[Marxism] The Monster of Monticello

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 1 10:30:47 MST 2012

NY Times Op-Ed November 30, 2012
The Monster of Monticello

Durham, N.C.

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.

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 
luxury goods.

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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