Jefferson and Thurmond

One of the most striking historical facts I’ve learned this year is that George Washington freed all his slaves in his will despite opposition from his family, including his wife Martha. It’s surprising and revealing that this fact has never been part of the standard account of Washington’s life.

It is also one of the facts leading me to an increasingly negative view of Thomas Jefferson. The parallel between Jefferson’s unacknowledged slave children by Sally Hemings and the more recent case of Strom Thurmond is striking. (Jefferson was, quite literally, the first Southern Democrat). Until now, I’ve tended to vaguely excuse Jefferson’s actions here as a case of personal inability to resist the thinking of the times, but Washington’s example undermines this.

I think you can go from the personal to the political here as well. The course leading to the Civil War was set when the Northern States adopted emancipation around the time of the Revolution and the Southern states did not. Jefferson advocated gradual emancipation in Virginia at this time (1783), but he didn’t fight hard on the issue after this. Given Washington’s personal evolution on the issue, it seems plausible that a determined effort by Jefferson in the years after Washington’s death, during which he was president for eight years, could have achieved a peaceful end to slavery.

10 thoughts on “Jefferson and Thurmond

  1. Not to defend Jefferson too strongly, slavery was dying at the time of the Constitution. By 1800 the cotton gin had reversed that and it was expanding rapidly throughout the South. My guess (supercounterfactual) is that Jefferson would have taken a different view if he’d understood the grip slavery would take on the Southern economy. It’s also fair to point out that Jefferson owed his election to the rule by which slaves counted as 3/5 of a citizen for determining a state’s representation in Congress.

  2. Jefferson was never very good with money. He was in dire straits financially and didn’t want to leave his children destitute, thus he didn’t do as much as he should have. I think his actions were perfectly understandable and forgiveable.

  3. With perfect 20:20 hindsight, Pr Q finds that Thomas Jefferson does not meet his exacting standards of morality. It setting to bar rather high to make fidelity to the standards of Washington the litmus test of goodness.

    Pr Q’s criticism of Jefferson contains a factual error, he did free seven of his slaves, tradesmen whom he thought could fend for themselves. He also forgoed the right to pursue runaway slaves on a couple of occasions.

    I think that Jefferson rather had the better of Washington in other areas, being a fertile inventor, superb locutor and tireless acquisitor of property for his beloved Republic.

    Whilst Jefferson did not always practice what he preached but he was a darned good preacher:

    As a member of the Continental Congress, he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, which has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.

    It stands the test of time rather well, don’t you think?

    In his first term, Jefferson may have been a little busy building and exploring a continental scale nation.

    Perhaps the most notable achievements of his first term were the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and his support of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

    In his second term, his hands were always pretty full trying to maintain internal unity and external security, which may have attenutated his urge to pursue domestic civil rights:

    …a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts, is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France; his efforts did not avert war with Britain in 1812.

    After he left office, he dedicated himself distributing the store of civilised intellectual values that he had accumulated in a long period of service to the Republic:

    During this period, he sold his collection of books to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of seventy-six, with the founding of the University of Virginia.

    To draw a thread of continuity between Jefferson and Thurmond is silly. Jefferson was a centralist, universalist and liberal according to the standards of his day. Thrumond was the antithesis of all these values, being a states righter, segregationalist and conservative by the standards of his day.

    Even Thurmond had his good points, parachuting into Normandy on D-Day, at the age of 44.

  4. The supposed Jefferson/Thurmond continuum: Can we really envisage JFK welcoming a glittering assemblage to the White House, in the Camelot years, with the words: “this is the most distinguished array of talent to have graced this place since Strom Thurmond dined here alone?”

  5. Jefferson was right, Washington was either foolish, wicked or left a discretion to his executors which we do not see here, and JQ should know better since he has the benefit of hindsight.

    All slave systems that were regulated by humane laws forbade the freeing of slaves against their will. That can be found in the later laws of southern US states and even in provisions under Islam (it’s covered in one of Burton’s Arabian Nights footnotes). The reason was to prevent slaves being thrown out to starve when they were past it – the very scenario that showed up in England in the case that led slavery to be eliminated there. Typically any slave in his or her prime would want freedom, but not when he had reached the analogue of retirement age. The fate of free northern workers who grew old was held up by southerners as a reproach to abolitionists, and it is statistically “certain” that the US Civil War made a great many slaves suffer by freeing them (though survivor bias tends to hide this). Even in the British West Indies there was a minor slave revolt against emancipation, even with the transitional tutelage arrangements the British put in place (it’s reported with a nonsense sado-masochistic explanation in the introduction to the “Story of O” or some such book).

    So unless Washington had something to take his slaves’ wishes into account, or he made sufficient arrangements to make freedom worth their while, they either just happened all to want freedom even with their particular health, ages and circumstances or he was abusing them, guilty of doing what he thought was good for them rather than what they wanted themselves. It’s the sort of paternalism John Stuart Mill condemned.

    It’s worth realising that in certain really desperate situations slavery is even the better option for people who started out free. We are lucky enough to live in circumstances where that is a mere hypothetical that does not naturally spring to mind – but it’s not inherently artificial.

  6. I tend to agree with Jason and Jack. To the extent that individuals merely embody the prevailing standards of their times, they are not necessarily better or lesser, just historically insignificant. Jefferson is to be remembered for his impressive departures, not his (however lamentable in retrospect) conformities. To be convincing, a negative reappraisal would need to establish that he was worse than the general standard in this respect, not just worse than an apparently exceptional Washington.

  7. Washington was not alone in personally freeing his slaves. Other leading figures of the revolutionary era did so, particularly in the Norht. As Jason notes, he was in a better position to do so because he was more careful with his money, but I can’t say I find this a morally convincing excuse.

    At the political level, the failure to achieve emancipation in Virginia was crucial. Without Virginia as a slave state, the Civil War would probably not have happened or else would have been over very quickly. Either way, slavery would have been wiped out by gradual emancipation.

  8. So Jefferson is partly responsible for the Civil War by not abolishing slavery in Virginia? An odd thing to accuse a man whose whole lifetime was spent in the service of a liberal Union.

    As Alan demonstrates, slavery was econmicly attractive accross the Confederacy during the first half of the nineteeth century. Even if Jefferson had pushed Virginia to abolish slavery, against the wishes of it’s registered voters, there is no reason to assume that the rest of the Confederacy would have followed suit.

    Johnny Reb was were an an ornery critter who did not take kindly to being told what to do by anyone outside their own state. That orneryness trumps any of Jefferson’s sins of ommission as the cause of the Civil War.

  9. There’s a very good piece by Garry Wills in the November 6 “New York Review of Books” about Jefferson’s manipulation of the alve issue to prop up his own electoral chances. It all hinged on the “three-fifths clause” in the constitution (since repealed) whereby each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person in determining state populations and therefore representaion in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Obviously, the slaves couldn’t vote, but it gave the Southern states disproportionate power, and got Jefferson elected in 1800.

    It’s worth realising that slave-holders controlled the Presidency for 50 years (as well as the senior House committees and the Supreme Court), and that over a quarter of all the President’s the US has ever had were slave owners.


  10. Gore Vidal has claimed that Jefferson cheated Aaron Burr out of the presidency, and was so scared , tried to have him imprisoned. If this is correct, he was a typical politician, to whom power was the most important thing.

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