Jefferson and Thurmond

by John Quiggin on December 20, 2003

One of the most striking historical facts I’ve learned this year is that George Washington freed all his slaves in his will despite opposition from his family, including his wife Martha. It’s surprising and revealing that this fact has never been part of the standard account of Washington’s life.

It is also one of the facts leading me to an increasingly negative view of Thomas Jefferson. The parallel between Jefferson’s unacknowledged slave children by Sally Hemings and the more recent case of Strom Thurmond, on which Kieran has recently posted, is striking. (Jefferson was, quite literally, the first Southern Democrat). Until now, I’ve tended to vaguely excuse Jefferson’s actions here as a case of personal inability to resist the thinking of the times, but Washington’s example undermines this.

I think you can go from the personal to the political here as well. The course leading to the Civil War was set when the Northern States adopted emancipation around the time of the Revolution and the Southern states did not. Jefferson advocated gradual emancipation in Virginia at this time (1783), but he didn’t fight hard on the issue after this. Given Washington’s personal evolution on the issue, it seems plausible that a determined effort by Jefferson in the years after Washington’s death, during which he was president for eight years, could have achieved a peaceful end to slavery.

{ 62 comments }

1

Gary Farber 12.20.03 at 11:30 pm

I commend this review to you. Also this.

2

Gary Farber 12.20.03 at 11:32 pm

I should say that I’m extremely doubtful Jefferson could have peacefully talked the south into abolition no matter how hard he tried. I don’t mean this as any kind of apologetic for either him or the South. I simply don’t see any support for what power or reasoning could have overcome Southern economic interests and bigotry.

3

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.20.03 at 11:49 pm

Just a reminder, last I heard we knew that someone from his family fathered the children. I don’t think we actually know it was Jefferson. All other points mentioned remain the same.

4

Katherine 12.20.03 at 11:56 pm

I did know about Washington, though I’m pretty sure I learned it from “Cartoon History of the United States” rather than my history class. It’s a little more impressive than that cherry tree thing they prattle on about in elementary school.

I don’t think it’s very plausible that he could have peacefully ended slavery. Undoubtedly, he could have done more.

I don’t think Washington by himself can take Jefferson from “champion of liberty” to “comparable to Strom Thurmond.” His writings are still an amazing thing even if he failed to live up to them, and he was (probably) relatively progressive on race for someone of his time and place.

5

George 12.20.03 at 11:58 pm

I was under the impression that Washington freeing his slaves after his death was part of the standard account of his life. They certainly make a big deal about it when you visit Mount Vernon.

Here’s my less generous reading: If your will stipulates that your slaves are to be freed after your death, imagine how loyal your slaves will be to you in life. What motive would they have for running way?

Freeing his slaves before he died … ? Now that would have been impressive.

6

micah 12.21.03 at 12:40 am

NPR has two excellent segments on “presidential slavery.” The first is this “discussion”:http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1519717 with Henry Wiencek and Gary Wills. The second is an “interview”:http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1499821 with Wiencek about his book. (See the link to a review posted in the first comment above.) Washington was ruthless with his slaves. If you only listen to some of the latter segment, at least go through minutes 6:00-9:00. Some of what Wiencek has to say is really shocking.

7

Kevin Drum 12.21.03 at 1:18 am

For what it’s worth, Washington was a rich man who could easily afford to free his slaves after his death. His estate was still large. Jefferson, however, was chronically in debt, and it’s not clear if he could have freed them in his will even if he wanted to.

8

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 1:41 am

This whole subject has been (not surprisingly) discussed a lot in recent years. There was an article in the Atlantic by Conor Cruise O’Brien for instance that got a lot of attention (at least a couple of years before the DNA results were known). There’s an excellent book on Jefferson’s changing (changing for the worse, interestingly) views on slavery, The Wolf by the Ears. Don’t know who wrote it, I’ll have to look…

9

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 1:49 am

John Chester Miller.

Jefferson couldn’t have changed the South’s mind, but might he have been able to do more about the 3/5 rule, for instance?

