Martin Dyckman: Thomas Jefferson rationalized his slaveholding with racist nonsense

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. …

These eloquent and powerful words were composed by a man who owned 600 slaves during his lifetime.

The pitiful few whom he freed included four who were almost surely his own flesh and blood, but not their mother.

When he died, his slaves were sold to settle his enormous debts, separating wives from husbands and children from parents and siblings.

Today, on the 238th anniversary of the signing of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Americans remain confounded by the vast gulf between his words and his deeds. Some historians call it a paradox; others employ the epithet hypocrisy. Some say he was simply “compartmentalized.”

The issue is neither moot nor merely academic. Although Jefferson professed all his life to detest slavery and predict that it would pass away, no one of his generation did more to perpetuate it. When he purchased Louisiana from France, he made sure that the enabling legislation allowed slavery in the territory. That decision led inexorably to the Civil War.

He rationalized his slaveholding with racist nonsense that sounds sadly familiar even today. America still struggles with that aspect of his legacy.

The motion picture 12 Years a Slave was a wrenching exposé of the physical brutalities of slavery in the worst of places, the Deep South. The full story, measured in millions of human years of blood, tears, toil, sweat, and in endless humiliations without hope of relief, is one that too many white Americans still do not comprehend.

For those who wish to, I recommend Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). This column is drawn from the book.

The Jefferson Memorial, one of the most impressive monuments in Washington, deals briefly with slavery. Among the quotations engraved into its marble walls are these now-familiar phrases from his “Notes on the State of Virginia”: Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free…”

To which he might have added, “But not in my lifetime.”

The quotation belies the context. The book, begun in answer to a French aristocrat’s inquiry about life in the colonies, was propaganda aimed at maintaining critical support for the rebellious colonies in spite of slavery, which the French deplored.

Jefferson denigrated blacks as inferior, uneducable, childlike, and dependent on their white masters, even as he trained selected slaves to be skilled blacksmiths, chefs, and carpenters. The most appalling passage contended that African women had sex with apes. He held his slaves accountable for the cost of owning them — but not for the profits.

It is tempting — but wrong — to explain Jefferson, as many biographers and present-day defenders do, as the prisoner of economic forces he could not control. If he couldn’t afford to free his slaves, it was because of choices he had made: to enlarge Monticello, for which he mortgaged his slaves to Dutch bankers; to stock his cellar with fine French wines and his kitchen with copper cookware, a rarity in Virginia at the time; to guarantee the debts of others; to lavish visitors with endless and expensive hospitality. Jefferson was a willful spendthrift.

Wiencek, an award-winning historian who lives at Charlottesville, Va., contrasted Jefferson with George Washington in an earlier book, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.

Washington, a slaveholder also, eventually became disgusted with the institution and what it did to black families. On several occasions, he made plans to free his slaves, none of which worked out. He did free them in his will. Of all the founding fathers who owned slaves, Washington was the only one who did that. It did not set the example that he had hoped it would.

For Jefferson to have freed his slaves would have sent a powerful message. The Marquis de Lafayette and others begged that of him. The Polish general Thaddeus Kosciuszko, another hero of the Revolution, bequeathed Jefferson $20,000 to free as many slaves as possible; he declined the money. Edward Coles, a young Virginian who had freed his 17 inherited slaves, urged Jefferson to work for abolition. When Jefferson demurred that he was too old for causes, Coles replied that Benjamin Franklin had been “usefully employed on arduous duties” at an even greater age.

The youthful Jefferson was indeed an idealist. His contempt for slavery was genuine. But as he became accustomed to the comforts provided by “those who labor for my happiness,” he compromised his principles.

A turning point came when Jefferson realized slave women were generating a “silent profit” of at least 4 percent a year by bearing children. Farm managers were told to value that service above their labors in the fields.

What are those of us who admired Jefferson to make of him now, in light of such harsh, unblinking scholarship? We are left with some things still admirable: his vital contributions to independence, his diplomacy, and, above all, his passion for the separation of church and state.

The Florida Democratic Party decided properly, however, when it gave a new name to its annual Jefferson-Jackson day celebration. Jefferson’s slaveholding and Andrew Jackson’s ethnic cleansing are immutable as facts of the past, but unacceptable as examples for the present.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, N.C. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Martin Dyckman


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