatever "it" is. No doubt Jefferson was able to justify in his mind somehow.

I think we all do this to some extent. To use myself as an example, I am convinced of the risks of global warming, but my own lifestyle takes full advantage of cheap oil and other non-renewable energy sources. People's general inability to put their money where their mouths are is the reason we solve large problems with laws and regulations, not by appeals to moral values.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [50 favorites]


Also, the big surprise to me was not the early presidents, who I knew were slave owners, but in how late it extended. Even Grant freed a slave? I had not expected that.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:52 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's easy to acknowledge something is wrong, but a lot harder to impoverish yourself in that acknowledgement.

I've been doing some reading in Rhode Island history (one corner of the Triangle Trade!), and I try to get my head around how I feel about the difference between the DeWolfs of Bristol, RI, who were probably the largest single importer of slaves in 18th C America. They vociferously defended slavery, since they were economically dependent on it. John Brown, on the other hand, maybe broken even on his slave trading ventures but defended the practice with equal vigor, despite being able to abandon it with no economic repercussions. Apparently, he resented being told what to do. So who was morally worse -- the family that destroyed a lot more people but who would have been hard-pressed to stop financially or the guy who wanted to buy and sell people as part of an ego trip.

It's a depressing set of concepts to unwrap.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:52 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm struck by how dominant Virginians were in the early days, which I guess is something I knew in the abstract. Seeing that 7 of the 12 first presidents were from the state (and 2 of the non-VA presidents were the Adams family), it really brings home how powerful that state's planter class was in the early republic.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:55 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's easy to acknowledge something is wrong, but a lot harder to impoverish yourself in that acknowledgement.

Yeah, this is definitely true -- sometimes I wonder what future generations will think we did that's completely and totally horrific in the way we think of slavery as completely and totally horrific and I think the answer is "cheap sweatshop labor". It's really horrible and I think we will be (justifiably) completely condemned for it in the future but we keep doing it because it's part of an ingrained system.

I think it's really awful and I want it to stop but I will admit that I also own a smartphone and buy clothes from places that probably use this kind of labor because I'm not entirely sure what else to do. The prevalent system is the prevalent system and stepping outside that in practice instead of just in theory can be really, REALLY difficult.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:57 AM on December 30, 2013 [20 favorites]


jefferson also started raping sally heming when she was 14 or 15, he obviously felt entitled to those he owned. it's not surprising to me that his words didn't match his actions.
posted by nadawi at 7:00 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


I like the Lincoln quote: those who advocate for slavery should be made slaves.
posted by jb at 7:02 AM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


sometimes I wonder what future generations will think we did that's completely and totally horrific in the way we think of slavery as completely and totally horrific and I think the answer is "cheap sweatshop labor".

I suspect the answer will be restrictions on immigration, which keeps people living in places where sweatshop jobs are often better than the alternatives.
posted by dsfan at 7:04 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

Well Jefferson was eloquent even when he was full of shit. Jefferson was also a simpleton. His observations on Africans in his Notes on the State of Virginia are breath-taking:

"I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question 'What further is to be done with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture."

I say breathtaking because Jefferson wasn't some Yankee whose views on slavery were untainted by any contact with actual Africans. Jefferson grew up around slaves and around slavery. He had personal contact with African slaves. He was able to talk to them, get to know them, and yet TJ was an absolute racist in the nominal sense of the word. Based on his own experience and observation he believed Africans to be an inferior race. It was easy for him to talk about notions of liberty and equality that did not apply to this inferior race.
posted by three blind mice at 7:05 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thomas Jefferson, what a fucker. I assume he's the Tea Party's favorite?
posted by Artw at 7:05 AM on December 30, 2013


This reminds me of the scene in Sleepy Hollow where Ichabod is interrupted in his vigorous defense of TJ's morals with the news about Sally and the DNA test results and he mutters "Some people you just don't know."
posted by localroger at 7:05 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

It wasn't just Jefferson: pro-American Revolutionary War rhetoric in both the colonies and and in Britain were full of statements like "England won't make slaves of us!" (Several years ago, I did a research project that included reading both American and British newspapers from c1775 and c1780, looking for particular articles).

