A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, February 7, 2011

When Tom Met Sally

I recently posted something celebrating the rhetorical skills of Thomas Jefferson. It subsequently occurred to me that some might get the mistaken idea that I like Thomas Jefferson. I can assure you that I foster a very active loathing of him. I believe he was the most overrated of the Founding Fathers, and his rhetoric seldom matched the reality of his conduct.

Other than his (co)authorship of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson did very little good for America. Yes, there was the Louisiana Purchase. But I would argue that buying a chunk of cheap real estate from someone who was desperate to unload it is hardly the stuff of which heroes are made. Whoever had happened to be President at the time would probably have ended up acquiring the Louisiana Territory. And given how bad Jefferson was with finances, someone else might have been able to drive a better bargain. One thing that the Purchase did accomplish was to increase the number of slaveholding states relative to free states, hardly a shining legacy. Furthermore, hypocrite that he was, Jefferson acquired the territory after having previously claimed the Constitution denied the federal government the right to make such purchases. With Jefferson it always seems as if the rules changed when he stood to benefit from a change. In any case, the Purchase made him look good at a point when his government was in trouble.

Unlike many of the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson had nothing to do with the drafting or ratifying of the US Constitution. Indeed, some might argue that he did his utmost as a politician to destroy it, and he certainly expressed an attitude towards that document that was at best ambivalent.

As a human being, Thomas Jefferson was a man of underwhelming moral integrity. Of his many defects of character (and believe me, they were legion), the worst was his hypocrisy, manifested particularly in his attitude towards slavery, and towards blacks in general. In this spirit, and in honour of this province’s Black History Month, I would like to explore this theme a bit.


It is no secret that Jefferson was a slave owner. The exact extent of his slaveholdings are possibly less well-known. At any given time Jefferson may have been sovereign lord and master of up to 200 souls. Jefferson was not alone among the Founders in this, but it is worth contrasting his conduct as a slaveholder with some other Founders.

James Madison, whose estate was also dependent on slaves, was nevertheless active in the movement to free slaves and resettle them in Africa. His personal letters were frequently filled with disgust at the institution of slavery and with worry about his own implication in it. Unfortunately, Madison died heavily in debt and never felt himself in a financial position to divest himself of his nefarious property. I do not claim this as an excuse for his not freeing his slaves; on the other hand, I believe that if he had managed to pay off his debts, he probably would have divested himself. In other words, his dislike of slavery was at least to some extent genuine, as evidenced by the considerable time and interest he devoted to the resettlement project.

George Washington was a more interesting case. He was a large property owner and he owned many slaves. Like Madison, he displays in his letters considerable angst over both the institution of slavery and his involvement in it. Unlike Madison, Washington actually took steps to free many of his slaves. His efforts were complicated by several factors, some of which were to his credit. For example, not all of his slaves were his to free; many were “dower” slaves, technically belonging to his wife’s estate. This limited his ability to free slaves, since these had in many cases intermarried with his own slaves, and he had no wish to break up families. There is one letter in which he reluctantly decides to sell some slaves to pay off debts, but in it he shows a solicitude about who they were sold to and gives instructions that, again, families are not to be broken up. Finally, although he sincerely wished to free his slaves, he did not want to leave them at the mercy of a hostile society. In his will Washington indeed freed most of his slaves, setting aside land for them and making quite extensive provisions to see that they were taught trades so that they would be able to provide for themselves.

From reading Washington’s private thoughts and sentiments on his experience as a slaveholder, one gets the impression that for a man like him, slave ownership was a curse, a sort of moral trap: it was economically easy and tempting to get into at the beginning, but became a burdensome inheritance, surprisingly difficult to disinvest in for those who had genuine moral concern for the lot of slaves.

Despite some high-minded rhetoric, much of it for public consumption, there is little indication from his private conduct that Jefferson felt any scruples about his role as a slave owner. Of his large herd of human chattel, he only freed five slaves in his will, three of whom were the children of Sally Hemings (about whom, more later). Interestingly, he did not free Sally. Some have claimed that, like Madison, he was too deeply indebted to be able to free his slaves. But Jefferson had champagne tastes and never seemed to lack money for the finer things in life. Many remarked on his rather extravagant lifestyle, for his private life resembled more that of a French aristocrat’s than of the austere republican, man-of-the-people persona he carefully cultivated for political reasons. Rather than free his slaves, he preferred to have them break their backs building his beloved Monticello.

