Jefferson And Slavery

“Maybe Lincoln didn’t understand what was going on as well as Paul Finkelman now does, but I regard that as unlikely.”

So do I. The notion that the nation could have been founded as one without slavery is profoundly historically ignorant. The Founders did the best they could do under the circumstances, and even with such an atrocious flaw it was still the best design of a government in human history up to that time.

Or since, despite the fact that about half the nation seems willing to abandon it.

[Update a few minutes later]

This seems related.

Revolutionaries

19 thoughts on “Jefferson And Slavery

  1. Chris Gerrib

    The issue isn’t that Jefferson failed to establish a nation not based on slavery. The issue is that he didn’t even attempt to establish such a nation.

    I suspect, based on this article that Jefferson changed his mind about slavery between 1776 and 1790.

    I do find David Post’s Volokh Conspiracy article about Jefferson a bit puzzling. People are rarely all one thing or the other. For example, Churchill did a great deal for freedom, but he also approved using chemical weapons against Iraqis in the 1920s, was a staunch imperialist and a heavy drinker. We should understand people “warts and all” not just as marble statues.

    1. Larry J

      Jefferson was in Paris serving as ambassador (or minister according to some sources) when the Constitution was written. He was lead author for the Declaration of Independence but when it came time to actually create the Constitution, he was otherwise engaged and had little input.

    2. wodun

      I don’t think anyone is saying not to look at the warts but some people only look at the warts.

      When looking at historical figures it is important to look at them in both the context of their time but their place in history’s timeline.

      Some people use the warts of our founders to invalidate our entire system of government but that is rather unfair. No one, no country, no culture is perfect and these imperfections add up the longer these groups and individuals exist. Acknowledging and accepting the presence of these warts does not mean that we have to deconstruct our system of government or the philosophy that helped create it.

      Obama has benefited from the class of his family. He went to the best schools and lived a comfortable childhood. He has had many opportunities because of the wealth of his family. His family also owned slaves. I don’t blame Obama for slavery and I don’t think we should hold Obama to account for what his family did in the past. No one should say that Obama’s accomplishments are invalid because his family once owned slaves.

      The American family once owned slaves, does that mean that everything its children has accomplished since then is invalid?

      1. Der Schtumpy

        wodun,
        I liked what you said here,
        .
        .
        I don’t think anyone is saying not to look at the warts but some people only look at the warts.

        When looking at historical figures it is important to look at them in both the context of their time but their place in history’s timeline.
        .
        .
        I guess that explains why they lose their minds when I ask my old friends, who are hyper-libs, WHY if JFK was right when he said “…ask not…”, how can Obama also be right when he says in effect, “….you CAN’T do it on your own, so, here’s yer STUFF from the gub’ment…”.

        Different times just call for different ideas, I get it now. I’ll be back, gotta go change my voter registration to Obamuphile! Right after these monkeys exit my…

      2. rickl

        I don’t think anyone is saying not to look at the warts but some people only look at the warts.

        In one of Bill Whittle’s essays (I don’t remember which) he described Noam Chomsky as being like someone who sees a pristine beach of dazzling white sand, then goes down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass, tweezers, and a bucket. He painstakingly searches for and picks out only black grains and fills his bucket.

        Then, when he gives a public speech, he in effect pours his bucket of black sand over the podium, saying, “See? These are the horrible crimes that America has committed.”

        Between him and others like Howard Zinn, this has become the default message of American history as it is taught today.

  2. Tom Billings

    “The issue isn’t that Jefferson failed to establish a nation not based on slavery. The issue is that he didn’t even attempt to establish such a nation.”

    This statement is ahistorical. Jefferson put forwards a serious proposal in the 1780s, to ban slavery from all territories west of the Appalachians. It was obvious that eventually the interior States would be in the majority, and Jefferson wanted that to be non-aristocratic as soon as possible. His proposal was totally shot down, because the Confederation required all Representatives of all States to agree to any law. Instead, the Ordinance of 1787 was passed without his proposal. After that Jefferson, and others, realized they were not going to get rid of slavery soon and had to hope it died by being less economically productive than free labor, but could only hope that this would not divide the States so decisively that reconquest was made possible.