It wasn't that the rebels didn't realize their hypocrisy. They were fully aware of slavery and how bad it is. They didn't object to slavery; they objected to the idea that they - free and white men - should be treated in anyway like black people. The idea that British policy was anything like slavery was, of course, massive hyperbole.
posted by jb at 7:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


It wasn't just Jefferson: pro-American Revolutionary War rhetoric in both the colonies and and in Britain were full of statements like "England won't make slaves of us!"

"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" - Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny (1775)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 7:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


It wasn't that the rebels didn't realize their hypocrisy. They were fully aware of slavery and how bad it is. They didn't object to slavery; they objected to the idea that they - free and white men - should be treated in anyway like black people. The idea that British policy was anything like slavery was, of course, massive hyperbole.

So, basically, Libertarians.
posted by Artw at 7:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


Why does the John Adams quotation come out in Paul Giamatti's voice?

Funny, I heard William Daniels.
posted by ogooglebar at 7:33 AM on December 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


John Brown, on the other hand, maybe broken even on his slave trading ventures but defended the practice with equal vigor, despite being able to abandon it with no economic repercussions.

HIs brother Moses Brown was a partner with him at first. But upon witnessing the horrors on their first slave trading ship, he quit the business and became an active abolitionist.

Two brothers, given the same circumstances, made to opposing moral choices.
posted by eye of newt at 7:33 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


As in pretty much all things, follow the money. If Jefferson had paid a hundred free people to work for him and the guy next door had owned a hundred slaves to do the same work, that guy probably would have eaten Jefferson's lunch. (Or at least that's what Jefferson would have feared.) Money always greases the grinding cogs in cognitive dissonance. (People want nice book stores and Amazon is evil but... Amazon is cheaper, etc.)
posted by pracowity at 7:40 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


sometimes I wonder what future generations will think we did that's completely and totally horrific in the way we think of slavery as completely and totally horrific...

Death penalty? Solitary confinement? Homelessness?

Seems like there are kindof a lot of things, actually.
posted by likeatoaster at 7:44 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


The cost of reading every book: we know their names is a stark answer to the question of Jefferson's wealth that has been on my mind since I read it last week. Jerfferson's beautiful and astounding collection of books, his immense intellectual curiosity and brilliance, all directly bound to ledgers of people he bought and sold and broke all promises of freedom.

It isn't a philosophical question of whether to rescue Shakespeare's lost folios or a child from a burning fire, it's sending children to lonely deaths so you can buy another book.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [32 favorites]


I say breathtaking because Jefferson wasn't some Yankee whose views on slavery were untainted by any contact with actual Africans. Jefferson grew up around slaves and around slavery. He had personal contact with African slaves. He was able to talk to them, get to know them, and yet TJ was an absolute racist in the nominal sense of the word.

This is, sadly, not too unusual; it seems to be a universal human flaw that people who were born on third base are quite proud of their high-scoring athletic prowess. You see pretty much the same dynamic between every colonial power and their colonies. And this probably did not go unnoticed by the American founders, thus the rhetoric about being treated like slaves themselves by their British masters. It may have been hyperbole, but the same paternalistic rhetoric Jefferson spouts in that quote was used by every colonial power to justify their occupation and subjugation of those poor inferior people who couldn't get along without our help *sniffle*.
posted by localroger at 7:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's easy to look back at people in the 18th-19th century and think of them as crazy idiots for not immediately dropping everything and forcibly dismantling the exploitative machinery of their society, but before you do, ask yourself why you're not doing the same thing to resist the oppressive forces of early 21st-century society.

For example, I'm certain that people in the future will look back at the United States in 2013 as a monstrous society that imprisons over two million of its citizenry for the benefit of a private for-profit prison system justified by a draconian drug enforcement policy. I know this intellectually, and I despise it. But it is one thing to despise a pervasive societal problem and quite another to resist it. The most direct way I could oppose the administrative body that supports this policy is by refusing to pay taxes. But then I would go to jail, and the problem still wouldn't be solved.