Of course, the reason Jefferson was chronically in debt was because he spent so damn much money. On himself. Wine and books, for example. By the same token, I know rich people who will spend any amount on their interior decorators, clothes, travel, new houses, wine again (though not books) – but refuse to pay social security taxes for their Mexican maid (which means she won’t get Social Security). Some things never go out of fashion.

10

andalucia 12.21.03 at 2:26 am

When Jefferson died, they had to sell off pretty much all of his belongings to pay his debts. If you visit Monticello, on the tour they talk about the long strange trip it’s been attempting to find and buy up his belongings. Even if he’d wanted to free his slaves, I doubt he could have gotten away with it because of his debts. It’s still not much consolation however.

11

Carlos 12.21.03 at 2:30 am

Compare Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, the man who taught Jefferson law. Wythe, as Chancery court judge, tried abolishing slavery in Virginia by appealing to its Declaration of Rights:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

He took the words a little bit more seriously than our Tom.

Or, compare Thomas Jefferson of Monticello to Councillor Robert Carter of Nomini Hall and Williamsburg. Carter set free all of his over five hundred slaves (although many of the manumissions were blocked in various nefarious ways by his relatives). Carter also became a Baptist, when that was actually a radical thing to do, and later a Swedenborgian.

C.

12

Ted K. 12.21.03 at 2:38 am

A few random thoughts.

Washington did free his slaves at his death. There is a new book out (forget the details) on GW and slavery suggesting that this was not an easy decision and that it was only late in life that GW decided that revolutionary values meant that slavery was a problem. GW was also the best business men of all the founders.

For Jefferson, the standard is not so much Washington as the folks who were moving to the midwest with their slaves and freeing them there. TJ knew about it, he was asked to help, he tried to talk them out of it. TJ is frustrating because he is so contradictory on slavery. He has the strong rhetoric about inalienable rights, he treats slavery as a wrong, but he is never willing to act on that wrong – it is always delay, or distraction, or TJ speaking about his death (a sign that TJ is depressed.)

If TJ had burned his political capital and talked about slavery, Virginia’s very close decision in 1830 might have turned towards gradual emancipation like New York rather than towards stronger slavery like the cotton south.

As for Jefferson and debt, the story gets better. Jefferson’s expenses exceeded the operating income of Montecello. So, every few years he would sell a few slaves to cover his bills. He prided himself on being generous – he waited until people turned 16 before selling them away from their parents. His massive debt late in life came when he co-signed a note for a friend who went bankrupt in the crash of 1819. TJ continued to live well after that.

Finally, with Sally Hemings, the total quantity of narrative, neighborhood, family, and genetic evidence means that TJ and Sally Hemings had four surviving children together. The more limited genetic and historical evidence for Tom Woodson suggests that he was not a child of Jefferson and Hemings. Finally, remember that Hemings was Martha Wayles Jefferson’s half sister and looked very like her. TJ had long-term relations with two sisters, one white and one black.

TJ is a fascinating subject.

Ted K.

13

nnyhav 12.21.03 at 3:37 am

It’s surprising and revealing that you think this fact [GW's manumission] has never been part of the standard account of Washington’s life. It is neither surprising or revealing that the possibility of Thomas’ paternity gets more play than the more likely culpability of his brother, “Uncle” Randolph, making personal and political connections more problematic.

But I’ll bet Karl Rove is joyous at the earlier, timely take-down of Trent Lott.

14

Andrew Boucher 12.21.03 at 9:02 am

I’d second, third, or fourth – lost count reading the comments – the idea that GW’s freeing of the slaves *is* part of the standard history.

The fact that everyone around Washington apparently tried to dissuade him, does take some of the heat off Jefferson. Freeing slaves was not a common event. Wasn’t there also a difference in the personal wealth of Washington and Jefferson at the end? Jefferson was always near poverty, as I remember, and maybe he thought his estate couldn’t *afford* it?

Anyway I think we tend to forget what an extraordinary person Washington was. “Father of his country” sounds sentimental and corny, but he was just that. Jefferson may have been less of a person – most other people were -, but he was more the thinker and the theoretician, and that’s why he deserves a very honored place in history.

