Sunday, September 23, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Thomas Jefferson stands in history as one of its most talented and influential figures as well as one of its most disappointing. Jefferson's soaring eloquence helped shape the ideals of the United States of America and laid the foundation for some of our nation's greatest achievements, including the eventual eradication of slavery. Yet Jefferson was a living paradox full of incredible complexity and contradiction, and it's this aspect of his character that leaves many historians scratching their heads and many Americans truly (and rightfully) disappointed. Most tragically, Jefferson's paradoxical character contributed to the continuation of slavery in the United States past the founding era, and planted some of the seeds of the American Civil War.

The National Museum of American History brings attention to this unfortunate aspect of Jefferson's legacy in an exhibition that began in January of this year and concludes next month. This exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” addresses head on the fundamental contradiction between Jefferson's ideals and Jefferson's life as a slave owner.

If there were simply a contradiction between words and deeds, we might understand this. After all, we all, at times, struggle with bringing our lives into conformity with our standards and beliefs. We are all, at times, living contradictions. But, in Jefferson's case, the contradiction is especially tragic, since slavery was not merely an academic subject, but an issue that affected the fate of millions of people. What's more, Jefferson seemed at first to embrace his unique place in history. He denounced slavery in many of his early writings, including his original draft of the Declaration of Independence and supported key restrictions on slavery in the territories.

In "The Little Known Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson," a highly informative article for the Smithsonian, historian Henry Wiencek explains: "The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox."

In the 1770s and 1780s, Jefferson found himself in the vanguard of Upper South slave owners who were increasingly conscientious about their part in the abhorrent institution and determined to do something about it. Yet Jefferson declined to go the distance with this group of evolving abolitionists, instead turning back to accept (and arguably embrace and defend) a practice that he knew, deep down, was morally repugnant. George Washington would go the distance, completing his intellectual and spiritual journey on slavery, by coming out on the right side of history. Not so Jefferson. "Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson," writes Wiencek.

Politicians of course change their views all the time. We shouldn't be surprised at this, but the stakes are so much greater in this particular reversal. Not only that, but this isn't like someone shifting his stand on tariff policy. This is an issue that deals with the value and dignity of human life. It's a core issue that speaks to the very heart of the human race and the American experiment that Jefferson helped shape. A reversal on an issue of that magnitude is not easily justified or forgiven, especially since it arguably had such tragic ramifications for millions of people. Some may protest that Jefferson never truly went from being a budding abolitionist all the way back to pro-slavery activist. This may be true, but his public silence on the issue after the 1790s and his continued personal participation qualifies as acceptance and thus constitutes a significant reversal from the commendable ideological trajectory the Virginian had been on in the 1770s and 80s.

In his controversial (but largely accurate) book Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America, historian Thomas G. West documents the clear progression against slavery during the founding era. West shows that, far from institutionalizing or perpetuating slavery, the Founding Fathers of the United States should be credited with rolling back and, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, putting slavery on the "course of ultimate extinction." Unfortunately, the Founders' progress against slavery was checked (and, in the Deep South, reversed) by the introduction of Eli Whitney's cotton gin and the ideological reversal of figures like Thomas Jefferson. Had the anti-slavery momentum generated by the Founding Fathers in the early years of our Republic continued unabated, it's likely slavery would have ended long before it did and the American Civil War could have been avoided. Sadly, that was not the case and Thomas Jefferson is one of the leading reasons why. His legacy is thus forever tarnished because of it.