See also the plight of poor textile workers in southeast Asia and Central America, factory workers in China who manufacture our electronic miracles, undereducated impoverished children in black ethnic ghettoes in major U.S. cities, and a thousand other examples of economic exploitation that are so commonly accepted in our enlightened and free modern society.
posted by deathpanels at 8:12 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


i totally get the argument that it's easy to judge those back then while refusing to look at our own shit - but we aren't raping slaves starting when they're 14 years old, fathering 6 kids with them, and then refusing to free them even on our death bed. we've got blood on our hands, no doubt, but there is still plenty to critique with men like jefferson.
posted by nadawi at 8:15 AM on December 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Gerald Ford?!?
posted by Bromius at 8:20 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


If Jefferson had paid a hundred free people to work for him and the guy next door had owned a hundred slaves to do the same work, that guy probably would have eaten Jefferson's lunch.

Jefferson actually had no real financial sense, and considering the astronomical debt he was in upon his death, I think it's safe to say that paying the same amount of people to keep up Monticello all that time would have been a drop in the bucket.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:21 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


but we aren't raping slaves starting when they're 14 years old, fathering 6 kids with them, and then refusing to free them even on our death bed.

As awful as that is, particularly from a modern perspective, I really think it shrinks to insignificance against triggering a Permian-level extinction that might wipe out all vertebrate life except what we let into the domes we hastily build to save a few of ourselves.
posted by localroger at 8:23 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


When Quakers were moving toward their anti-slavery view, as I understand it, there were many concerns raised about the economic effects of freeing slaves. Although they got to an abolitionist stance a good hundred years or so before the general culture, their decision-making up to that time was very conflicted and contradictory. At different times, for instance, various Quakers decided that it was OK to inherit slaves but not to buy them; or to own them if you freed them upon your death; and so on. There were schemes to try to reimburse the losses of Quakers who freed their slaves, and other efforts to ameliorate the challenges. But it was a long, long process. And, as with all such fraught decisions, unity was eventually bought at the cost of some people leaving Quakerism--so you can say, "Quakers are abolitionists who don't own slaves," in part because all the slave holding Quakers have left.

I bring it up because it's my lens for seeing all the complexities of this. That, and, as other people have commented above, the ways my own life falls short of what I think is right. I am not morally opposed to eating meat, for instance, but I feel strongly about how animals are treated. Yet I buy factory farmed meat because my food budget doesn't stretch to getting all of our meat from locally-grown, humanely-raised and slaughtered sources, and it is not workable for me to eat a more vegetarian diet than I already do. I like that our small house reduces our energy use significantly over what we'd use in a larger place, but we hope to make an interstate move in the next year and we will upgrade to four bedrooms because our middle child, while wonderful in most ways, has some mental and emotional struggles that make it bad for his younger brother to share a room with him. We will do this even though we know that having a bedroom for each child is a luxury many families don't have, and it will increase our energy use (I've always felt that downgrading to a house less than half the size of the old one was the easiest step toward reducing our energy use that we've ever taken.)

If people are interested in a book that does an amazing job of going behind and beyond a "received wisdom" historical story, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship is an extremely well-researched book by two Quakers that looks deeply in to the complicated reality of Quakers' relationship to racial justice. It's often described as a book that shows how racist Quakers "really" were and are, but I found it to be better than that--it both honors Quakers for their achievements in this area, and holds them accountable for their failings. Mainly, it seeks to take contemporary Quakers' tendency to boast about our history of racial equality and our important role in the abolition and women's rights movements of the 19th Century, and show us the messy reality surrounding that work: white Quakers who not only owned slaves but were slave traders, for instance, or who opposed abolition, or who supported abolition but, like our friend Thomas Jefferson, still felt sure that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. It's a fascinating read, aimed, of course, mainly at white Quakers but good for anyone who is interested in history in all its messiness.
posted by not that girl at 8:25 AM on December 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


As awful as that is, particularly from a modern perspective, I really think it shrinks to insignificance against triggering a Permian-level extinction that might wipe out all vertebrate life except what we let into the domes we hastily build to save a few of ourselves.

It's not a contest.
posted by eunoia at 8:30 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's not a contest.

See, once there was this really smart fellow who told a story about worrying about the mote in another fellow's eye when you have a log in your own. According to him it kind of is a contest.
posted by localroger at 8:45 AM on December 30, 2013


That's really not the lesson you are supposed to draw from that.
posted by Artw at 8:47 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


See, once there was this really smart fellow who told a story about worrying about the mote in another fellow's eye when you have a log in your own. According to him it kind of is a contest.

