Robert M. Thornton
Robert M. Thornton writes from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
Years ago, noted historian Charles Callan Tansill taught a course in American biography and noticed the students would lose interest if he tried "to make our Founding Fathers into plaster saints." They wished him to "humanize them without demeaning them." Their viewpoint reminded him of a couplet from a poem by James Whitcomb Riley:
In fact, to speak in earnest, I believe it adds a charm
To spice the good a trifle with a little dust of harm.
In recent years, unfortunately, historians have gone far beyond sprinkling a "little dust of harm" in their biographies of the Founding Fathers; they desire not to humanize them, but to demean them. These debunkers are becoming a bore.
None of the Founding Fathers have been spared attacks, but perhaps our third president, Thomas Jefferson, has been the chief victim. He has taken a pounding for allegedly having children by his slave, Sally Hemings, although the DNA test did not prove this. Jefferson has also been denounced as a racist, sexist, chauvinist, atheist, misogynist, hypocrite, and enthusiastic supporter of the excess of the French Revolution. One respected writer demands that Jefferson be pulled down off his pedestal and tossed in the ash-heap of history. Is deranged too harsh a description for such a proposal?
How can it be, ask Jefferson's critics, that the author of the Declaration of Independence was himself a slave owner?1 Their answer is that he was a hypocrite and never really believed what he wrote. But why did Jefferson, a member of the landed gentry, pretend he was opposed to slavery if he did not think it was wrong? The hypocrite pretends to believe something he does not in order to gain popularity but for Jefferson to speak, however mildly, against slavery was hardly the way to win the affections of his fellow Virginians.
Douglas Wilson suggests that a better question would be:
How did a man who was born into a slave-holding society, whose family and admired friends owned slaves, who inherited a fortune that was dependent on slaves, and slave labor, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare it ought to be abolished?
During these "politically correct" days, Jefferson's critics use what historians call "presentism," which means they are "applying contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past." They show "the widespread inability to make appropriate allowances for prevailing historical conditions." Or, put another way, "they look at the past in the light of what we know and believe today." They fail to follow the advice of the historian that "to understand the past we must look at it always when we can through the eyes of contemporaries." It is hardly proper, declared Walker Percy, "to judge a man's views of the issues of his day by the ideological fashions of another age." Unfortunately, in the "debunking and revisionist spirit of the times" exporting contemporary standards of equity to the past helps make the case against traditional American heroes.
Slavery was the norm in Jefferson's time and place and "complex legal and financial factors were involved, which, while not exculpatory, do suggest less harsh condemnation" of the man. In his early years as a political leader, Jefferson made several attempts to prevent the spread of slavery and move towards ending it completely. He was defeated each time and finally put his energies elsewhere, leaving the task to the next generation. We may agree he should have tried harder but his decision not to do so is hardly "evidence of pathological virulent racism." And if he had forced the issue, his usefulness in other matters might have been diminished. If in 1776 he had refused to compromise and said unless slavery were ended immediately he would withdraw from public life, would we be better off today? I think not.
Jefferson is also denounced for not freeing his own slaves as did several prominent Virginians, including George Washington. It is distasteful to be reminded that in Jefferson's time money was in short supply and wealth was measured by property which included buildings, crops, land, animals -- and, sadly, slaves. It would have been a great financial sacrifice for Jefferson to have freed his slaves, partly because he lived beyond his means. Perhaps that is not a good excuse but how many of his critics today, smug in their feelings of moral superiority, would willingly surrender a large portion of their wealth in cash, savings, and stocks and bonds?
It must be remembered, too, that in 18th century Virginia slaveholders who might have wished freedom for their slaves had to come to terms with a "tangle of legal restrictions and other obstacles." Freeing slaves was not necessarily advantageous for them. Many were without skills and semi-literate at best, so they would have been easy victims of white scoundrels motivated by greed and racism. Where would emancipated slaves have lived and how would they have earned their livelihood? They would have enjoyed little, if any, freedom and likely would have come to grief in a hostile environment unless they were able to pass for white.
So then, writes Wilson, well-meaning slaveholders were caught on the horns of a dilemma. "We have the wolf by the ears," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1820, "and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." The "presentism" of our times involves us in mistaken assumptions about historical conditions in the 18th century. We err in thinking that any slaveholders "wanting to get out from the moral stigma of slavery and improving the lot of his slaves had only to set them free."
In Jefferson's only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, (1781) he stated:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinctive race, or made distinct by time and circumstances are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of mind and body.
But, explains Daniel Boorstin:
. . . he always expressed an open-minded hopefulness that the facts would someday produce unambiguous proof of the equality of the Negro. He never lost his eagerness for an entirely satisfactory demonstration "that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends."
