Thomas Jefferson’s Entitlement

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 particularly 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson’s Entitlement

  1. It looks even worse when you discover that he took one of his slaves as his mistress. To him, the slaves weren’t human enough to be paid or treated equally, but they were certainly human enough to fuck.

    My history/philosophy teacher in high school was one of the first people to enlighten me to the reality of the Founding Fathers, Columbus, the Pilgrims, and other historical figures typically revered as heroes by many people. But he didn’t do this in his lessons. We were still lied to, or at least not taught the whole truth, as late as in 11th grade. This stuff he taught me outside of class.

    The picture of American history that I had been conditioned to believe since childhood was so far from reality that it was difficult to accept the truth when I first became aware of it. It would be akin to meeting your favorite musician or artist or author, or whomever you venerate, only to find out that that person is a complete dick.

    One person I had always been taught was an American icon, hero, and genius, but who in reality was a greedy, jealous asshole, was Thomas Edison.

    I found the following about Tesla (and Edison) on The Oatmeal recently. It’s pretty neat. http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla

  2. @Mack – In an earlier draft of this article, I discussed Jefferson effectively fucking his cattle, as he saw it. Of course, Sally Hemings was only half or one-quarter "black." But even if you say that Jefferson didn’t rape Hemings (and I would), this is a clear case of sexual harassment. She could hardly refuse. But what kind of asshole fucks a woman for years and then leaves her a slave when he dies?

    I like the page on Tesla, but it overstates his contributions. And Edison was an inventor. But no one would know him if he hadn’t systematized inventing. I have a problem with the whole great man theory of anything. As the page notes, Edison depended on 22 people before him who worked on the light bulb. Well, that’s true of Tesla and any other inventor. (BTW: Tesla didn’t invent AC; it predated him by a century.)

    Everything leads back to politics… Why is it that a line of hundreds of scientists can work toward some final product but it is that inventor at [i]one[/i] critical point who makes all the money? This calls the lie on the conservative idea that everyone makes money exactly according to their value to society. Although you would think the existence of Jonas Salk would be enough to kill that idea for good.

    But I like Tesla. I like people who lived and did what they loved and died broke. Another is Thomas Paine: 2 revolutions, 3 best sellers, 1 death in poverty. No slave owner he!

  3. Good points. I like Tesla and Paine as well. Both were men ahead of their times, both were some incredibly original thinkers, and neither get the credit that they deserve.

    On a completely different note, did you get my e-mail about starting a blog? I sent it back on (I think) 11/27. I don’t know if it didn’t send or if you just haven’t got back to me. I’m just curious. No hurry.

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