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Thomas Jefferson: Monster of Monticello?

In a NYT op-ed titled “The Monster of Monticello” Paul Finkelman expresses his befuddlement that people play down Thomas Jefferson’s legacy as a slave owner.

THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.

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.

[...]

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. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

This is all unspeakably horrible from modern sensibilities but hardly remarkable for Jefferson’s day. There’s no “brutal hypocri[sy]” in espousing equality and slavery; Jefferson simply didn’t see Africans as fully human. Again, that’s awful; it just wasn’t unusual in the eighteenth century.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    I look back at this sort of thing to remind myself that yeah, we have made some ethical and moral progress despite how dark things can seem today.

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  2. Dean Esmay says:

    Some of that’s not even accurate to my eye. Without question Jefferson was a hypocrite on this issue and admitted as such, but throughout his life was asked about it and admitted it and admitted to being torn by it. Later in life after his Presidency was over he was even asked why he didn’t speak out against slavery and he said he believed it would do no good, he saw it as a simple economic reality not likely to change in his lifetime. And admitted to hypocrisy on the matter still.

    That said, it is quite true that he was a hypocrite, and it is quite true that he admitted it, and it is quite true that he participated fully in the brutality of slavery. He was indeed a man of his era, and a remarkable one if imperfect. There should be little doubt that future generations will look on our own with some moral condemnation, on things we can only guess at now and some which may surprise is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. Markey says:

    The various “histories” i´ve heard from Republican Teaheads about Mr Jefferson “trumps” all the stuff Joyner posted above, so there..

    *throws a Teabag in the air*

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  4. Jefferson simply didn’t see Africans as fully human. Again, that’s awful; it just wasn’t unusual in the eighteenth century.

    The opposite also was not unusual in the eighteenth century. Many other founding fathers, like Adams, Fanklin, or Washington, came to see slavery for the evil it was and accepted the personal cost of freeing them. Jefferson, on the other hand, wrote about the evils of the institution, yet was happy to profit by it. That is what makes him a bad person; not the failure to recognize evil due to his cultural context, but to recognize it and continue it anyways because he personally profitted from the evil.

    And the hypocrisy comes that even as he was doing this, Jefferson was trying to publically create an abolitionist persona, enjoying the air of enlightenment that came with such. As one prominent abolitionist noted, “Never has a man become so famous for something they had not done”.

    And finally, why it is true that we cannot judge historical people by modern standards, but must do so in the context of their times, it is still fair to ask whether, within that context, they were one of the people fighting for progress or one of the people fighting against it. On the issue of slavery, Jefferson was one of the people fighting against, and for that he deserves to be condemned.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 1

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I completely agree.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. JKB says:

    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.

    “unable to reconcile”? That must be some of that lack of critical thinking skills we here so much about. James dispatches the reconciliation in three sentences at the end of the post. Why could Jefferson speak of liberty and freedom while owning slaves? Well, he was a man of his times even as he was an agent of change of those times.

    Example: Last night I was watching the final episode of the mini-series ‘World without End’ based on the Ken Follett book. Set in Medieval England the ending is with a peasant revolt brought on by the Black Death. The king has ordered the town slaughtered and razed. During the fighting, the king rides his horse through the town. My thought was screw fighting the soldiers, a couple townsfolk need to grab the king and string him up. I realized that was my American speaking. The invincibility of kings and power of lords was still very much in the psyche in the 1770s, it took a new way of thinking to revolt against them much less make them targets in battle. A way of thinking brought forward by Jefferson (and others) and a very American way of thinking

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    It’s also worth noting that seeing Africans as ‘not fully human’ was not a common attitude in the 18th century even among slaveholders. The idea that blacks were inherently inferior to whites is actually something that developed primarily in the 19th century, with some of Jefferson’s pseudoscience to that end being a vanguard of what was to come.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  8. JKB says:

    @Stormy Dragon: On the issue of slavery, Jefferson was one of the people fighting against, and for that he deserves to be condemned.

    Good to know. In the future, perhaps we’ll condemn those who promote and advocate the wholesale killing of viable fetuses on whim. Cool.

    Of course, things can go the other way. I hear slavery is doing quite well in Saudi Arabia and becoming a constitutional option in Egypt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 6

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    @JKB: What’s your point?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Eric Florack says:

    My comments here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  11. Franklin says:

    Let me guess. It’s either all liberal’s fault or can be transitioned into an unrelated
    attack on liberals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Franklin says:

    @Franklin: Ooh, how did I guess?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Brett says:

    I think the response to this piece is misplaced – After hearing a long interview with the author, it is very clear that his assessment is also based on comparisons of Jefferson’s actions and words to his contemporaries, such as George Washington. And his book argues that as time went by, Jefferson came to express MORE racialist views and support for slavery. This is based on a decent examination of historical evidence – I don’t think it’s fair to refute the op-ed without delving into the research of the book.

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  14. bill says:

    the further back in history you go, the more “monsters” there are. people we’re supposed to worship were usually worse than jefferson, just how things were back then.

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  15. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: And why forcing women to act as brood-mares and carry an unwanted pregnancy to term isn’t a form of slavery in itself?

    Look: we’ll take the fetii out of our wombs and stuff them into your bellies, and YOU can carry them to term, if you think that they are so important. OK?

    The number of people who wring their hands about the “rights” of the fetus while ignoring the rights of the already-existing female human being never fail to amaze me.

    Or even better–why don’t you so-called pro-lifers start the equivalent of the Manhattan Project, putting up your money so that a useable uterine replicator is invented?

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  16. bill says:

    @grumpy realist: well, she had a right to “say no”, or use a condom or any of the plethora of birth control devices. she chose to be lazy/stupid/apathetic instead. like getting pregnant is the worst thing that can happen from unsafe sex!?

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