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Monday, July 6, 2015

Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of Equality and Proponent of Human Slavery


I love the United States of America. I am ever grateful for the birth of this nation and to those founding fathers who upheld liberty. I will always revere those who crafted the revolution. Without amazing people like Thomas Jefferson, America might still be a British colony. Yet, at the same time, I believe young students of history should realize the facts that show hypocrisy in colonial times.

Consider these famous words:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration of Independence, 1776

Then, consider these words from Thomas Jefferson (1853):

"It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. -- To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral.

"The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

"Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

"Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.

"They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning.

"They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites.

"They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.

"To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.

"Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

"It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move.

"Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites.

"Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture.

"In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.


"Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. -- Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar strum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a *Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the *Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.


"*Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honour to the heart than the head. They breathe the purest effusions of friendship and general philanthropy, and shew how great a degree of the latter may be compounded with strong religious zeal. He is often happy in the turn of his compliments, and his stile is easy and familiar, except when he affects a *Shandean fabrication of words.

"But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky. His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration.

"Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column. This criticism supposes the letters published under his name to be genuine, and to have received amendment from no other hand; points which would not be of easy investigation.


"The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life. . . .

"To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.

"To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

"It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?

"This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question 'What further is to be done with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture."

(Notes on the State of Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson,
J.W. Randolph. Virginia, 1853)

* Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784) was the first published African-American woman and first published African-American poet. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.The publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) brought her fame both in England and the American colonies; figures such as George Washington praised her work.
* The Dunciad (1728-1743) is a landmark literary satire by Alexander Pope published in three different versions at different times. The poem is considered a masterpiece of mock-heroic verse.
* Ignatius Sancho (1729 – 1780) was a composer, actor, and writer. He is the first known Black Briton to vote in a British election. He gained fame in his time as "the extraordinary Negro", and to 18th-century British abolitionists he became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and immorality of the slave trade.The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former slave of Spanish and English families.
* Shandean means characteristic of Tristram Shandy, a humorous novel by Laurence Sterne.

While the Declaration of Independence is a beautifully written document, it was authored by slaveholders. This is the greatest irony surrounding this powerful work of governance. Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal even though he owned more than 200 slaves at his home in Monticello.

We can say Jefferson's condescending language towards the blacks can be explained by his existence as a mere product of his culture, a form of civilization in Virginia which largely required the existence of black slavery. In that view, we could conclude that his faults were merely a matter of historical obedience -- culture the way it was then. Or, was it his own selfishness that prevented the abandonment of his luxurious way of life at Monticello? It is possible to view Jefferson as a man losing his own moral compass on human rights as his financial dependence on slavery deepens.

We can say Jefferson wrote about the inferiority of blacks to justify their enslavement. Perhaps this reasoning helped ease his (and that of many others) conscience about enslaving human beings, but then again, perhaps he had no conscience in matters of race. After all, he believed slaves to have physical and moral deficiencies -- lack of beauty and lack of reasoning intelligence -- that made them little more than a sub species.

We can say Jefferson was merely trying to explain the inability of his weary slaves to comprehend such weighty matters as "the investigations of Euclid." Yet, there is little doubt that he used such rhetoric to prove that they were indeed inferior beings." While Jefferson disguised his racial judgments in the language of scientific observation, they were opinions that exposed his racial biases. He considered himself  above such so-called "inferior" creatures.

We can say Jefferson was merely a strict segregationist. He believed if freed, slaves should be sent to Africa. He thought, otherwise, abolition would result in racial warfare or, even worse, racial “mixture.” However, America in colonial times was already a land of racial mixture largely accepted unless the mix was black and white. Perhaps Jefferson was not only the principal author of the Declaration of Independence but also an originator of the "Back to Africa" campaign of white racists.

And, of course, we can say Jefferson acknowledges "the injuries blacks have sustained" with regret and blames their inferiority on long years of captivation. Does that observation come from a man who believes himself to be kinder in judgment than others like him who enslave humans and use them to profit from their ownership?

What about their freedom? The fact remains that Jefferson remained a slave owner until his death. He freed five of his slaves in his will. At his death, Jefferson was greatly in debt, in part due to his continued construction program. The debts encumbered his estate, and his family sold 130 slaves, virtually all the members of every slave family, from Monticello to pay his creditors.

We can say Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was an honest man and attempt to rationalize his hypocrisy, yet we still must realize the dark side of the man. History should reflect these facts, and students should read about the real Jefferson -- his beliefs and the common beliefs of so many of his era.


Notes on the State of Virginia

In late 1780, François de Barbé Marbois, the secretary of the French legation to the United States, sent a set of standard queries to American officials to elicit information about the thirteen states. For the state of Virginia, Congressman Joseph Jones received the queries, who then forwarded them to Thomas Jefferson, Virginia's governor at the time.

