Jefferson and Thurmond

by John Q 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.


by Brian on December 20, 2003

I’m in the odd position that my favourite ethical theory is one I regard as having been decisively refuted. The theory is a form of consequentialism that I used to think avoided all the problems with traditional forms of consequentialism. I now think it avoids all but one or two of those problems, but those are enough. Still, whenever I feel like letting out my inner amateur ethicist, I keep being drawn back to this theory.

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Cry Me a River

by Kieran Healy on December 20, 2003

An article in the New York Times reports that the (white) relatives of Strom Thurmond are all upset since (black) Essie Mae Washington-Williams told the world last week that Thurmond was her father. Her mother had been a teenage maid in Thurmond’s household when Strom was in his early twenties. The article doesn’t have much in the way of commentary, but it doesn’t have to because you just have to listen to them damn themselves out of their own mouths.

They say, variously, that the announcement “was like a blight on the family”; that “For the first time in my life, I felt shame;” that “My family always had help around the house. But it just seems Strom would have been above that” (?!); that the publicity was “embarrassing and awkward”; that if Washington-Williams had been white “it would be a whole other situation,” because criticism wouldn’t have been as harsh (you don’t say); that they “don’t know why this lady is doing this”; that she had better be “coming out for the right reasons”; and that anyways at least she was “humble,” if you know what I mean. Thurmond’s nephew, Barry Bishop, said “For something to be done so publicly … well, we’re just not comfortable dealing with things in that way.” You never spoke a truer word, Mr Bishop. Finally, Thurmond’s niece, Mary T. Thompkins Freeman, said she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to meet Washington-Williams just yet. “If I do, I’m not going to go with open arms,” Ms. Freeman said. “It’s too much to accept right now.” Yes, dear. This must be such a burden for you all.