Jefferson & His Slaves: Who Cares?

Published:December 6, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Last Friday, Paul Finkelman called Thomas Jefferson “a creepy, brutal hypocrite” in the New York Times. The context was Jefferson‘s actions with regard to slavery, which Finkelman argues contradicted Jefferson’s writings, both on slavery and on liberty more generally. The idea that the Founding Fathers should bear responsibility for not more forthrightly confronting the moral blight that was slavery “is truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense,” according to Temple law professor David Post, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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.

That so what, in turn, has Ta-Nehisi Coates hot under the collar. He calls it “one of the most immoral paragraphs I’ve read in a long long time.”

One way to approach this is with “facts” and “arguments.” I think the sort of callousness that allows you to look upon the visage of human trafficking and say “So what?” probably inurs you against such tactics.

I, myself, always like to remember that I’m writing [about] actual people, who were more than happy to give us some sense of precisely how it feels to be among the So Whats of America.

Coates goes on to quote a letter from an enslaved man, sold away, back to his wife. Other salvos in the debate, pro-Finkelman and con, are rounded up by Ben Alpers at U.S. Intellectual History. One comment to that last post stood out for me. Robin Marie Averbeck, a graduate student in history at UC Davis, attempts to make sense of the controversy surrounding Henry Wiencek‘s book. While broadly critical of Wiencek and his scholarship, she also acknowledges that a book designed for a popular audience, like Wiencek’s, should not be held to the academic standard in which everything must be “new.” It may be true, she writes, that what Wiencek says is new is not, in fact, new. But readers don’t care about that.

[A]t the end of the day a broader public having a corrected view of Jefferson can only be a good thing—and of those in the academic community who read the book, they will know the truth about the work that preceded it, and as for the non-academics that read it, they quite frankly won’t care and, I’m not sure why any academic need be obsessed with such readers knowing “hey, I came up with that first,” in any case. (Ie, this will not hurt their reputation from within the historical community or detract from the legacy of their work.) In the meantime, the public is however briefly talking about the not-totally-awesome aspects of Jefferson again; something most people I think can agree is much more important than distributing kudos around the bubble of academia.

This, I think, is very well put.

IMAGE: Thomas Jefferson