I'm no biblical scholar, but that sure strikes me as an odd reading.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:49 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


How is worrying about our own immorality before condemning others an odd reading of that passage?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


> sometimes I wonder what future generations will think we did that's completely and totally horrific in the way we think of slavery as completely and totally horrific...

Death penalty? Solitary confinement? Homelessness?


For the US, I think incarceration in general will turn out to be our generation's special nightmare. In the last 30 years we've quadrupled our prison population, now reaching close to 1% of the total adult population. Imprisonment and slavery have a lot in common -- the risk of sexual and other violence, the near-total loss of basic rights, the impact on life expectancy, exclusion from the political process, the permanent brand as an untouchable person even after being freed, etc. Though forced labor isn't common anymore, prisoners are literally exempted from the ban on slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment.

Of course this isn't a new horrendous thing -- nearly one in ten younger black males are incarcerated, far beyond any other group, with documented bias at every step of the process. It's the same horrendous thing, finding a new voice after the Civil Rights Act.

And we tolerate it for similar reasons to the toleration of slavery. Because each step down the spiral seemed to make sense at the time. Because fixing it would be hard, expensive, disruptive. Because we think they deserve it. Because we don't know what our society would look like, now, without it.

If you want to understand those wishy-washy quotes from presidents who opposed slavery but didn't do anything about it, consider this: would you be willing to free three out of four US prisoners, tomorrow? We would still have a higher incarceration rate than any other developed, democratic nation, or than the US itself had prior to 1978. It would be an extraordinary step for civil rights. So if it was your decision alone -- would you do it?
posted by jhc at 8:54 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


As in pretty much all things, follow the money. If Jefferson had paid a hundred free people to work for him and the guy next door had owned a hundred slaves to do the same work, that guy probably would have eaten Jefferson's lunch.

It doesn't tend to work out like that. If you pay someone to do some work, your obligation to him ends there, and you can keep that arrangement going for as long as you both want to and are able to. If you enslave someone, you have to take on the responsibility for their food and shelter or you won't be able to make them work for more than a few days, not to mention the expenses of making sure they don't escape. The end result for a lot of the economies of slave-holding societies is that the value of the slaves as property massively exceeds the value of all other property put together and you've created a cycle where since these people's continued enslavement is the most important thing for your economy, you institute more laws to expand slavery into new territory and to permanently entrench it where it already exists, which makes them even more valuable so you make more laws and so on. Basically, it's difficult if not impossible to be a country that owns slaves and does anything else at all, and most of the things that make an economy productive fall into the latter category.
posted by Copronymus at 9:00 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


One of the big pleasures of Gore Vidal's Burr is that Vidal goes to very great, hilarious lengths to portray Thomas Jefferson as a hypocritical horse's ass. It's a great book for a lot of reasons, but it's especially good if you're in the mood for a negative take on Jefferson.
posted by COBRA! at 9:04 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


How is worrying about our own immorality before condemning others an odd reading of that passage?

So you're saying that one can't point out bad behavior in others until...when? The polar ice caps stop melting? The giant panda comes back from the brink of extinction? I'm not being snarky (much), but I really don't understand.
posted by eunoia at 9:07 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


As awful as that is, particularly from a modern perspective, I really think it shrinks to insignificance against triggering a Permian-level extinction that might wipe out all vertebrate life except what we let into the domes we hastily build to save a few of ourselves.

if you don't think discussing slave owning presidents is significant than why are you in this thread? this isn't a thread about global warming or whatever the fuck. and coming into a thread about slave owning presidents to be all like "but we're destroying the planet!" is concern troll bs.
posted by nadawi at 9:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


And we tolerate it for similar reasons to the toleration of slavery.

Most of all for the reason that we consider ourselves to be unlike "those people", just as the Southerners considered themselves to be essentially unlike blacks.
posted by goethean at 9:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


As Copronymous points out, slavery is not cost-free in relation to hiring help; you pay no wages, but a slave dead of starvation can't work. You are responsible for keeping them (and their children, until you can sell them at least) clothed and housed somewhere, no matter how miserably. And you must devote resources to spying on, punishing and pursuing them if they attempt to escape, which of course many did, which means hiring a staff that is willing to do that dirty work. There is a great deal of documentation of slaves being deliberately inefficient workers, as well; it was a form of passive rebellion to break things, lose things, forget orders, and make mistakes, that apparently was a common problem for slaveowners.

