Monday, December 3, 2012

The Trouble with Thomas Jefferson


This weekend in the New York Times, legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany) published a sharp broadside against Thomas Jefferson entitled “The Monster of Monticello.” He writes, "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."

Almost immediately, Finkelman’s editorial came under stinging attack from David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy. I found this paragraph of Post's comments pretty jarring:

Jefferson, Finkelman tells us, was not a “particularly kind” slave-master; he sometimes “punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.” And he  believed that  ”blacks’ ability to reason was ‘much inferior’ to whites’ and that they were “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”  So what?  Really – so what?  If you want to think that he was a bad guy — or even a really bad guy, with truly grievous personal faults — you’re free to do so.  But to claim that that has something to do with Jefferson’s historical legacy is truly preposterous.

I think that Post's defense of Jefferson falls flat.  Jefferson's slaveholding does affect his "historical legacy."  The issue isn't that Thomas Jefferson was a "really bad guy."  It's that he understood (perhaps more than any other founder) the stain of slavery, and yet ended up arguing for slavery's expansion and refused to free his own slaves (even upon his death).

I suppose it would be easier if evil was only committed by the thoroughly rotten, but that's very rarely the case.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, "Jefferson sided with those who would eventually bring about the deaths of 600,000 Americans. [...] But Jefferson was a beautiful writer, and a great intellect . . . This admiration does not negate his moral cowardice. Both are true at the same time."

I also question the tone of Post's piece.  To invoke the destruction of human families, and to proclaim "so what" is callous.  To have your wife or your children sold to the Deep South was not a mere inconvenience that could be overcome with video chats and frequent flier miles, rather it rendered them dead to you. To put a fine point on it; Slavery not only stole your labor, it made you property in a very literal sense.

Steve Clowney

(Pic: Statue of Jefferson in front of a wall containing names of the slaves who worked Monticello during his lifetime)

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In order to give Thomas Jefferson's legacy a fair appraisal, one must not look at slavery with a twenty first century lens. In fact, it's very difficult to give Jefferson a fair appraisal while looking at a post Civil War lens. Even though you characterize both his decision not to free his own slaves and his advocacy of a practice that "renders [family members] dead to you" as moral failure, bear in mind religion is frought with instances of slavery and the sense of life, liberty, and pursiut of happiness as we expect today was not available to a slave at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Posted by: Osbourne Squires | Dec 8, 2012 5:58:53 PM

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