15

Doug 12.21.03 at 11:34 am

Interesting, too, what I’ve recently read in The Counsins’ Wars: while Ohio and Indiana were free states, they also had statuts banning blacks from residence (or was it entry?) in their territory.

16

Chris Lawrence 12.21.03 at 12:18 pm

1. Jefferson couldn’t have done much about the 3/5 compromise, seeing as he wasn’t at the Constitutional Convention–he was the U.S. ambassador to France. It’s doubtful he even knew the specifics of what was being debated, as the deliberations were secret. It’s a common misrecollection of history, but a misrecollection nonetheless.

2. Washington freeing his slaves is part of the common history, though perhaps not overemphasized. It was made a big deal of at (still privately-held) Mt. Vernon when I visited.

This page has a pretty interesting overview of the Virginia elite’s (Washington, Madison, Jefferson, etc.) attitudes toward slavery and their actions.

17

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 2:43 pm

Ah, thanks for clarification about Jeff and the Constitution. I did wonder for a fraction of a second as I typed that question (wait, did Jefferson have anything to do with the Constitution?) but then ignored myself – apart from framing it as a question rather than a statement.

But I’d like to reiterate or clarify my point about his debt. There seems to be some notion that the fact that he was in debt all his life exculpates him for never freeing his slaves (except, interestingly enough, for the Hemings children). But it doesn’t. He wasn’t in debt through some unfortunate accident that was none of his doing, he was in debt because of the way he chose to live. The people who paid the price for that were his slaves. Sure, there are all sorts of extenuating circumstances, or circumstances that make it understandable at any rate (and I hate self-righteous presentism anyway, and for all I know I would have done exactly the same or worse if I’d been in his position), but it’s good to be clear about it. He lived very well, he spent a lot of money on various luxuries, and his slaves financed that. As unpaid or underpaid workers always do finance the luxury of their owners or employers.

18

jpm 12.21.03 at 3:11 pm

I’m not sure what should have been done about the 3/5ths Compromise. If my recollection of it is correct, it seems to be widely misunderstood today.

As I recall, the Southern states would have much preferred slaves counted as 5/5ths a person because it would have given the South more political power. Many in the North would have preferred the slaves to be counted as 0/5ths a person, but that tended to legitimize the claim that slaves were property rather than people.

I mean, suppose you were at the Constitutional Convention and you wanted to end slavery. If you want slaves counted as 5/5ths you give the South more political power (as if slaves don’t the way massa tells them to vote), and giving the South more political power is not a good strategy for ending slavery. At the same time, trying to diminish Southern political power by counting slaves as 0/5ths tends to reinforce the claim that slaves are merely property and now human beings endowed with inalienable rights, no?

Anyone?

19

John Isbell 12.21.03 at 3:16 pm

A little detail on Mount Vernon: in the past few years, the slave cemetery has entered the tour, along with slave quarters IIRC, and the bookshop prominently displays books like “The World They Made Together”, a history of black-white contributions to C18th American culture. It is impossible to visit Mt. Vernon without being directly confronted with the question of slavery as it applies to our first President. I like to think GW would have welcomed this.
My understanding is that many C18th US thinkers felt, with some justification, that slavery was dying a natural death, before the cotton gin and other inventions transformed the harvesting of cotton and opened up a boom market; and that this mistaken belief distorted people’s thinking. Not GW’s, evidently.
I’m conflicted about TJ, and will just record his words, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” But we all know his words.

20

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 3:19 pm

Yep, just so. (And of course slaves weren’t allowed to vote, not even 3/5 of a vote – the 3/5 rule applied to how the population was counted for the purpose of deciding how many Congressional representatives a state was entitled to. It’s one of the weird ironies of the whole situation that it was the presence of vast numbers of slaves that kept pro-slavery presidents, representatives and senators, and (very crucially) Supreme Court justices in office. The South always outnumbered the North, because of the slaves, who couldn’t vote, so with those numbers, the South kept getting its way, which is why the Missouri Compromise happened, and the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Dred Scott decision – and the Civil War. A grotesque arrangement. As Jefferson said, we had the wolf by the ears, and dared not let go.)

