October 31, 2002
Flawed Founders: To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?
(Stephen E. Ambrose , November 2002, Smithsonian)
Few of us entirely escape our times and places. Thomas Jefferson did not achieve greatness in his personal life. He had a slave as mistress. He lied about it. He once tried to bribe a hostile reporter. His war record was not good. He spent much of his life in intellectual pursuits in which he excelled and not enough in leading his fellow Americans toward great goals by example. Jefferson surely knew slavery was wrong, but he didn't have the courage to lead the way to emancipation. If you hate slavery and the terrible things it did to human beings, it is difficult to regard Jefferson as great. He was a spendthrift, always deeply in debt. He never freed his slaves. Thus the sting in Dr. Samuel Johnson's mortifying question, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?"
Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime. He thought abolition of slavery might be accomplished by the young men of the next generation. They were qualified to bring the American Revolution to its idealistic conclusion because, he said, these young Virginians had "sucked in the principles of liberty as if it were their mother's milk."
Of all the contradictions in Jefferson's contradictory life, none is greater. Of all the contradictions in America's history, none surpasses its toleration first of slavery and then of segregation.
The absurdity of applying to the Founders our own standards on an issue like slavery is most readily apparent by reference to the most similar issue of our own day: abortion. Regardless of which side of the issue you are on personally it may be seen two hundred years from now to have had a significant and negative human rights impact. Depending on how humankind develops, it may be the case that abortion opponents will be seen as having stifled women's rights, just as abolitionists impinged on property rights, or that abortion advocates will be seen to have participated in the murder of ten of millions, having adjudged fetuses no more human than slavery advocates considered blacks to be.
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 31, 2002 2:03 PM
I read a book by Ambrose once. I am rapidly losing any
respect for him.
The U.S. Constitution included a sunset on the slave trade, 1807, which was the first legal prohibition of moral antislavery in history anywhere. (Moral antislavery is the notion, still uncommon, that no one should be a slave; most people, Germans, Japanese and Arabs notably these days, are selective about who should be free.)
Anyhow, the stated legislative intent of the antislavetrade clause was that without the trade, slavery itself would not survive. That turned out to be wrong, but give all credit to Washington (Jefferson was in France at the time) and the others for being the first persons in history to establish a government inimical to slavery.
"Absurdity" seems a strong term, especially when Jefferson himself agonized over this contradiction, and other founders where steadfastly opposed to it. There may be a degree of innapropriateness, but I think that it is not an absurd degree, nor an absurdity. You would do well to leave the partisan hyperbole to your hated "liberals," and not diminish your good points by indulging in the same.
Al Gore agonized over abortion, he was opposed until he ran for President in '88, then decided he favored it. At which point was he a good man and at which a bad one?
You note below that you're reading Edmund Morgan's Franklin biography. As luck would have it, I've been rereading Morgan's American Slavery-American Freedom
, which discusses how slavery and revolutionary republicanism both developed in colonial Virginia.
Morgan makes clear that the Founding Fathers understood perfectly the dissonance between the freedom they sought for themselves - which was explicitly justified as avoiding enslavement by the tyranical crown - and the enslavement they themselves were guilty of. Morgan's thesis, which I'm not sure I entirely buy, is that the English feared republicanism because they were afraid that, if all men were legally equal, the dependent, dispossessed poor could not be kept in line. In Virginia, on the other hand, you had large planters, small independent yoeman farmers and slaves, without many free paupers. As the poor were already outside the polis
, Virginians were free to be republicans.
David: based on the experience of the republicans in the English Civil War and Protectorate, I think their fears were also about the radicalization of politics through participation of both the poor (more than enough of them in England) and the middle classes, and particularly dissident religious groups. This issue was brought to the fore in North Carolina prior to the Revolution in the Regulation disturbances where many of the early fault lines in US society were graphically demostrated. But in that land of "social rest", Virginia, the large landowners were able to either make clients out of the possibly disaffected groups or simply push them off into the mountains and create political barriers to their effective participation in the Commonwealth's politics. Which eventually led to West Virginia's secession from Virginia.
There's a wide gulf between absolute equality of all men and abolition of slavery. Blacks need not have been enfranchised en masse but they had to be freed for us to realize the ideals of the Founding.
>You would do well to leave the partisan hyperbole to your hated "liberals," and not diminish your good points by indulging in the same.
Interesting thought. As something of a liberal, I 'dropped in' to leave a compliment. This essay was one of the more interesting and thoughtful ones touching on (that incendiary topic) abortion that I've read.
BTW, I disagree with the 'pro-life' position of (I assume) Orrin. It makes no sense based on what I know of embryonic and fetal development. I find equal fault with 'choice' as it is currently practiced. But Orrin makes a point the applies broadly (ie even to me!) and he makes it well.
Yeah, but Jefferson couldn't free his.
He did try to get rid of his slaves, by selling
them. Not a method likely to win hosannas
from the ultras, but for legal and practical
reasons, he could not simply say, "You're
However, the sale was refused. It was that
business disaster that ruined Jefferson's
finances, not his overspending.