There was more to the desire to keep slaves than pure economics; it was not a perfectly logical arrangement. It was an expression of prestige and power, and eventually, of angry identity, as slavery became less acceptable in the rest of the country.

Of course, I don't know the exact twisted dynamics of Thomas Jefferson's reasoning for keeping his slaves, any more than anyone else does. I'm sure he didn't have to try very hard to justify it to himself in that time and place.
posted by emjaybee at 9:19 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


goethean: "Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. (Grant)

Ooooh...that would have been interesting.
"

More specifically, that would have been Haiti.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:24 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Bew, preznits, bew!
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:32 AM on December 30, 2013


It would have been more than Haiti... It would have been a whole corner of the triangle gone rogue. Even after it became self sustaining and breeding replaced trade as a big source of slaves it would have been a huge deal.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on December 30, 2013


It doesn't tend to work out like that.

No, of course not, but, as I noted in the very next sentence, that's what slave owners would fear. Otherwise they would have just hired local people rather than importing them all the way from Africa.
posted by pracowity at 9:39 AM on December 30, 2013


[expletive deleted]: "How is worrying about our own immorality before condemning others an odd reading of that passage?"

You've changed both the words and meaning of localroger's statement, so your question is irrelevant.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:42 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


So you're saying that one can't point out bad behavior in others until...when? The polar ice caps stop melting? The giant panda comes back from the brink of extinction? I'm not being snarky (much), but I really don't understand.

Not at all. For one, I'm not a Christian; also, I am a hypocrite.

More seriously, I just thought that localroger was expressing a fairly conventional interpretation of that parable. And I think it valid to speculate that just as how slavery is rightly called America's original sin, so the original sin of industrialization, of modern globalized capitalism, will be climate change. As people who benefit from the unprecedented material wealth fossil fuels have allowed, and who are increasingly aware of the consequences to future generations, that future historians will judge us harsher than slave owners like Jefferson is certainly possible.

That is all a bit of a derail though. I wouldn't go as far as to call it concern trolling, but I grow evermore impatient with defenses of Jefferson. Even if we consider it unfair to judge him by today's standards—and personally, I think it's perfectly fair—we can judge him in relation to his contemporaries.

John Adams, for instance, while not a radical abolitionist, did call for the end of slavery. He also owned no humans, and there is no evidence that he was a serial child rapist. By all accounts, he stayed faithful to a woman who he acknowledged as an intellectual equal, and a rich correspondence attests to the fact. Of course, we can and should judge his unwillingness to accept Abigail's request that women's rights be brought before the Continental Congress convention as a failing.

Jefferson said some nice things about liberty and equality. He was still a slaver, a rapist and a real dickbag for it.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:45 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


My point isn't that we should let ol' Tommy off the hook because compared to us he was a saint. He wasn't. But it is worth being a little critical of the sort of back-patting historical reflections that tend to crop up in the mind when looking at the cruelty of the Victorian era. We tend to see people who owned slaves and tormented immigrants in dangerous factory jobs as weird moral aliens that have been thankfully removed from power and now the world is safe for democracy etc. Of course it isn't a contest to be more cruel than the 19th century, but whether we like it or not the 21st century so far is a pretty good contender.
posted by deathpanels at 10:31 AM on December 30, 2013


Jefferson had a talent for inspiring people to glorify revolutionary violence and for writing persuasive rhetoric. He had some enlightened ideas, but overall, wasn't particularly self-reflective or even fundamentally decent. He was a human being of his time and likely felt he deserved his elevated standing in society the same as anyone else at the top of one of our many little social pyramids. It's true that Jefferson gets far too much leeway for his own moral and personal failings in some circles. But the cultural mythology and cult of personality that Americans have built up around all the founders is not unique to Jefferson. They all get too easy a pass on their shortcomings and intellectual and moral deficits. We've been taught to view them as mythological father figures--like little demigods--for most of American history.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:36 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: the sort of back-patting historical reflections that tend to crop up in the mind.
posted by michaelh at 10:42 AM on December 30, 2013


Big ups to John Adams and JQ Adams in this context.