21

Mikhel 12.21.03 at 3:21 pm

It’s always seemed to me (and I hesitate to emphasise: seemed) that, regardless of his expenses, regardless of his problems, and regardless of Washington’s actions, it is rather plausible to denounce Jefferson as hypocritical on the slavery issue. His own writings make it abundantly clear that he was conscious of the plight of slaves, and felt himself that they were equal persons. He never chose to act on his writings. It’s often quite easy to use the, “victim of his times” argument (lord knows, I’ve used it before) but Jefferson’s own intellectual height makes it clear that he wasn’t a victim of the attitude that slaves’ natural place was in servitude.

As to the argument that a proactive Jefferson could have ended slavery sooner, I’d say that it’s plausible. I’m not sure how peaceful it would have been; my own feeling is that it would have been a much quicker war, and that the primacy of racism in that-other-world would be less than in the present, which (I suppose) isn’t that revolutionary of an argument.

It’s all speculation, of course.

22

Matt McIrvin 12.21.03 at 3:26 pm

According to Gary Wills, Jefferson was eventually elected President because of the 3/5 rule. I think he was the only one for which it was decisive, though the proxy “slave power” of slaveholders in the South created by the rule was a major sore spot in regional relations in the early US. It’s an interesting point to ponder, one that Wills says is underemphasized in most histories: the slaveholders derived not only economic value from their slaves, but considerable political power as well, because these people who couldn’t actually vote were partially counted in the census.

23

drapetomaniac 12.21.03 at 3:48 pm

At the same time, trying to diminish Southern political power by counting slaves as 0/5ths tends to reinforce the claim that slaves are merely property and now human beings endowed with inalienable rights, no?

Is there any evidence that being counted as 3/5ths human at all advanced the claim that slaves are human beings endowed with alienable rights?

I hate self-righteous presentism anyway, and for all I know I would have done exactly the same or worse if I’d been in his position.

I thought you were against cultural relativism?

It’s often quite easy to use the, “victim of his times” argument

Yes. I only use it for Leonard Jeffries though.

24

Danny 12.21.03 at 4:28 pm

Doug,

Interesting, too, what I’ve recently read in The Counsins’ Wars: while Ohio and Indiana were free states, they also had statuts banning blacks from residence (or was it entry?) in their territory.

You say this as if this is somehow contradictory. This is completely misrepresenting the opinion of most opponents of slavery in the 19th century. The majority (including President Lincoln) were not egalitarians who believed that blacks and whites should be equal; they were people who simply did not want black slaves to compete with white freemen in the labor market. The fact is that despite victory in the Civil War, when the North understood the costs involved, it resigned itself, after a few years, to the subjugation of Blacks by Whites in the South, as long as the North was dominant over the South nationwide.

25

Danny 12.21.03 at 4:34 pm

The discomfort over Jefferson reminds me of historians’ polls one hears about every so often, ranking the Best US Presidents ever. Of course, the poll is always is derided, but it exists nonetheless, whereas you never hear of a historians’ poll ranking the Best Pope or Best King of England (there’s Great Britons and Great Germans, but there it was the general public that was given the vote, not academics). This is because there is this assumption that values of the Constitution are timeless, and that it is possible to pass moral judgement on an 18th century US President more than on an 18th century Pope.

26

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 4:43 pm

I hate self-righteous presentism anyway, and for all I know I would have done exactly the same or worse if I’d been in his position.

I thought you were against cultural relativism?”

Eh? I am. I don’t see any contradiction. Of course I would have been wrong if I had acted that way – but that doesn’t (to say the least) rule out the possibility that I would have. Fact-value distinction, sort of thing.

27

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 4:49 pm

“The majority (including President Lincoln) were not egalitarians who believed that blacks and whites should be equal; they were people who simply did not want black slaves to compete with white freemen in the labor market.”

That’s overstating it a little bit, I think. There is some ground between egalitarianism, and dislike of slavery on moral grounds. Quite a lot, in fact. There were a good few people who didn’t want the ‘races’ to ‘mix’ but who nevertheless thought slavery was morally wrong. Not all of them wanted anything to be done about it, especially not a war; there was a whole range of available opinions on the subject; but one didn’t have to be a full-fledged anti-racist to oppose slavery for other than instrumental reasons.

