The Founding Fathers owned slaves. We knew that, didn’t we?
Slavery was an institution in many places in the world, including the newly formed United States. It took a generation and a civil war to end it here, long before it was ended elsewhere.
That fact is used as a modern political weapon by the left, as if the Republican and Tea Party embrace of Jefferson’s writings and ideals is a call to reinsitute slavery.
Never is the question asked, in that time period in the world, who was so pure? Indeed, who is so pure today? The monstrous treatment of women in the Islamic world today gets hardly a mention from the people obsessed with attacking the human imperfections of our Founding Fathers. A critical examination of a certain other historical figure likely will get you targeted for beheading.
The politicized nature of the examination Jefferson is evidenced in the title and substance of an op-ed in The NY Times by law professor Paul Finkelman, The Monster of Monticello.
If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.
Okay, Jefferson the man did not live up to his own ideals. The historical record should be written, but is the caricature and historical context presented by Finkelman complete or fair?
David Post at Volokh conspiracy vehemently disagrees, Why Don’t People Get It About Jefferson and Slavery?
This is truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense. The truth is that few people in human history did more, over the course of a lifetime, to “place the road on the road to liberty for all” — and indeed, to eliminate human slavery from the civilized world — than Jefferson. Don’t take my word for it – take Lincoln’s (who was himself, of course, one of those “few people”). ”I am sustained by Mr. Jefferson” he said, in 1858….
Why is this so hard for people to see? 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. Maybe Prof. Finkelman would have come up with a way to more quickly eliminate the institution from the new republic than Jefferson did, one that would have eliminated the horrible bloodshed of the Civil War. But nobody had such a plan, at the time – not Jefferson, not Washington, not Clay, not anyone.
Jefferson, Finkelman tells us, was not a “particularly kind” slave-master; he sometimes “punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.” And he believed that ”blacks’ ability to reason was ‘much inferior’ to whites’ and that they were “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” So what? Really – so what? If you want to think that he was a bad guy — or even a really bad guy, with truly grievous personal faults — you’re free to do so. But to claim that that has something to do with Jefferson’s historical legacy is truly preposterous.
The obsession with Jefferson is highly political.
Because he was imperfect in documentable and very human terms, he is a target for reasons of modern politics, not historical accuracy.