Thomas Jefferson: Creepy, or Redeemed by the Declaration of Independence?

The Thomas Jefferson nightmare is on us again. Was the Mother of All Founding Fathers a dastardly racist, and perhaps worse, a hypocrite to boot? Paul Finkelman has an Op-Ed in The New York Times that makes that case: at the time he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson owned 175 slaves; over the next fifty years he did not free all his slaves, not even after his death; he opposed private manumission and public emancipation; he punished slaves by selling them away from families and friends; he suggested expelling the offspring of mixed-race unions from Virginia; and in many writings, spoke disparagingly of slaves’ mental and moral qualities.

David Post over at The Volokh Conspiracy has a rejoinder that suggests the correct response to the Finkleman Op-Ed should be a resounding, and I quote ‘So what? So what?  Really – so what?’ because–as part of his evidence for this claim–Post notes that Lincoln cites Jefferson as the true inspiration for anti-slavery and abolition platforms in 1858:

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society….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. [italics in Post’s article]

and then goes on to say:

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.

If I’ve understood Post correctly, his claim–in this post at least, for I have not fully read the paper he links to above to make a longer case for Jefferson–is that Jefferson’s declaration of universal equality of man, made in the abstract, supersedes or at least ameliorates his slave-owning record. This kind of defense of the sordid personal side of a public figure is not unknown: the figure in question deserves our tolerance for the public record outweighs the personal lacunae.

The problem here, of course, is that Jefferson’s slavery record is not a mere personal peccadillo, and it is not in indirect conflict with his public record. Rather it is a straightforwardly direct repudiation of his publicly avowed political claims. Imagine, for instance, someone trying to get George W. Bush off the hook for his illegal war in Iraq and his violations of civil rights at home by pointing to his various speeches, at home and abroad, where he waxes eloquent about freedom and democracy. The invocation of Lincoln, I think, does even less work. As Ann Bartow pointed out, in a comment on Post’s Facebook page, ‘[I]t is likely that Lincoln was using Jefferson strategically. Selling the idea that black men were “men” was perhaps less threatening if you could tie someone like Jefferson to the idea.’

I’m afraid it isn’t so easy to wash out the blot of slavery. The ‘damned spot’ sticks.

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7 comments on “Thomas Jefferson: Creepy, or Redeemed by the Declaration of Independence?

  1. […] essay has already prompted some pushback. David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy (h/t Samir Chopra) […]

  2. wbwise says:

    I believe that’s it a credit to our founding fathers that we can’t put in a neatly labeled box.

  3. […] essay has already prompted some pushback. David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy (h/t Samir Chopra) […]

  4. Jefferson was both a great man and a slave-owning hypocrite. Neither one cancels the other out. This is the nature of humanity, everywhere and at all times. Thomas is just a particularly good example of this fact, so he gets a lot of attention.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Peter,

      Jefferson is also uncritically worshipped at times – he is the most written about personality of the American Revolution. I think this recent revisionist scholarship is a good counterweight.

      • Whoever the uncritical are, they don’t include me. Further, the bullshit of vilification is just as bad as the bullshit of deification. It is the same process, by which the person advancing the argument seeks to divide the world into heroes and villains, and somehow always comes out on the side of the heroes. What gets lost in between? The full truth. Which is sacrificed to point scoring and one-upmanship and ax-grinding and the all-consuming pursuit of making sure your talking points win. Well well. I’m not in the business of playing that fucking game. And I’m not going to legitimize it with a polite smile, whether it comes from a bar-stool sitter, a talk radio host, a tenured professor, a politician, a corporate ceo, a protester with a bongo drum, a celebrity, or anyone else.

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