28

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 4:54 pm

“It’s often quite easy to use the, “victim of his times” argument (lord knows, I’ve used it before) but Jefferson’s own intellectual height makes it clear that he wasn’t a victim of the attitude that slaves’ natural place was in servitude.”

Yes, and furthermore, the thought was certainly available to him. He corresponded with people who criticised him sharply on slavery. And the Adamses never stopped giving him a hard time on the subject. (Abigail Adams mentions Sally Hemings at least once in a letter to Jefferson – something about how young she is to be a sort of nanny for Jefferson’s daughter in Paris, if I remember correctly.)

29

Mikhel 12.21.03 at 5:28 pm

A slightly off-topic link: anyone seen the story about the mock, Jefferson vs. Napolean trial, attended by Scalia?

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/21/national/21LOUI.html

Here’s the lead-in:

Justice Antonin Scalia nodded, agreeing with his fellow jurists that Thomas Jefferson was guilty of prolonging slavery, deporting American Indians and discriminating against the French in Louisiana.

Justice Scalia joined federal and state judges on Friday to hear the testimony of Jefferson and Napoleon in a mock trial to review lingering legal and historic questions about the Louisiana Purchase.

Maybe not so off-topic.

30

Mikhel 12.21.03 at 5:34 pm

JPM —

The distinction is that slaves weren’t allowed to vote at all; even when they were given the right to vote, the Jim Crow regulations allowed southern leaders to restrict voting access, while (I believe) attaining representative power from the large population of former slaves. I’d like to know the increase (if any, but I think there had to be) in represenatives in the South after the passing of the fifteenth amendment.

Any history buffs?

31

rea 12.21.03 at 6:10 pm

“I simply don’t see any support for what power or reasoning could have overcome Southern economic interests and bigotry.”

Conventional wisdom at the time of Jefferson’s presidency was that slavery was on its way out, for economic reasons.

The cotton gin, however, changed the economic balance, rendering slave cotton farming drasticaly more profitable. The device was actually invented during Washinton’s presidency, but it took a while for its economic effects to become apparent.

Jefferson, curiously, was in the business of giving slaves vocational training–and reselling them at a profit.

32

Mikhel 12.21.03 at 6:21 pm

I apologize for the spelling errors: I have a nasty cut from an oyster shell on my right thumb, and it’s rather disruptive.

33

Gary Farber 12.21.03 at 8:08 pm

Turns out there’s been a court verdict on Jefferson.

34

Gary Farber 12.21.03 at 8:12 pm

On the question of how well known it is that Washington freed his slaves (in his will), a check of “George Washington” and “freed his slaves” finds 2,240 hits. Most pretty prominent. I think one clearly cannot say, at the least, that this has not been well known for several years.

35

Gary Farber 12.21.03 at 8:16 pm

“It’s one of the weird ironies of the whole situation that it was the presence of vast numbers of slaves that kept pro-slavery presidents, representatives and senators, and (very crucially) Supreme Court justices in office….”

Just to note to Ophelia Benson that this is the entire premise of Garry Wills’ Negro President. Specifically, that Jefferson would not otherwise have been president, and the ironies and implications of this.

I’d note that one of the lessons of Jefferson, as of so many others, is that great people can have great flaws.

36

John Q 12.21.03 at 8:48 pm

Gary, I’m happy to agree with you that the fact that Washington freed his slaves has been widely known for at least a few years. I can’t recall it getting prominent emphasis when I visited Mount Vernon a decade ago, although I’m sure it must have been mentioned since the fact that it was a slave plantation was an important part of the exhibit.

That said Google counts can be both misleading and serendipitous. Checking through the first hundred reveals quite a lot of hits that are not related to Washington, including the fact that James Madison freed his slaves.

Also, reading a sample finds a lot of recent articles presenting the fact that Washington freed his slaves in a way that suggests (educated American) readers will not be aware of it, in the way that they are aware of lots of incidents, important and trivial, real and apocryphal, in his life.

