Thomas Jefferson under fire

About two months ago, I wrote about a new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek that shed an unflattering light on Thomas Jefferson’s views on slavery.

Not surprisingly, the book has aroused considerable controversy and a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (behind a paywall, unfortunately) discusses the back-and-forth between critics who think that the book was “written by a man who so loathes Jefferson that he was willing to play fast and loose with historical evidence in order to paint the author of the Declaration of Independence as an avid proponent of slavery” and fans who describe it as “a brilliant examination of a founding father who repeatedly violated the principles he expressed, a book that deftly hammers away at the “evasions, rationalizations, and lies” required to lionize him.”

Now Paul Finkelman, author of the book Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson has weighed in and written a op-ed in the New York Times that takes the criticisms of Jefferson even further, calling him a ” a creepy, brutal hypocrite” and that he was even worse than what Wiencek describes, saying that his claim that Jefferson’s views on slavery hardened only later in life actually let him off easy.

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.

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.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation.

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.

I am well aware of people’s needs for heroes and how we create origins myths that are false. I am not a romantic in thinking that the founders of American were uncommonly superior in their general outlook, although they did do specific things that were highly commendable and had a tremendously positive effect over time. But this controversy still caught me by surprise, revealing an extremely dark side of one of the most revered people in American history.


  1. kevinalexander says

    Considering the way that Enlightenment values are under attack from the right this might just be some tu quoque from people trying to smear one of the Enlightenments great heroes.

  2. Chiroptera says

    …a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.

    Some people say that our judgements on historical figures should be tempered, at least to some degree, by the beliefs and attitudes of the times. Well, if this quote is accurate, then even that standard does Jefferson no favors.

  3. slc1 says

    Washington freed his slaves after his death in his will. His views on Afro-Americans were greatly influenced by his experiences with free blacks who served in the Continental Army under his command.

    Jefferson did, in his will, free the surviving children of Sally Hemmings, although not her (she was freed the following year by Jefferson’s daughter). This is part of the evidence indicating that he was, quite possibly, their biological father.

    Considering that he was bankrupt and deeply in debt at the time of his death, he was in no position to free any of his other slaves who were sold to help pay off his debts.

  4. says

    I wish Americans would put the Enlightenment ideas on a pedestal instead of the hypocritical “Founding Fathers” who championed them. These ideas get lost in the shuffle when people get caught up in arguing about the lives and personalities of the founders, and that’s a real shame because the ideas are important and beautiful and deserve to be discussed and developed further.

  5. Anon. says

    Jefferson was fundamentally unscrupulous, and unprincipled — this is actually made clear even by the *good* things he did.

    Look at his attitude towards the Louisiana Purchase: “I know it’s probably unconstitutional. But I’ll buy it anyway and throw myself on the mercy of Congress.” …but Jefferson knew he had Congress in his back pocket, control of 2/3 of both houses, so he didn’t actually have to worry about them reversing him.

    Look at his treatment of John Adams in the election in which he beat him. He introduced the modern political campaign and savaged Adams’s character in public to a degree for which Adams had great difficulty forgiving him.

    Did Jefferson believe the slanders he’d distributed? From what we can tell from his personal letters, no! But to Jefferson, that was just the best way to get control of the government, and he’d decided that Adams was mismanaging things and Jefferson needed to replace him. (Which was correct, as far as I can tell.)

    He quite deliberately got himself into as much debt as possible to pursue an extravagant intellectual lifestyle, with little intention of paying it off.

    The thing is, Jefferson was also spectacularly brilliant, so a huge percentage of his actions fall into the category of *enlightened self-interest*. He was clever enough to do good in *order* to do well, whenever that was possible. He was able to pull off things which seemed impossible to other people, thus neatly evading some moral conflicts.

    But when push came to shove and he hit something where he couldn’t use his impressive brain to come up with a way to retain all his privilege and comfort while doing good… well, then we start to see the “dark side” of Jefferson more clearly. And slavery was his entire source of income, so he resorted even to intellectual dishonesty to defend it — something he was usually pretty good at avoiding.

    I would never, ever have wanted to oppose Jefferson in *anything*, since he was scarily brilliant, and won every battle he fought. But the more I’ve studied him, the more I’ve realized that he was not really a very moral person. When he did good, it was substantially for his own convenience.

    Religious freedom, for instance — for which he pushed hard, and successfully — is very convenient for an intellectual, who knows that most of established religion is bunk and gets tired of dissembling about it.

    When Jefferson’s house filled up with books (he was ordering every book published in Europe and having them shipped over in crates as fast as possible), he “kindly” offered to donate them as the foundation of a “Library of Congress”. And got Congress to fund the construction of a building, and the employment of librarians, to curate his library. Which of course he had permanent access to. Hmm. Was that a public service, or primarily a way to get Congress to pay to house his books?

