Why Don’t People Get It About Jefferson and Slavery?

We seem to have once again entered a  period in which we will be subject to more Jefferson-the-Perpetuator-of-Slavery bashing – witness the rather appalling Op-Ed piece in today’s NYT by Paul Finkelman on “The Monster of Monticello.”   The founding generation, Finkelman writes, helped perpetuate a “treason against the hopes of the world,” by “fail[ing] to place the nation on the road to liberty for all,” and “no  one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.”

This is truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense.  The truth is that few people in human history did more, over the course of a lifetime, to “place the road on the road to liberty for all” — and indeed, to eliminate human slavery from the civilized world — than Jefferson.  Don’t take my word for it  - take Lincoln’s (who was himself, of course,  one of those “few people”).  “I am sustained by Mr. Jefferson” he said, in 1858.

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success.  Some dashingly call them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”  These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect—the supplanting the principles of free government . . . We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

That “abstract truth” being, of course, that all men were created equal, and that all had inalienable rights to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness.  Taking his cue from the 25th chapter of the Book of Proverbs – “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” – Lincoln went on:

“The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us.  The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.  The picture was made, not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it.  The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture.  So let us act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken.

It was Jefferson, Lincoln wrote, who realized that there was a question of God’s eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah – that when a nation thus dared the Almighty every friend of that nation had cause to dread His wrath.”

Maybe Lincoln didn’t understand what was going on as well as Paul Finkelman now does, but I regard that as unlikely.

Why is this so hard for people to see? Even if Jefferson had done nothing more than pen those words and get them inserted into the foundational document for the new country — and he did plenty more, see my paper here — declaring that principle to be a self-evident truth and at the foundation of any legitimate government was an act of political courage, not cowardice or hypocrisy, at a time when slavery was at the heart of the way of life and an economy across vast swaths of colonial America.  Maybe Prof. Finkelman would have come up with a way to more quickly eliminate the institution from the new republic than Jefferson did, one that would have eliminated the horrible bloodshed of the Civil War.  But nobody had such a plan, at the time – not Jefferson, not Washington, not Clay, not anyone.

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.