To get an idea of what was in the standard accounts, I checked an old Encylopedia Britannica I have lying around which has six pages of small type on Washington without mentioning his slaves.

37

Ophelia Benson 12.21.03 at 9:06 pm

Oh well, oh dear, educated Americans are unaware of so many things, alas.

Thanks for the reference, Gary. I’ve read other Wills, but not that one.

Speaking of references – David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture is a fascinating book.

38

wc 12.21.03 at 9:26 pm

“great people can have great flaws”

People who have great flaws are not great people.

39

John Q 12.21.03 at 9:44 pm

Looking a bit further, the page I cited claiming that Madison freed his slaves is contradicted by others. Does anyone have a definitive source on this?

40

drapetomaniac 12.21.03 at 11:24 pm

Eh? I am. I don’t see any contradiction.

I was just uh…amused at where a commitment to universal values begins to be inflected with worries about presentism, i.e. judging by present values.

I’d note that one of the lessons of Jefferson, as of so many others, is that great people can have great flaws.

I thought it was that privilege matters more than ideology.

That’s what my mother told me at any rate.

41

rea 12.22.03 at 12:02 am

“’great people can have great flaws’”
“People who have great flaws are not great people.”

Well, I guess that rules out Einstein, (either )Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, Napoleon, Wagner, Mozart, Shakespeare, Caesar, Plato–in fact, it’s hard to think of anyone qualifying under your rules as “great” who isn’t a heavily mythologized central figure of a religion

42

nnyhav 12.22.03 at 1:20 am

> The fact is that despite victory in the Civil War, when the North understood the costs involved, it resigned itself, after a few years, to the subjugation of Blacks by Whites in the South, as long as the North was dominant over the South nationwide.

Not quite; check out the circumstances of Rutherford B. Hayes’ election. Slammed the brakes on Reconstruction.

> The distinction is that slaves weren’t allowed to vote at all; even when they were given the right to vote, the Jim Crow regulations allowed southern leaders to restrict voting access, while (I believe) attaining representative power from the large population of former slaves.

First Jim Crow laws were in the North (I believe). But the end of Reconstruction ended not just voting access, but also any other standing in society, for almost a century, and prompted northward migration.

The whole legacy is shameful, but shared amongst many; finding the Founding Fathers culpable (in that their efforts were insufficient) smacks of self-righteous moralising. (Brits didn’t have the economic incentives to continue what they’d helped institute; but you wanna cotton up to child labour in Manchester?)

43

Ophelia Benson 12.22.03 at 1:24 am

“I was just uh…amused at where a commitment to universal values begins to be inflected with worries about presentism, i.e. judging by present values.”

All right, fair enough. Especially since it’s an issue I’m always being pulled back and forth on. Let me put it this way – I do think Jefferson should have known better – especially since the idea was available to him. But I find presentism irritating all the same. So I’m not consistent – that’s because I’m embedded in my time.

44

Ophelia Benson 12.22.03 at 1:26 am

Right, that’s what I’m saying, what nnyhav said. Self-righteous moralizing. Although, at the same time – he could have done better. But can’t we all.

45

John 12.22.03 at 1:42 am

Should be noted that Jefferson’s part of the south had very different attitudes about slavery at this point than other parts, specifically South Carolina, which was always pretty fanatically devoted to it. Jefferson’s mealy-mouthed dislike of slavery was very common in Virginia, where slavery was not at that time profitable (later on it got more profitable again).

Further south, things were very different…

46

wc 12.22.03 at 1:48 am

Rea,

All said and done, what do you call a species that wields a whip and flogs another human being? Not a human being, in my books. “Those were different times” is no excuse. Before Galileo, most people thought that the earth was flat. But the earth was never flat. Hope you get the drift.

47

Ophelia Benson 12.22.03 at 2:37 am

Oh, heavens – human, all too human.

48

jpm 12.22.03 at 2:41 am

“Is there any evidence that being counted as 3/5ths human at all advanced the claim that slaves are human beings endowed with alienable rights?”

