Blogs > Cliopatria > Judging Jefferson

Mar 21, 2004 8:13 pm

Judging Jefferson

Ralph Luker's nod to Sean Wilentz' critical review of Garry Wills' latest work got me meandering off to read the essay.

Wilentz goes after Wills most aggressively for his characterizations of Timothy Pickering, and I have to say that this part of his review I mostly shrug at, because I don't really have the depth of expertise to assess the specifics of this particular part of his argument against Wills.

I was struck, however, at Wilentz' quick fly-by attacks on Jefferson's critics earlier in the second section of his review. Trashing Jefferson, he writes, is a"sure path to attention and fame"; the great man is held accountable to"anachronistic political correctness", despised equally by"religious right and postmodern left".

Cry me a river. I have no desire to play the" choose your favorite Founding Father" home-game so beloved among historians of the United States (I suppose if I have to pick, I'd take Benjamin Franklin: bet on a deist libertine and inventor who writes in praise of flatulence anytime) but at the same time, Wilentz' gloss on Jefferson's critics just misses the point.

I can concede that Jefferson comes in for some mighty abuse, true. But Wilentz writes that Jefferson gets whacked for being an auld son of the Enlightenment; in fact, for being its truest embodiment on American soil, and his critics mostly haters of the Enlightenment.

Not at all: it is just that Jefferson embodies the duality of the Enlightenment, its irresolvable and indispensible contradiction: that new freedom and new tyranny were born together in its cradle, and have ever since been linked like Siamese twins. It is no superficial career move or callow political sloganeering to appreciate Jefferson as both democrat and autarch, pioneer of liberty and practicioner of slavery.

The crime is in trying to resolve out that contradiction as Wilentz does in his review. When Jefferson advocates slavery's extension to the West, Wilentz gives him a pass: this is mere strategy. When Jefferson does not free his own slaves, this is bad only for those individual slaves, but no reflection of his larger views. Always something other than what he said, always something more than what he meant, always in the last instance liberty and not slavery.

Too neat by far. It is no anachronism to hold Jefferson responsible for his contradictions, because there were others in his historical world who had done just that, who had faced slavery squarely and recognized that it could not be tolerated or compromised with--if not Timothy Pickering, then others, both among the people who made the American Revolution and those who made America's early inheritance. To hold him responsible is not to insist that he was slaveholder only--that I agree is also too simple. Yes, Jefferson embodies the Enlightenment, both the wonder of its emancipation of human possibility and the damnation of its capacity for new and unprecedented forms of bondage. Both his demonizers and his worshippers miss that he was all that--and that we live yet with that fearful contradiction.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/24/2004

It depends on which period Wilentz emphasizes

I have seen little to suggest widespread opposition to slavery among northern democrats before the mid 1840s. One way to consider that sentiment would be to look at state constitutional debates over granting blacks the right to vote in the antebellum period.

In the northern states I have studied (enough to be suggestive, not quite enough to be conclusive), the desire to keep blacks disenfranchised is either stable or growing among Democrats until, perhaps, around 1850. One of the common arguments against letting blacks vote was that it would make that state a destination of choice for free or escaped African Americans. I would suggest that as long as that concern was high, northerners had conscious and vested interest in the contination (if not the expansion) of slavery.

After the beginning of the war with Mexico, many northern Democrats start moving away from support of slavery. This reflects a mixture of growing repugnance with the institution, growing suspicion of the "slavocracy", and a growing fear of slave competition for the remaining territories.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/23/2004

Wilentz makes some interesting points. I'd like, however, to see the source for his claim that Jefferson thought that expanding slavery to the west would lead to a "diffusion", and the demise of slavery. I think he's right about fashions in Jefferson studies, but he comes close to swallowing one such fashion whole -- the Hemings episode (Nature published a retraction of the extravagant claims made by Ellis on the subject).

At one point he opts for an analysis of North versus South in voting -- which seems to minimize the role of the votes of northern Democrats in sustaining slavery. Sure, one can't lay it all at the feet of the southern slave power. But slavery could not have survived without the willing accomodation of northern Democrats (even granted the less than universal condemnation of Federalists).

Ralph E. Luker - 3/21/2004

Very interesting commentary, Tim. I recently wrote a piece for one of those enormous German encyclopedias on Christianity and slavery through the 1st & 2nd millenia -- one of those enormous tasks in which you take a deep breath and pretend that you know enough to say something intelligent in a short space. Anyway, it's fairly clear that because slavery was near omnipresent for most of that time, it isn't the emergence of pro-slavery apologia late in the period but the emergence of the anti-slavery argument which requires explanation. So far as I can tell, the latter emerges among dissenters throughout the western world. In France, Italy, and Spain, it does appear to be among the philosophe and does appear to be a handmaid of their critique of inherited hierarchy and privilege. (Not _all_ inherited hierarchy and privilege because that argument can be too altogether earth shattering. It took a while for the implication for gender relations, for instance, to register.) In the English speaking world, it seems to come from dissenters from the Anglican establishment, Quakers and other assorted evangelicals.
I think that Wilentz is correct when he tells us that Timothy Pickering was more than a bit of a prick. But, honestly, if you look around among the early anti-slavery people, I'm not sure that there were any who weren't! Much as one might admire their tenacity, it's pretty clear to me that they were most often very difficult people. But, closer to your point, I see no reason why we shouldn't understand John C. Calhoun as every bit as much a child of the Enlightenment as we see Jefferson. The late pro-slavery apologias were very sophisticated arguments about why some people should be in bondage and others should be owners of them -- and those arguments were woven from much the same intellectual tissue as contemporary anti-slavery rhetoric.