Jefferson finished to a preliminary set of answers to Marbois‟ queries in that same year. Building upon and refining the text throughout 1782 and 1783, Jefferson became reluctant to publish what became the Notes on the State of Virginia, but he consented to publish a very limited run of 200 copies in 1784 while in France as America's Minister Plenipotentiary.

It seems that Jefferson intended only for that original, small publication to be made, perhaps only for sharing with friends and acquaintances. Per his instructions, the sections on blacks and slavery were omitted in this publication, but unfortunately for Jefferson the full text was pirated and widely distributed to the public. He could not hide while the public read his slavery views.

(Christopher Martin. "Slavery in Notes On the State of Virginia:
Understanding Complexity." May, 2013)

Sally Hemings

The affirmation of Thomas Jefferson's affair with his slave, Sally Hemings, makes Jefferson appear to be a master of deception and a hypocrite who must be questioned for following his own personal beliefs.

Sally Hemings became Thomas Jefferson's property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother to Monticello by 1776. As a child she was probably a nursemaid to Jefferson's daughter Mary. (Slave girls from the age of six or eight were childminders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations.)

In 1787, at the age of 14, Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly from Virginia to Paris, where Jefferson was serving as American minister. Madison Hemings was the son of the  Sally Hemings. According to Madison's account, at some point she became Jefferson’s “concubine.”

When Jefferson was about to return to America in 1789, according to Madison, Sally Hemings, pregnant and aware that slavery had no legal standing in France, announced that she was going to remain in Paris. To persuade her to accompany him home, Jefferson agreed to a “treaty” whereby he would free her children when they reached adulthood.

Most scholars are likely to agree that Jefferson fathered Hemings’s seven children (of whom three died in infancy). In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, announced that its internal study had concluded that Jefferson was likely the father of all of Hemings' children. And, in 2001 the National Genealogical Society published a special issue on the topic; its specialists demonstrated how their review of the weight of evidence led them to conclude that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Heming's children.

(National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 3, September 2001)

Annette Gordon-Reed published the first volume of a planned two-volume history on the Hemings family and their descendants, bringing a slave family to life on their own terms. She traced the many descendants of Elizabeth Hemings and their families during the time that they lived at Monticello; she had 75 descendants there. It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings's siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson's wife, Martha.

It was widely praised for its groundbreaking treatment of an extended slave family. Much of Gordon-Reed's superbly told story takes place at Jefferson's beloved Monticello, where, she writes, "we can find the absolute best, and the absolute worst, that we have been as Americans." It won the Pulitzer Prize for History and 15 additional awards.

(Annette Gordon-Reed. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. 2009)

But as to the precise nature of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship, the historical record is silent.

Was it rape, psychological coercion, a sexual bargain or a long-term loving connection? ­Gordon-Reed acknowledges that it is almost impossible to probe the feelings of a man and a woman neither of whom left any historical evidence about their relationship. Madison Hemings’s use of the words “concubine” and “treaty” hardly suggests a romance.

(Eric Foner. "The Master and the Mistress." The New York Times. October 3, 2008)

John Chester Miller, professor of American history and the author of more than a dozen books, concludes this about Thomas Jefferson's feelings for Sally Hemings:

"Had Jefferson loved Sally Hemings in the deeper sense of that word, he would surely have loved the children she bore him. It was not in Jefferson's nature, nor is it in the nature of most men, to show indifference to the children born of a love match. If his treatment of the children is any indicator, Jefferson's feeling for Sally Hemings -- assuming that he had any feeling for her other than the regard a master feels for a loyal, devoted servant and half-sister of his deceased wife--must have been purely carnal. The children did not concern him at all; he was solely preoccupied in indulging his passion for the 'African Venus.'"

(John Chester Miller. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. 1991)


Shelby Steele, the author of Jefferson's Blood, says Jefferson "spawned two lines of descendants — one legitimate, one not. And this bastardized part of his family would be driven by a sense of incompleteness."

Near the end of his life, the great Jefferson was reduced to compulsively compiling a crackpot mathematical formula to determine at which point of mixed racial heritage a white person becomes black, or vice versa.

The same can be said of the whole of white America and black America today. And that is, above all, the true sadness still to be confronted.

“One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams,” writes historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.”Yet, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” And later, Davis finds, Jefferson’s emancipation efforts “virtually ceased.

Davis says, "By looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which Thomas Jefferson rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise."

(Henry Wiencek. "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson. Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012)

It seems we need to say more ... much more ... about Jefferson, the individual, as we continue to uphold Jefferson, the founding father.
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