    This is only one reason why Jefferson and others involved in the new Constitution of 1787 did not try to ban slavery. Their great fears were reconquest by Britain, and Civil War, possibly inspired by Britain to give themselves an opening for reconquest. Avoiding that Civil War, or any division into competing groups, so as to not give the British an opening, was a huge incentive in shaping the new Constitution. Those who do not believe that would have happened are ignoring the point that States were already at each others’ throats. In the last episode of this, the 2 States involved pulled their respective militias back from their mutual borders only 6 weeks before the Constitutional Convention opened in 1787.

    The great struggle of politics in these years was not over slavery or race, but over aristocracy, and the divine right of kings. In this struggle Jefferson made clear time and time again that he wanted the small free farmers of the expanding Republic to lead the country. Indeed, the real and true break of the large plantation slave owners with Jefferson was over this issue. By the 1830s, with the wealth from “King Cotton” expanding, they were openly proclaiming themselves to be models of aristocracy, or of the Spartans, who enslaved the helots, or both. Race and slavery was a subsidiary issue, and attempting to speak of it as anything else, as though it should have been at the center of their thoughts, is anachronism, …literally, trying to take them out of their own time, and place them in ours. That is simply bad history.

  3. Bilwick

    You ever notice that the biggest critics of antebellum slavery these days are also the biggest statists? So much for their pious devotion to liberty.

        1. Chris Gerrib

          The Civil War was required to end slavery, and Federal civil rights legislation, enforced by Federal officers, was required to end Jim Crow.

          No country in the world has ever ended slavery by voluntary or market forces. They all required government action.

          1. B Lewis

            Federal civil rights legislation, enforced by Federal officers, was required to end Jim Crow freedom of association on private property.

            Fixed.

          2. Tom Billings

            “The Civil War was required to end slavery,”

            In fact, Jefferson, as I noted above, and several others, had good proposals to end slavery peacefully. It was the desire of the large plantation oligarchs of the South to emulate the status of aristocracies of Europe, at any cost to the South, that brought them to Civil War.

            As always, it is a race between the spread of industrial culture networks and the suppression of them by agrarian culture hierarchies, whether aristocratic, or academic, that we are seeing, then and now.

          3. Bilwick

            “Slavery and Jim Crow didn’t end until the state ended it. Had we left it to the market, both institutions would still be going strong.” Is that supposed to be some kind of rebuttal to my point? If so how? How does the State ending slavery address the anomaly of statists pretending to be philsophical heirs of the essentially libertarian Abolitionists?

          4. Bilwick

            “Federal civil rights legislation, enforced by Federal officers, was required to end Jim Crow freedom of association on private property.

            Fixed.”

            Good point, B–but wasted Gerrib. He believes the State exists to enforce his notion of “fair,” and when that notion is conflict with individual liberty, individual liberty takes a hit. Because Chris Gerrib’s concept of “fair” is a moral absolute to which we all must bow.

          5. Chris Gerrib

            Bilwick – you asked me to prove that the market would not have ended slavery. I showed that the market has never in history ended slavery – it took government to do that. Any time something has never happened, the burden of proof is on those that claim it could happen.

            Regarding “statists” – liberty can be infringed by both governments and individuals. Slavery was an example where individuals did the infringing.

      1. Rand Simberg Post author

        Slavery and Jim Crow didn’t end until the state ended it.

        Slavery and Jim Crow were creations of the state. Slavery required enforcement by the government against runaways to survive, and Jim Crow was laws, not private behavior.

        1. Chris Gerrib

          By that definition, everything is a creation of the state. Markets and contracts require enforcement by governments.

          Jim Crow was both laws and private behavior. There was no law requiring segregated lunch counters. Thus, when Woolworth got tired of sit-ins, they just desegregated.

  4. McGehee

    I’m inclined to regard Jefferson’s judgment more favorably than some. One of my ancestors was Jefferson’s neighbor and sometimes did work for him. In the journals preserved at Monticello are remarkls about said ancestor that are far from complimentary.

    He knew us McGehees well.

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