One of the big pleasures of Gore Vidal's Burr is that Vidal goes to very great, hilarious lengths to portray Thomas Jefferson as a hypocritical horse's ass. It's a great book for a lot of reasons, but it's especially good if you're in the mood for a negative take on Jefferson.

That and all the jokes about how big Washington's butt is.
posted by feckless at 10:44 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Adams claimed that the clause in the Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a free person when calculating congressional representation created a “privileged order of slave-holding Lords, and a race of men degraded to a lower status, merely because they were not slave-holders. Every planter south of the Potomac has one vote for himself and three votes in effect for every five slaves he keeps in bondage; while a New England farmer, who contributes tenfold as much to the support of the government, has only a single vote.”
(Hecht, p153-4.)


Typical entitled moocher red states with their disproportionate representation...
posted by RonButNotStupid at 10:56 AM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


I feel like the mythologizing that saulgoodman identifies largely bypassed the Adamses, at least when I was getting my initial exposure to US history. The more I learn about that family, the more I think this was very unfortunate for me.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:15 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm working through a book called The Sugar Barons that goes into the very horrific back story of the West Indies and more interestingly for this, the impact of the plantation owners, their families, laws, and governing roles back in the Colonies. It's not a light holiday read unless you like images of torture and descriptions of carefully scripted racism designed to perpetuate a horrific system, but it's filling in a part of the picture I didn't even know about.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:45 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fun fact, the sugar colonies imported such high volume of slave labor because the world was so brutal and they had a horrifying turn over rate in terms of death and injury and it was still more cost effective just replace them every year with brand new people then fix the conditions, not to mention that the high death rate prevented organization or stabe cultures forming that could press back.

Just another cheerful historical fact to think about when you grab your breakfast this morning.
posted by The Whelk at 12:59 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


saulgoodman: "[Jefferson] likely felt he deserved his elevated standing in society the same as anyone else at the top of one of our many little social pyramids."

The interesting thing is: Jefferson really strongly believed in a classless society - so much so that he had a round dining table made, so he wouldn't be able to "sit at the head" above his guests.

And yet...this is paired in the same brain with the fellow who wrote articles explaining that boy slave babies were more profitable than anything else his farm produced, and therefore should be considered a chief "product".

It's jarringly incompatible, these two sides of Jefferson... and yet, somehow, to him it never seemed troublesome enough to comment on in self-reflection.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:33 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another interesting tidbit from that list is that of the first twelve presidents, the only two who didn't own slaves were father and son.
posted by localroger at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2013


It doesn't tend to work out like that.

No, of course not, but, as I noted in the very next sentence, that's what slave owners would fear. Otherwise they would have just hired local people rather than importing them all the way from Africa.


As The Whelk notes, one major reason for the importation of slaves was that the work on sugar & tobacco plantations - and later cotton growing - was so very nasty that it was really hard to get free labourers to do it. They started off with indentured labour from the British Isles as well as Native American slaves, but Native people and most Europeans were also highly susceptible to tropical diseases, more so than African labour.

Sugar regions imported the most slaves. Slaves made up a much higher percentage of the population in the Carribean and South American sugar colonies that in what would become the US South, which was the major reasons that colonies like Jamaica didn't join the revolution. The Jamaican planters had many of the same complaints about Westminster that American elites did, but with a slave population closer to 90% (compared to about 40-50% for the US slave colonies? been years since I've seen the numbers), they feared that any rebellion against Westminster would quickly just lead to a rebellion against them. (Again - just like Haiti).

Slavery may not have been the best economic choice for the society - rich societies are the ones with well-paid labour who are also consumers and drive demand (as much as rightwingers want to forget that). But it did extremely well for individual slave-owners.

One fascinating book on slavery, racism and rhetoric in the US is Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. It's specifically about Virginia, where so many founding fathers also came from. As the Wikipedia synopsis notes, Morgan concentrates on the "central paradox in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country".
posted by jb at 1:45 PM on December 30, 2013


also: sugar cane is still one of the nastiest crops in the world to grow, with terrible conditions for the workers.