I went back and reviewed some of Madison’s notes from the Convention. I guess what sticks in my mind most are some of the comments made by MORRIS. E.g., “Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”

http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/debates/808.htm

49

SME in Seattle 12.22.03 at 6:11 am

I had the privilege of attending an Aurora forum at Stanford last Monday featuring two scholars who represented Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The culminating thought on Jefferson suggested ultimately he was a racist and we may never be able to reconcile the written words he so eloquently expressed with his actions that denied his conviction to those words.

50

clew 12.22.03 at 7:28 am

What did the founding fathers write about precedents for freeing slaves in ancient Rome?

It seems to me that some of them at least would have seen both the moral and the practical precedent – and recognized the practicality of a relatively comfortable approximation to virtue.

51

Doug 12.22.03 at 2:54 pm

All said and done, what do you call a species that wields a whip and flogs another human being?

An officer in the British Navy, perhaps?

52

Doug 12.22.03 at 3:02 pm

>>Interesting, too, what I’ve recently read in The
>>Counsins? Wars
: while Ohio and Indiana were
>>free states, they also had statuts banning
>>blacks residence (or was it entry?) in their
>>territory.

>You say this as if this is somehow contradictory.
>This is completely misrepresenting the opinion of
>most opponents of slavery in the 19th century.
>The majority (including President Lincoln) were
>not egalitarians who believed that blacks and
>whites should be equal;

Actually, that’s what I wanted to bring out. The dichotomy: Northern views on race=good; Southern views on race=bad is entirely too common. It’s too easy to skip from opposition to slavery to presuming 21st century views on race for 19th people. Pointing out exclusionary laws in the north is one way to keep a more nuanced view in sight.

53

Jeremy Pierce 12.22.03 at 5:04 pm

I had never before heard that Thomas Jefferson’s wife and his supposed mistress were half-sisters. If that’s so, then the DNA in common with his descendants and hers could be totally explained by the fact that they’re all descended from Jefferson’s father-in-law. Is that right, or did I miss something?

54

Gary Farber 12.22.03 at 5:05 pm

“People who have great flaws are not great people.”

We’d not previously established any definition of what constitutes a “great person.” So you are certainly free to assert that, whether as a tautology, or by any other definition you care to submit.

I’ll take the position of disagreeing, lazily, by asserting my original statement as an axiom, and agreeing with Rea that your definition would seem to leave very few examples of “great people” on the ground. Any that could be found must be, as well as terribly admirable, terribly boring.

Can anyone nominate any great people with no significant flaws? Note: from documented history only, not fiction or mythology or religious hagiography (even Moses, Jesus, and Buddha, have some rather significant failings at times, in my readings, anyway).

I’ve always found that the most interesting characters in history are those who have done great things, or thought great thoughts, but were full of odd contradictions and failings, myself. Churchill. Both Roosevelts. Lincoln. Endless list, really. Pointing out and considering their contradictions can be fascinating, no?

Incidentally, Ophelia, I first ran across you on this blog, but, in the way of things, immediately started serendipitiously finding stuff by you elsewhere, as well deliberately finding your website, deliberately blogrolling it, and rapidly became a Great Admirer (though I’m flawed, flawed, deeply flawed).

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Jeremy Pierce 12.22.03 at 5:07 pm

I see no tension at all between what’s been called here “universal values” and worrying about what’s been called here “presentism”. If there are universal moral truths, then the current values of Western society may not have the right ones. Therefore there is a danger in assuming the current values to be correct.

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Jeremy Pierce 12.22.03 at 5:10 pm

Drapetomaniac asks “Is there any evidence that being counted as 3/5ths human at all advanced the claim that slaves are human beings endowed with alienable rights?” The southern slaveowners wanted to count their slaves as full humans for the sake of getting more votes-by-proxy for the slaveholders. The northerners rightly objected that this gave the slaveholders too much power. The right reason for this is that slaveholders didn’t necessarily act in the best interests of those whose proxy vote they possessed. I’m not sure what the historical argument was. So they settled on a compromise. In neither case was it discussing the essential personhood of a slave, and in neither case did it involve really giving a vote to slaves, so I don’t see how it’s even about the issue of human beings with inalienable rights.

