Guest Post:Thomas Jefferson, Monster of Monticello

Tom Cordle and I have a basic disagreement re the nature of Jefferson's attitude towards slavery and slaves. You may read Tom's commentary on the matter at:

What follows here is a seminal essay which is the basis of my contribution to the discourse and rebuttal of the essential elements of Tom's perspective on the man who wrote "All men are created equal." But was. himself, a slave owner....



NOV. 30, 2012

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 slavesduring 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.”

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.


Views: 62

Comment by Ron Powell on February 12, 2019 at 11:52am

There could be but one explanation and rationale for Jefferson's apparent ambivalence re slvery:

While he saw the enslavement of human beings as inherently evil and morally and ethically wrong, he did not, could not, bring himself to conclude that black people were human beings...

He was aided by the generally held Christian tenet that unbaptized "heathens" were somehow subhuman creatures "disfavored by God...".

This piece supports my contention and 'take on the matter...

Comment by Maui Surfer on February 12, 2019 at 12:21pm

I've surfed a lot in the Caribbean, really a lot in Tortola as Cane Garden Bay, sadly made famous by the infamous Jimmy Buffet and his Cheeseburgers, which has fantastic waves. A mere mile across the channel, and really not so far from the far more historic and steeped in so many things Island of Haiti/DR, lies St. John. St. John, now mostly a National Park donated by the Rockefellers, which was nice, though they essentially first stole it, gained infamy, and believe me the Locals are still bursting with pride about it, as the Island where the slaves SUCCESSFULLY revolted and took control. Of course, eventually the Euro-trash sent enough ships and militia to grab it back, but for a nice long ride those former slaves were FREEMEN.

As to Jefferson, whose ideas would have us all left to be farmers with no Hamilton to start a National Bank and create industry, what an idiot, imagine, today, if a manager has seniority over a female (or male for that matter) subordinate and coerces them into sex, they are now fired and sued. Just what does that say about Tom and Sally's "trysts"  ?

Comment by koshersalaami on February 13, 2019 at 7:15am

What I don’t know is what we should do with the information. Jefferson was an inhumane hypocrite highly instrumental in the founding of the United States, in its early survival, and in establishing principles that would later help a whole lot of Americans, including minority Americans. Where do we put him? 

We have this problem often. In Jefferson’s case it’s particularly nasty because both the good and the bad are so extreme, certainly compared to, say, philandering. 

What do you do with the nickel in your pocket? On one hand, the guy on it wouldn’t have thought of you as a person if you’d lived in his time. On the other, he’s one of the reasons there’s a country to back the change in your pocket.  

Comment by Maui Surfer on February 13, 2019 at 10:52am

Kosh- You tell the truth, then have a look at the photos and video of his descendants, the White ones from his "wife" and all the BLACK ones from Sally Hemmings ... no need to analyze, one look says it all. The man was a rape artist, Cosby type. He also copped everyone from Aristotle to Locke and wrote some amazing stuff we now draw from. A talented asshole, basically.


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