Sugar beets, where most of Europe's sugar is from, are grown by middle class farmers (I've met several from England).
posted by jb at 1:47 PM on December 30, 2013


We are doomed to reinvent the goddam wheel every few years.

Columbus, when he didn't find much gold, thought to recoup the investment in his venture by sending Indian slaves back to the old world, where they were enthusiastically received. When his men effectively killed off the Indians in the Caribbean, the next market for slaves was among the black Africans. Except for the novelty of having new human-like creatures for the affluent to adore, this wasn't particularly well-received in Europe, because by then slavery was being (largely) abandoned by "advanced countries" for another form of civilization and enlightenment, namely, colonization.

You could say that, in addition to the prospect of creating wealth for a few enterprises, African slaves helped divert attention from the theft of North America from its native inhabitants. The truth is that, all along, groups of decent (American white) people spoke out against these various deprecations. They were not very successful in forwarding their views to the movers, shakers, and accountants that moved, shook, and totaled the sums that actually mattered.

Beneath the glitter we've scattered over our nation's history, our history is pretty ugly. But it's no good to look down our noses at our (white) ancestors. Were it that simple, then all we'd have to do in order to set things straight would be to drag Little Nell off the railroad tracks and send LeGree to the stocks. We get to foo-foo Jefferson for his failings. Fair enough. If it makes you feel better, feel free to go piss on his grave. We are dropping our dogmas, but only one at a time, and then only those that are no longer useful.

Anyhow, what if, during the 1800's everybody decided to protest against slavery by refusing to buy (or sell) anything made of cotton? This seems more practical than, say, trying to stop wars by having everyone not show up; or what? The system is safe as long as we have boogerbears to flick snotwads at.

Having pretty much played out our evangelical mission, we are left with only the mandate to spread the freedom and democracy represented by unfettered capitalism to the rest of the world. I'm pretty sure I won't be around to see how that works out. Just as well.
posted by mule98J at 1:58 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really need to check the meaning of 'mandate'.
posted by de at 2:24 PM on December 30, 2013


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

I can't find the article right now, but in an analysis of Jefferson's slave-owning his writings reflected a willingness to free his slaves--until he realized how much money they were making him. Then the tone changed and he started coming up with all sorts of justifications for keeping them.
posted by schroedinger at 2:26 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think Ben Franklin's evolved views on slavery and deep involvement in abolitionism are admirable. He still expressed very racist thinking, but it seems that he did have altruistic motivations and acted upon them.

Benjamin Franklin and His Fight to Abolish Slavery
This is chiefly to acquaint you, that I have visited the Negro school here in company with the Rev. Mr. Sturgeon and some others; and had the children thoroughly examined. They appeared all to have made considerable progress in reading for the time they had respectively been in the school, and most of them answered readily and well the questions of the catechism; they behaved very orderly, showed a proper respect and ready obedience to the mistress, and seemed very attentive to, and a good deal affected by, a serious exhortation with which Mr. Sturgeon concluded our visit. I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw, have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race, than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices, not to account for them.

(Franklin letter to Reverend John Waring. December 17, 1763)

That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty being, alike objects of his Care & equally designed for the Enjoyment of Happiness the Christian Religion teaches us to believe & the Political Creed of America fully coincides with the Position. Your Memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the Distresses arising from Slavery, believe it their indispensable Duty to present this Subject to your notice. They have observed with great Satisfaction that many important & salutary Powers are vested in you for "promoting the Welfare & Securing the blessings of liberty to the "People of the United States." And as they conceive, that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of Colour, to all descriptions of People, so they indulge themselves in the pleasing expectation, that nothing, which can be done for the relive of the unhappy objects of their care, will be either omitted or delayed.

(Franklin petition to the Senate & House of Representatives of the United States 1790)
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:34 PM on December 30, 2013


It's a terrible mystery to me how Jefferson could have been so eloquent against the evils of slavery, while not even being willing to free his own slaves in his will.

I think it's great to be baffled by such naked hypocrisy, but at the same time we're all aware that it happens every day, on a grand scale, and that we all wallow in blood due to the way society works now, then, and from the looks of it, the future.