    Jefferson’s life does, for me, lend great credence to the idea that even a deeply unprincipled person, given sufficient intelligence and education, can do very good things. So he could be viewed as evidence for the value of intellectualism.

    The more I have studied Jefferson, the clearer it is that he was unprincipled. (Contrast Thomas Paine.) But it also becomes clearer and clear how spectacularly *smart* he was; some of his self-serving moves have not been identified as self-serving by most historians, even 200 years on. That’s clever.

  6. Psychopomp Gecko says

    I think you’re overreaching here. I half expect the next paragraph to be about “He only died because he was in debt and he knew he’d be sticking other people with it. That’s the only reason he did it.” I’d have said something about accusing him of only liking eggs with lots of salt on them to cause health issues in other people, but I don’t know if they did that sort of thing a lot back then.

    He’s not all good, nor is he all bad. That’s part of the tradeoff you have to make when you move beyond simplifications. Saying the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, and his views on the separation of church and state were purely self-serving?

    You need to calm down for awhile and reexamine things with less bias. Blast him for the actual bad things he did, like his horrible pro-slavery attitude.

  7. Glenn says

    Jefferson is no worse than right wingers of both parties today, disenfranchising blacks, poor, and other minorities, impoverishing the many so the wealthy can be wealthy, claiming the value created by labor for himself while forcing those who work for him to live on a bare subsistence share of the wealth they create in their laboring.

    The owner of Frederick Douglas sent him out to earn a wage and then required him to surrender it to him, the man who owned the title to him i.e., he who was entitled to Douglas’s wage, as if Frederick Douglas was a one man corporation who owed all to the shareholder while the worker suffered in poverty.

    Jefferson would have fit into today’s America in a very unremarkable way.

  8. JJH says

    Putting text in context!

    Was Jefferson the most liberal (with respect to slavery), educated, southern white of his time? No, he was not.

    However, Finkleman has what, how should I say this, a rather radical interpretation of the texts:

    “Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free.” Jefferson’s views toward slavery moved with time, to use the term “always deeply committed” would have to be viewed as exaggeration at best. Jefferson introduced a plan to ease the manumission restrictions that applied in VA when he was a House of Burgesses Delegate (he was soundly defeated). Further, he developed a plan for gradual emancipation and repatriation -- again, not what we today would call a particularly enlightened position, but rather liberal for a southern planter of the day -- but, again it never gained traction in any state or national legislature.

    “… his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.” Yes, Jefferson certainly had racist views. But, they were commonly accepted views even among many abolitionists. His observations in the Notes on the State of Virginia would today be considered quite inadequate science, but pseudoscience at that time? Similar “scientific” claims would be made well into the twentieth century and would be widely accepted in the white European scientific community.

    “But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution.” “Many” really pushes the use of that vague quantification. In addition, as mentioned above, VA always had regulations about which slaves could be freed and how. There is no doubt that economics played a part in decisions not to free slaves, however Washington was little better than Jefferson in this regard. For the slaves that he could by law free, Washington freed none in his lifetime. In fact, the few he could free, he stipulated in his will that they were not to be freed until after his wife’s death (since he had no biological heirs he dodged the financial hardship to his posterity problem).

    “He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.” O.K., on this one, I can’t even give Finkleman a charitable reading. The interstate slave trade overwhelmingly moved slaves from north (e.g Virginia) to south (e.g. South Carolina). Since more southern plantation owners frequently only wanted individual slaves (usually the strong male types)than entire families, families were broken up all of the time. And broken up for purely economic profit; not as Jefferson did for what he thought was a means of maintaining order in the population. Again, we today look at breaking up those families as abhorrent for any reason. But, to make it seem that Jefferson was way outside of the commonly accepted ethical bounds for his time and geography, is just wildly off the mark.

  9. Brian M says

    Modern Capitalist economics gushes about mobile “flexible” workforces and economic realities that force modern wage serfs to move around at the whims of the sacred economy. Plus ca change.

    (I know that it is not the same and that mobility is not always bad and that some people (moi!) have no interest in living near family in their hometowns, but, still…

  10. brucegee1962 says

    Washington also doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for freeing his slaves because he had no children to worry about providing for. Jefferson did, and it’s reasonable to assume that if he had done what Washington did, he would have left them all as paupers who would have been forced to sell his beloved Monticello.

  11. slc1 says

    Look at his treatment of John Adams in the election in which he beat him. He introduced the modern political campaign and savaged Adams’s character in public to a degree for which Adams had great difficulty forgiving him.

    Hey, the Federalists gave as good as they got. Jefferson was savaged at least as scurrilously as Adams was by the Federalist press. They particularly had a lot of yuks speculating about his relationship with Sally Hemmings.

  12. slc1 says

    Based on his personal experience with free blacks in the Continental Army who served under his command, Washington, unlike Jefferson and most of the founding fathers, was skeptical of the notion that blacks were inferior to Caucasians. It should also be noted that he not only freed those slaves that he personally owned in his will but also made provisions for their future development therein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *