Thomas Jefferson as unrepentant slaveholder

The usual take on the man best known for writing that “All men are created equal” has been that he owned slaves, but… after which you choose your excuse:

  • He was really conflicted about it.
  • He just didn’t think freeing them would be practical.
  • He was a particularly benevolent master.
  • It’s not fair to judge someone who was born into that system, and knew no other, by modern ethical standards.

The excuses may bear revisiting in light of a new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, byHenry Wiencek. Here’s an excerpt from a review of the book this morning in The Wall Street Journal:

The strongest sections of the book track Mr. Wiencek’s close reading of Jefferson’s estate records, where he found a coldblooded taskmaster who ruthlessly exploited child labor and overworked his slaves as a matter of course. Jefferson sometimes countenanced brutal punishment, including the whipping of boys as young as 10 or 11 in his highly profitable nail factory, “whose profits paid the mansion’s grocery bills,” Mr. Wiencek writes. Despite Jefferson’s occasional assertions that slavery would one day wither away, he never lifted a finger to weaken it as an institution, even when implored to do so by friends and allies who regarded slavery as an affront to the values for which patriots had fought the Revolutionary War.

In his youth, Jefferson did hold antislavery convictions. And in his earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence, he may well have had slaves in mind when he declared that all men were created equal.(Southerners were sufficiently worried that they tried unsuccessfully to have the word “men” changed to “freemen.”) By 1784, however, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he expressed in graceful but cringe-inducing prose a deep personal distaste for blacks, who, he asserted, smelled wrong, copulated with apes in Africa, and were incapable of intellectual achievement.

Whatever moral ambivalence he may have felt toward the institution of slavery he overcame when he sat down and did the numbers for Monticello. In 1792, he calculated precisely what his slaves were worth. Mr. Wiencek writes: “What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved children were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest.” To intimates, Jefferson described slavery matter-of-factly as a good investment strategy, advising one friend that if his family had cash to spare, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes.”…

Actually, I was a bit surprised that Jefferson even handled the books for his estate. I supposed he followed the practice of the landed gentry of having a “man of business” deal with all that. I had supposed he was detached from the enterprises that gave him his wealth, devoting all his time to politics, science and music. I had read that he was a terrible money manager, embodying the Southern planter’s typical indifference to debt, spending above his means on books, scientific instruments and other things that scratched his intellectual itch.

I supposed that, to paraphrase John Travolta (on being a loan shark) in “Get Shorty,” he was never that into it. But supposing he remained above the details of running his estate was just my way of offering him another excuse, I guess.

Mr. Wiencek’s premise seems to be that he was not only his own man of business, but a particularly hard-eyed one, especially on the subject of slavery.

Not that I was ever prepared to give him a pass on that. There are a number of reasons why, among the Founders, I have always preferred John Adams to Jefferson, and have resented that Jefferson was in their day, and still is, more celebrated and revered. One of those reasons was that Adams was adamantly opposed to slavery, while Jefferson, high-minded words aside, was a major practitioner of that evil.

This book should give us all, including those of you who admire Mr. Jefferson more than I do, something new to consider.

16 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson as unrepentant slaveholder

  1. Brad

    Yeah, I remember learning in school that he practiced four hours a day. So I sort of figured that a guy who spent that much time on that, plus his politics and his dabbling in the sciences, didn’t have time to whip his slaves. Maybe I was wrong.

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  2. Brad

    Thanks for sharing that, Kathy.

    I’m not a bit surprised that other scholars would leap to Jefferson’s defense.

    Not having read the book yet myself, I’m not really qualified to pass judgment either way. The WSJ reviewer makes him sound, to my ear, a bit like a guy who is overenthusiastic about his own premise. But I don’t know.

    Personally, I don’t think Jefferson was either a saint or a devil. To paraphrase another line from popular culture, he was just this guy, you know?

    Like all of us.

    Jefferson’s problem is that people DO try to put him on a pedestal, which makes someone like Wiencek try all the harder to knock him off.

    Adams suffers by comparison because we’ve always seen him whole — as a crabby guy who wasn’t all that personally popular and had all sorts of little personality blemishes, plus one big policy black eye — the Alien and Sedition Acts.

    People want to think of Jefferson as being so SPECIAL. And he did have some extraordinary traits. But he was still just a man, and if you pick at the worst things about any man, you can come up with a pretty ugly portrait.

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  3. Brad

    That last point puts me in mind of a particularly insightful passage in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” in which he lists five things he had done that his estranged girlfriend might have told her best friend about in order to make her hate him.

    Yes, he acknowledged, those five things made him sound pretty horrible, and they were all true. But then, he observes, how would YOU look if the five worst things you ever did were all laid out at once?

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  4. Brad

    With Jefferson, people like to think only of the five BEST things he did, which off the top of my head I would say would go like this:

    1. Writing Declaration of Independence
    2. The Louisiana Purchase
    3. Founding the University of Virginia
    4. Writing the Statute of Religious Freedom of Virginia
    5. Sending the Navy and Marines to stop the Barbary Pirates

    I was kind of running out of ideas on that last one (although I DO like to cite it, since I think it very ironic that a guy who didn’t believe we should even fund a Navy used it in such a muscular manner). I thought the Lewis and Clark expedition was repetitive of No. 2, so I didn’t use it.

    But you get the idea. People don’t like anything to interfere with the picture we get from his greatest accomplishments.

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  5. Silence

    @ Ralphy – you may have Thomas Jefferson confused with Strom Thurmond. They were both born around the same time and were active in the American Revolution, so it’s an honest mistake.

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  6. Juan Caruso

    Amidst the latest attempt to shortchange history, a little updating may be illuminating to balance the hatchet job on a founder obviously unable to defend himself.

    Take just three examples, and note the dates: North Korean today operates six political detention camps holding about 200,000 people subjected to forced labor and torture; In Brazil more than 5,000 slaves were rescued by authorities in 2008 as part of a government initiative to eradicate slavery. By the way, the U.S. sends aid to the former and operates an embassy and 3 consulates in the latter;
    According to government-sponsored research completed in 2006, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across U.S. borders annually, 80 percent of whom are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors, ” reports the U. S. Department of State in a 2008 study. The majority of trafficking bounty are women forced into prostitution (in which case the practice is called ‘sex trafficking’ rather than slavery).

    The U.N. has adopted Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaratory idealism in some of its very own pronouncements. As to the U.N.’s actions? Again, the U.N. seems to have been as pragmatic as Thomas Jefferson, so far.

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  7. Juan Caruso

    I apparently admire Mr. Jefferson more than you do, Brad.

    A balanced discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s slave ownership and seemingly ironic endorsement of “all men are created equal” requires a modern update to balance Mr. Wiencek’s (yep, not a scholarly PhD) literary appraisal.

    Recalling just a few relevant parallels from the ‘enlightened’ world of our present century:

    In 2008 more than 5,000 slaves were rescued by Brazilian authorities in as that government’s initiative to eradicate slavery. The U.S. still maintains an Embassy and 3 consular offices in Brazil.

    North Korean (DPRK] operates six political detention camps, wherein prisoners and their families (numbering nearly 200,000 people) who are subjected to forced labor and torture. Nevertheless, North Korea receives U.S. aid.

    According to U. S. Government-sponsored research (completed in 2006), approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders. Approximately 80 percent of transnational victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors, per a U. S. Department of State in a 2008 study. The majority of trafficking victims are women, who are forced into prostitution (in which case the practice is called sex trafficking rather than sex slavery).

    The U.N.’s policy is precisely likt Thomas Jefferson’s ideology on human equality. In practice, however, neither Jefferson nor the U.N. has actually lead by example.

    It seems that the same irony persists, today. We just have PC terms for slavery (sex trafficking), and little reason for liberal press coverage today.

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