Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

The Washington Post has a long piece about a Virginia family whose current (substantial but not huge) wealth derives from their slaveholding forebears and who may now be greatly enriched by the discovery of uranium under their land. There’s an interesting discussion of the arguments for and against reparations

Buried in the middle of the article is something much more interesting, to me at any rate. One member of the family, Edward Coles, opposed slavery. He hid his views until he inherited ownership of 17 enslaved people, then took them to Illinois and freed them. None other than Thomas Jefferson wrote to Coles, seeking to dissuade him.

Jefferson wrote Edward a letter on Aug. 25, 1814, trying to talk him out of it.

[M]y opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them,” Jefferson wrote to Coles.

This is a pathetic evasion, amounting to a restatement of the standard enslaver claim that chattel slavery was a positive good compared to the alternative of earning a living in the capitalist economy (“wage slavery”). It undermines the idea that Jefferson maintained support for gradual and voluntary emancipation even after abandoning the idea of legal abolition. Adding weasel words about “until more can be done for them” doesn’t change that, given that Jefferson made no moves to do anything more, either politically or with respect to the hundreds he personally enslaved.

It seems that, having been genuinely opposed to slavery at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson came to realise that the profits of slavery, and particularly slave breeding, were too great to pass up. In this context, even his ban on the Atlantic trade slade looks bad. For a breeder like Jefferson, prohibiting import competition made perfect economic sense.

Another nuclear renaissance?

And did environmentalists kill the last one?

There has been a lot of talk lately about a revival of nuclear power, partly in response to the need to replace the energy previously supplied by Russia, and partly as a longer-term response to climate change. To the extent that this means avoiding premature closure of operational nuclear plants, while coal is still operating, this makes sense. But new nuclear power does not.

The misconception that nuclear makes economic sense remains widespread, but has been refuted many times. Less remarked on is the misconception is that the big obstacle to nuclear power is opposition from environmentalists.

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No new coal

Thanks to the efforts of Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) and the Environment Council of Central Queensland (EcoCeQ,), Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek reopened the environmental assessment process for 16 coal mines and two gas projects that had previously been approved. To take part, it was necessary to submit new information not available at the time of the original approvals.

I wrote the same comment for all of the coal projects*.

I wish to draw attention to the following information which was not available at the time this project was approved. This information implies that the climate damage caused by the project will be worse than seemed likely at the time, while any offsetting benefits will be smaller.

  1. International agreement on the necessity of phasing out, or phasing down, the use of coal by 2030 reached at COP26 in Glasgow. This agreement is inconsistent with an expansion in the global supply of coal. It follows that any new mine can operate only at the expense of existing mines, which will in any case be required to reduce their output. It is highly likely that the resulting job losses will be incurred in existing coal-reliant communities elsewhere in Australia
  2. The idea that coal-fired electricity generation could be rendered ‘clean’ through carbon capture and sequestration has now been abandoned. Most of the handful of projects that were put into operation have been closed down (Petra Nova) or scaled back (Boundary Dam). Other projects have been abandoned with large losses (Kemper). Hence any damage caused by additional use of coal cannot be prevented by CCS
  3. Rapid reductions in the cost of solar PV, wind and storage technology have rendered new coal fired power uneconomic everywhere, and have led to an accelerated closure of existing coal-fired power station. Although China continues construction of new coal-fired power stations, competition from clean energy means that many coal-fired plants will operate only seasonally, or as reserve capacity. This implies reduced demand for coal.
  4. At the time the project was evaluated, it seemed likely that coal would be replaced by gas, at least in the short term. This implied a smaller net benefit from eliminating coal than if the replacement is an immediate move to renewables+storage as now seems likely.

John Quiggin
Professor of Economics, University of Queensland

  • I meant to write something on gas, but ran out of time. Submissions closed yesterday.

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