"Be assured," wrote Jefferson to Henri Gregoire on February 25, 1809:
. . . that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are also on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinion of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re-establishment on equal footing with the other colors of the human family.
Recently Douglas L. Wilson found a portion of a letter from Jefferson to Robert Pleasants, a Quaker from Henrico County, Virginia. It was known they had corresponded in the summer of 1796 regarding the education of slaves but key pieces were missing. The portion of the letter found Jefferson in mid-thought on page two responding in agreement to Pleasants' interest in establishing an educational scheme for slaves within the context of emancipation. Lucia C. Stanton, author of Slavery at Monticello, says:
This is one of the few times Jefferson is known to have written regarding the education of slaves. What is surprising about this particular letter is that he seems willing to have slaves educated with free white children, which is not wholly consistent with his known views on the subject. Scholars will have to evaluate this find carefully in the context of his writings on race and slavery.
Speaking at Monticello in 1997, Monticello trustee and former Justice John Charles Thomas said:
Jefferson was not perfect. But Jefferson . . . did do one thing; he gave expression to an idea that has -- through all these hundreds of years -- impelled America towards unity and equality. . . . Even the ideas of a flawed man can spark the creation of a more perfect union. . . .
"All men are created equal" is one of the master ideas of our society, wrote Theodore Roszak, in The Cult of Information (1986). From the power of this familiar idea:
. . . generations of legal and philosophical controversy have arisen, political movements and revolutions have taken their course. It is an idea that has shaped our culture in ways that touch each of us intimately: it is part, perhaps the most important part, of our personal identity.
This master idea:
. . . has nothing to do with measurements or findings, facts or figures of any kind. The idea of human equality is a statement about the essential worth of people in the eyes of their fellows. [It] arose in the minds of a few morally impassioned thinkers as a defiantly compassionate response to conditions of gross injustice that could no longer be accepted as tolerable. [It was born from an] absolute conviction that catches fire in the mind of one, of a few, then of many as the ideas spread to other lives where enough of the same experience can be found waiting to be ignited.
Perfect equality of rights is not likely to be realized but as Stefen Zweig wrote in Erasmus of Rotterdam (1934):
. . . that which in the concrete world can never be victorious remains in that other as a dynamic force, and unfulfilled ideals often prove most unconquerable. [They] may represent a need which, though its gratification be postponed, is and remains a need. [Such ideals are] neither worn out nor compressed in any way [and continue to] work as a ferment in subsequent generations, urging them to the achievement of a higher morality.
Those ideals which remain unfulfilled are "capable of everlasting resurrection."
Whatever his faults, Jefferson does not deserve the harsh treatment he has received in recent years. Biographers should be forgiving, said Joseph Epstein wisely, and he did not mean glossing over a person's shortcomings, but rather not writing in an unfair or derogatory manner calculated to bring forth hatred, not understanding. He should not be his subject's "conscientious enemy," wrote George F. Will (The Woven Figure: Conservatism and America's Fabric, 1994 -- 1997), and should remember "a cool apprising eye need not be a jaundiced one." Jay Tolson in Pilgrim in the Ruins -- A Life of Walker Percy (1992) wrote that the
. . . examination of an exemplary life does not oblige one to ignore flaws. The interest of an exemplary person depends largely on the complexity and sometimes the enormity of his or her flaw. The problem with modern biography . . . is its lack of tragic sense, and a resulting tendency to see the subject's failings against some implied perfectionist ideal rather than against the limitations of a human life. [Little wonder, then, he continues] that contemporary biography often seems to have no higher goal than, as Elizabeth Hardwick once said, "to diminish the celebrated object and aggrandize the biographer."
It all comes down to how we should remember the leading figures of our history. Shall it be "by their greatest achievements and most important contributions or by their personal failure and peccadilloes"? *
1) In his Declaration of Independence (1922) Carl L. Becker wrote that:
The final form of the Declaration was not the same as Jefferson's first draft; and it seemed to be obvious that a book on the Declaration should contain some account of the changes made in the original text and the reasons for making them. I found that, first and last, a good many changes were made. Some of them were merely verbal, intended to improve the form; others, and these the more drastic, designed to ease the document through Congress -- something added to please, something omitted to avoid giving offense to this or that section of pubic opinion. The most notable instance was the deletion of Jefferson's famous "philippic" against the slave trade. Jefferson himself thought this long paragraph one of the best parts of the Declaration; and certainly nothing could have been more relevant in an argument based upon the natural rights of man than some reference to slavery -- that "cruel war against human nature itself." But Congress struck it out. There were many slaveholders in Congress (Jefferson being one), and although none of them objected to the abstract doctrine of natural rights, many of them were naturally (human nature being what it is) sensitive to a concrete example of its violation so pointedly relevant as to be invidious.
"The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale." --Thomas Jefferson