Jefferson’s Racism

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. (yet another dubious gift from Franklin Roosevelt) bears the famous inscription, taken from Jefferson’s “Autobiography”: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [African-American slaves] are to be free.” A heart-warming thought, but like so many Jeffersonian quotes in circulation, this coin has been clipped, and quite willfully. Here is the passage in its original form:

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers.”

This hardly accords with the sort of image the Memorial was intended to project, but it is more in keeping with the rest of Jefferson’s writings on the subject. First, note that Jefferson’s scheme is primarily a project of “ethnic cleansing”, as it were: move blacks out of America and replace them with whites. Second, as humanitarian as the African colonization project might seem at first sight, it was rather inhumane from another point of view. As Alexander Hamilton (who unlike Jefferson, was a true abolitionist) rightly noted in criticizing Jefferson on this score, resettling freed slaves somewhere in West Africa would in effect mean moving them to a land that was alien to them, where they would have a hard struggle ahead, and would more than likely be killed off by the natives already living there.

Third, Jefferson did not believe in the moral, intellectual, or biological equality of the races. For proof of this, I would direct the reader to “Query XIV” of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). There, one can find such gems of Enlightenment thought as the following: “They [negroes] secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.”

The fact is, Jefferson did not care much for black people, because he hardly considered them human. As a matter of fact he seems to have considered them somewhere between men and orangutans, for he argued in the same place in his Notes that the superior physical beauty of Europeans was shown by the preference black men showed for white women above their own kind, similar to “the preference of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.”

Love’s Proper Hue

Of course, Jefferson did like at least one black person. Her name was Sally, and in fact, he liked her very much, enough to father children with her — though not enough to free her in his will. Visitors to Monticello often noticed the number of conspicuously light-skinned slave children on the plantation. Writing in his journal in 1786 after a visit, the Comte de Volney “was amazed to see children as white as I was called blacks and treated as such.”

Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is no secret. Indeed, it was fairly well-known in his own time, thus the famous political jingle of the time (sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”): “Black is love’s proper hue for me, and white’s the hue for Sally”. Although DNA testing can never confirm beyond a doubt that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children, the evidence is about as clear as it can get. And yet there are still those who publish books and articles trying to clear Jefferson’s sainted name from the charge of miscegenation, as if we should think any less of him for having a relationship with a black woman.

What is troubling about the relationship is not Sally’s race, but the fact that she was his slave. We can never know what Sally’s feelings were towards her master. Was it love? Or did she simply not have a choice? Also troubling is the fact that Jefferson showed no interest in freeing her. And as Volney’s remark indicates, his children by her were simply accounted as part of the plantation’s stock of human chattels. He did free them in his will, but why not earlier? These are the real misdeeds that Jefferson’s defenders should be trying to excuse (if they can), instead of bending over backwards to deny a relationship that had been common knowledge since at least 1802.

St. Domingue

His slaves were not the only people this apostle of liberty failed to free. Jefferson preached the rights of man to whoever would listen, and much to the consternation of his political enemies, was always willing to justify the worst excesses of the French Revolution as the necessary price to be paid for the emancipation of the French people.

Unfortunately, this same logic did not apply to another revolution closer to home, the slave uprising in St. Domingue that established the world’s first black republic, Haiti. One would think that Jefferson would see in Toussaint L’Ouverture a kindred spirit, a brother in arms for the grand cause of liberty. Instead, events in St. Domingue scared Jefferson half to death, and rightly so. After all, the example might give American slaves clever ideas about liberty and the rights of man. So disturbed was he by this prospect, that he offered France America’s assistance in putting down the uprising: “Nothing would be easier than to supply everything for your army and navy, and to starve out Toussaint,” he wrote to the French charge d’affaires. Clearly Jefferson thought L’Ouverture was a black man who hadn’t learned his place. Later, in 1804, Jefferson signed off on a bill prohibiting all trade with Haiti.

As readers of this blog may have guessed by now, I have little patience with hypocrisy. Being the fallen creatures that we are, none of us is completely free of this vice, I’m sure. But I am always eager to root it out wherever I sniff its telltale stench, and I reserve a modicum of grudging respect for people who flaunt their misdeeds. I cannot abide someone who preaches high moral purpose while practicing its opposite. Among such hypocrites I account Thomas Jefferson one of history’s most deplorable.

Since, as Rochefoucauld well expressed it, “hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue,” there is, I suppose this to be said in Jefferson’s favour: few men have been more extravagant in bending the knee.

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