Thomas JeffersonPaul Finkelman has written a most striking OpEd in the New York Times about that great writer of God given liberty, Thomas Jefferson. The title of the article will give you some idea: The Monster of Monticello. I have to admit, I have tended to give Jefferson the benefit of the doubt over the years. I know that I rarely if even live up to my ideals. Just the same, I've never been a total dick.

Finkelman presents a very callous man—one who truly saw his slaves as property. He presents a man who sold 85 slaves to buy luxury goods. (That's a lot of luxury goods.) He sold slaves as a form of punishment. And most shocking of all (I knew of this but not the stark numbers), when he died he only freed 5 of his slaves. The remaining 200 (including his mistress Sally Hemings) were to be sold.[1] In all of my misspent life, I have never done anything as bad as any part of this. It is despicable.

When I was young, I was briefly involved with an older woman who was fond of saying that a man couldn't be held accountable to mores of his time, but he could be held accountable for his own mores. Over time, I came to see that she was wrong. We are all products of our times. But even with my more liberal view of personal ethics, Jefferson looks very bad.

Compared to the men of his day, he was still conservative at best when it came to the issue of slavery. Compare him to his friend Thomas Paine, and you can only conclude that Jefferson was nothing but a selfish asshole. Even compared to John Adams, himself quite the asshole, Jefferson looks terrible. But as Finkelman shows, it is much worse than even this. He really did think that Africans were subhuman.

Of course, I can't help but wonder which way this works. I tend to think that Jefferson was the same as all rich people. He came to believe that he was entitled to his wealth. His wealth was dependent upon the enslavement of Africans. But he could see how unjust this was. So he had to justify it. And there is no better way to justify it than to "prove" that your slaves are in no important way different from your cattle.

Let's not forget that slavery was not about racism. It was about profits. There are historical reasons why slavery eventually was limited to Africans. But the slaveholders kept slaves for the money, not for any of the theoretical reasons they developed to justify the practice. So I tend to think this is what was going on with Jefferson. And what is particular bad about this way of looking at the man is that it tends to undermine all of his work. It isn't just that he had a personal failing or a blind spot when it came to slavery. It is that what he wrote he only ever meant to apply to men like himself.

Given that most of the founding fathers were of similar dispositions, even if they weren't in favor of slavery, it means the whole founding of the country was less a revolution and more a change of ownership. It is only step by step that we make a more perfect union. People like Jefferson were never really in favor of equal rights for the "help."

H/T Corey Robin



[1] Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph stopped Hemings from being sold.