[Marxism] The Monster of Monticello
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Sat Dec 1 10:30:47 MST 2012
NY Times Op-Ed November 30, 2012
The Monster of Monticello
By PAUL FINKELMAN
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
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.
There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he
wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident”
truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too
often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off
Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the
complexities of the human condition.
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.
Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote
racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law
that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.
As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop
the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told
his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free
blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of
taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold
slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85
humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other
Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks
lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and
their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or
sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to
“reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are
dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but
this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing
a danger till it be present.”
A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come
“from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior
to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral
qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote
to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be
the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that
“something” should be.
In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery
during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by
opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the
revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves,
and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was
perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation
on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for
that failure than the master of Monticello.
Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor in legal history at Duke Law
School, is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery
and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.”
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