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Slavery and the Declaration of Independence can in
no way be reconciled.
This idiotic notion lies at the core of the Jefferson dilemma for fuzzy minded liberal twit historians; the idea that the failure of the Founding Fathers to deal with the enormously divisive slavery issue in July 1776, somehow delegitimizes the whole American Revolution. In fact, this aspect of Jefferson's character is easily explained, though his alleged relationship with Sally Hemmings is more problematic. The truly difficult aspect of his character is his profoundly antidemocratic lack of respect for the Constitution.
It really isn't hard to understand the Founders' willingness to tolerate slavery. It is merely necessary to jettison the 20th Century (& 19th for that matter) detritus that clutters our minds when we look back at them through the mists of time. Whenever we watch a movie set in pre-Modern times, my wife will turn to me and say the same thing every time, "Boy those people must have really smelled." But do we think of Jefferson as crude because he took a bath once a month or whatever? No, because this was the convention of the time. Similarly, it is asinine to try to judge his opinion of Blacks by a modern standard.
Western man found African Blacks living in near Stone Age conditions. This, combined with physical dissimilarities lead to the understandable, though unfortunate, belief that Blacks were somehow lesser humans. To look back from the end of the Twentieth Century and take 18th Century men to task for this is both unfair and unproductive. In judging Jefferson, it should suffice that the Declaration that he wrote, in particular the phrase: "all men are created equal", made the end of slavery inevitable.
[A Thought Experiment: Suppose for a moment that we project current demographics and politics forward in time a couple decades. Women have become increasingly powerful politically and as a result many more protections have been put in for the weakest members of society. Abortion, Euthanasia and Animal Experimentation are all illegal. The people of this time could look back on us and write books about the impossibility of reconciling Bill Clinton's rhetoric with his support for all three. Surely we can see that this would be unfair.]
On the other hand, the possibility of a Jefferson/Hemmings liaison is a more troubling issue. If he truly felt, as his slave ownership indicates he must have, that blacks were inferior and whites were entitled to own them, then he would be little more than a sexual predator if he initiated a physical relationship with her. She was already unable to give true consent because of the master/slave relationship, but Jefferson should have perceived her as even less able to consent if he believed her to be a member of a lesser species. I am not willing to assume that he did enter into such a relationship, it remains unproved, but if it ever is proven, it will force a major reconsideration of his character, or lack of such.
The criticism of Jefferson's attitude towards Blacks actually misses the the most fundamental trouble spot in his character. It is his overly idealistic attitude towards democracy and his lack of respect for the law that really raises questions. Ellis does an excellent job of demonstrating that individual freedom and antipathy towards all institutions were the defining characteristics of Jefferson's politics. But in order for men to enjoy freedom, they have to be able to depend on the fair and consistent functioning of the laws and the system of justice. Ellis reveals numerous examples, from the Louisiana Purchase to his opposition to judicial review, of Jefferson's willingness to ignore the Constitution and resort to the arbitrary exercise of power. Moreover, his support for the majority, unfettered by the protection of minority views that Madison insisted on, coupled with his approval of the French Revolution, forces us to consider whether he even understood the importance of securing political rights in a web of laws. Ultimately he comes across as a kind of coercive utopian, willing to see the rights of the few trampled under foot in order to achieve his personal vision of the ideal agrarian democracy. It is a short step from this Jefferson to Robespierre and The Terror or Pol Pot and The Killing Fields.
This excellent book raises all these issues, dealing with some better than others. But it is always interesting and is extremely well written.
-REVIEW: of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (Joseph Ellis, NY Times Book Review)
Book-related and General Links:
-Mount Holyoke Faculty Profiles: Joseph J. Ellis, Ford Foundation Professor of History
-Gergen Dialogue (The Newshour, PBS)
-Booknotes: Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams Author: Joseph Ellis
-INTERVIEW : with Joseph Ellis (Book Browse)
-Ellis reveals American Sphinx in new biography (JULIE GERSTEIN '00, Mount Holyoke News)
-REVIEW: For Jefferson, Less Reverence, More Explanation (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
-REVIEW: The Master of Monticello (Brent Staples, NY Times)
-REVIEW: Portrait of an Enigma (ERIC L. MCKITRICK, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of Founding Brothers (Joyce Appleby, Washington Post Book World)
THOMAS JEFFERSON :