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drapetomaniac 12.22.03 at 9:11 pm

If there are universal moral truths, then the current values of Western society may not have the right ones. Therefore there is a danger in assuming the current values to be correct.

Nah, you’ve got it wrong. Universal Values against Sun People, and Fears of Presentism against Ice People, delicately embroidered with tremulous “do I contradict myself, well then I contradict myself.”

I first noticed this marvelous couplet of standards while reading Dinesh D’Souza’s End of Racism, iirc Thomas Jefferson was also the case where he fainted from fear with presentism. But I must say my most favorite cases came around about L’affaire Trent Lott.

so I don’t see how it’s even about the issue of human beings with inalienable rights.

I agree entirely. I was responding with discreet sarcasm to jpm’s post where he posed what he seemed to think was a paradox.

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Paul 12.23.03 at 1:59 am

The difference between Jefferson and Thurmond is simple: Jefferson was a man who couldn’t live up to his own ideals. Except as a friend of segregation, Thurmond never had any ideals to begin with.

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Paul 12.23.03 at 2:00 am

The difference between Jefferson and Thurmond is simple: Jefferson was a man who couldn’t live up to his own ideals. Except as a friend of segregation, Thurmond never had any ideals to begin with.

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Mikhel 12.23.03 at 2:50 am

Gary —

What counts as a flaw, anyway? For instance, do we count drug use as a flaw? How about gambling or consensual adultery?

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Gary Farber 12.23.03 at 5:57 am

“What counts as a flaw, anyway? For instance, do we count drug use as a flaw? How about gambling or consensual adultery?”

I have no interest in presenting any attempt at universal rules. I’m hold that back for the time I start my own religion and Rake It In.

Players are invited to use their own definitions. Be prepared to defend them, I suppose.

Churchill, for instance, I’d say is easily definable as a “great man,” yet was rife with racism, an excess of confidence in the wholly beneficial nature of English colonialism, a contempt history finds questionable in regard to certain individuals, such as characterizing Gandhi (please, not ever “Ghandi”) as a “fakir,” and while he spewed out a jillion military ideas, some of which were quite brilliant, many of them were more or less as disasterous as many of Hitler’s. (Whether Gallipoli was inherently doomed, or failed due to spectacularly bad execution is open to debate, I suppose.)

Teddy Roosevelt accomplished great things in facing down American robber barons, breaking up trusts, creating a sweeping system of National Parks in America, creating the modern concept of “conservation” of natural resources and beauty, fighting corruption, and simply being a powerhouse of charisma. Of course, his idea of conservation included shooting about one gazillion wild animals. He also had a powerful belief in the inherent wonderfulnes of war as something necessary for great cultures and individuals, and orated at length on these themes. On the other hand, not a single American soldier died during his terms as President, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War. He was the champion of American imperialism, and the wars in the Phillipines led to the slaughter of tens or more thousands of Phillipinos. But he was also a great writer, and founder of the American Museum of Natural History. And so on and so forth.

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R. Ashton 01.09.04 at 2:07 am

You repeat the claim that Jefferson had an affair with Sally Hemings and fathered a child with her as if it were a fact. The truth is that some scientists examined the DNA and said that one of the 6 males in the Jefferson household at the time fathered Heming’s child. That means that, statistically, there is a 83.3% chance that a Jefferson OTHER THAN THOMAS JEFFERSON fathered the child in question. So, with the evidence we now have, no court on Earth would even order Thomas Jefferson to pay child support. There is no preponderance of evidence to support the claim. (Yes, I am aware that no child support enforcement or DNA existed 200 years ago. I am taking artistic license to make a point.)
By the way, I would like to see an independent review of even this conclusion. How do they know that a Jefferson from 20 years after Thomas Jefferson’s death did not father a child with a Hemings woman, other than Sally Hemings?
The whole thing seems political to me, they want to bash Jefferson in order to denigrate America because Jefferson was and is a great American hero.
When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he included a condemnation of King George’s approval of the slave trade. The other delegates voted to delete this passage. As president in 1808, Jefferson succeeded in stopping the importation of any more slaves into America. Yes, slavery continued to exist, but he took this step toward ending it, which was the most the people would accept at the time.

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