There are a ton of day to day examples but an easy one for me is a ton of guys who have mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters, and daughters and yet look upon women in a very demeaning, absurd way.
posted by juiceCake at 2:58 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


As was pointed out above, owning a slave costs you the price of their continued survival. Yet we get to employ people and pay them less than they can live on.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:00 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yet we get to employ people and pay them less than they can live on.

Indeed. Who needs slaves when you have serfs?
posted by tommyD at 4:40 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gerald Ford?!?

Time lord.
posted by sonika at 5:24 PM on December 30, 2013


I have been reading a biography of George Washington, I'm only just to the American Revolution (I know his relationship with slavery grows more complicated with time), and the slavery stuff is blowing my mind. George & Martha are relatively good to their slaves by the standards of the time and place -- George recognizes his slaves' marriages (which were not legal marriages at the time) and refuses to break up families (eventually stopping selling slaves completely so as not to break up any families, which renders Mount Vernon unprofitable because he is feeding more slaves than the estate can maintain); Martha tends to ill slaves herself. George has increasingly complicated views on slavery as time goes on and starts to consider abolition, but -- and this is the part that just completely blows my mind -- he has a giant case of the sulks that his slaves are not grateful to be working for him, and that they're "lazy" and not very productive in his service. Like he himself has grave concerns about the morality of slavery, but seriously cannot understand how someone who is ENSLAVED might not have a whole lot of incentive to work very hard, or be very happy about it. He thinks his slaves should be industrious and cheerful and takes it super-personally that they're not. He complains about it in letters ALL THE TIME.

This is what makes me realize that no matter how much I learn about the time period, I'm not going to be able to understand the attitudes and justifications of those who lived in the time period because -- well, I mean, Washington is not a dumb guy, but this attitude seems literally crazy. And nobody in his acquaintance finds it worth even remarking upon! Not even Abigail Adams, who has plenty to say about the Founding Fathers and their attitudes towards slavery.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:23 PM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's easy to look back at people in the 18th-19th century and think of them as crazy idiots for not immediately dropping everything and forcibly dismantling the exploitative machinery of their society, but before you do, ask yourself why you're not doing the same thing to resist the oppressive forces of early 21st-century society.

The table isn't "Which presidents were not radical abolitionists?" It's "Which presidents were slave owners."
posted by layceepee at 6:57 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The table isn't "Which presidents were not radical abolitionists?" It's "Which presidents were slave owners."

The future called. It wants to know your carbon footprint.
posted by localroger at 8:52 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


He thinks his slaves should be industrious and cheerful and takes it super-personally that they're not. He complains about it in letters ALL THE TIME.

This attitude persists in the modern era as well and is the root of a lot of really gross power relationships. I think the lack of endlessly cheerful, smiling subversviant workers tends to put in relief the unequal dynamic YIU live in, which makes people uncomfortable and introduces the tiny idea that if they're not singing joyfully all the time they might decide to kill you in your sleep.
posted by The Whelk at 9:48 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


> If you want to understand those wishy-washy quotes from presidents who opposed slavery but didn't do anything about it, consider this: would you be willing to free three out of four US prisoners, tomorrow?

Yes yes yes, yes. Were I a Senator or other elected official dependent on the public's approval, still yes. Ex-cons relocated to my immediate neighborhood, still yes.
posted by desuetude at 10:55 PM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


>Why does the John Adams quotation come out in Paul Giamatti's voice?

Funny, I heard William Daniels.


I heard elderly, South Shore Massachusetts townie.

“I shuddah when I think of the kah-LAM-ah-tees which slavery is likely ta pra-DOOSE in this country. Friggin' ay!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:43 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eyebrows McGee : "He thinks his slaves should be industrious and cheerful and takes it super-personally that they're not. He complains about it in letters ALL THE TIME."

The Whelk: " This attitude persists in the modern era as well and is the root of a lot of really gross power relationships. I think the lack of endlessly cheerful, smiling subversviant workers tends to put in relief the unequal dynamic YIU live in, which makes people uncomfortable and introduces the tiny idea that if they're not singing joyfully all the time they might decide to kill you in your sleep."

This reminded me of previous discussion of "emotional labor". It's not enough that somebody lead a spinning class, they need to live for spinning (er, I mean, "SoulCycle").
posted by Lexica at 10:46 AM on December 31, 2013


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