Tuesday, October 16, 2012

So Thomas Jefferson was human, after all...

I subscribe to Smithsonian magazine. It's interesting, well-produced and features a variety of articles on topics like science, history, art, culture and biography. If you look you can detect some liberal, usually environmentalist, bias, but not terribly much. This month's cover story is about Thomas Jefferson, and is revisionist history of a sort. Henry Weincek, the author, shows pretty convincingly and with clear documentation that, contrary to popular belief and most historical writing, Jefferson treated his slaves as did other Virginia planters of his time. Probably no worse, maybe in some cases better, but not the way a man who had written extensively about the evils of slavery might be expected to act. Certainly his moral stature falls in comparison to George Washington, who freed his own slaves.

The apparent motive for his hypocrisy was money. He needed a lot, being deeply in debt due to his constant reconstruction of Monticello. According to the article, Jefferson's moral downfall was occasioned by his good management; he discovered how much profit his slaves were making for him by their "increase." That is, breeding. The bottom line? He kept people in captivity, treating them as clever livestock, because it allowed him to pursue his social, scientific, architectural and horticultural avocations. Was he worse than other 18th and early 19th century people--- a time, please note, when even some Quakers kept slaves? No. We're disappointed because he wasn't better, because he didn't conform to modern morality. Like every prior generation, we consider our standards to be the most enlightened in history, and judge our ancestors by them.

What bothers me about the article and the forthcoming book is not its delineation of the real, sad flaws in Jefferson's character--and I leave it to you to decide how they compare to Woodrow Wilson's overt bigotry or Bill Clinton's sexual bullying, just to name two--but what might be made of them. If Jefferson didn't act as though "...all men are created equal..," some will ask, why should we? Why not "...some (animals) are more equal than others?" And if that part of the Declaration of Independence doesn't count any more why should we act as though people are "...endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" (Emphasis added.) If that line's tossed out, the rest of the document, especially the parts about governments existing to preserve rights and that bit about the right of the people to alter or abolish them when they don't, well, that certainly needs to go as well.

Silly and paranoid, you think? Maybe so, except...exactly that has been done throughout history. Ad hominem attacks on ideas are part of every social controversy; it's the demagogue's favorite logical fallacy. Can't happen here? It already has. Consider the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; Jackson's removal of the Cherokees; Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus; Prohibition; Roosevelt's imprisonment of Japanese citizens; modern civil forfeiture laws; and of course the Patriot Act. Rights to life, liberty and property are constantly besieged by government. Any government. The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are our walls against this assault, but they're only as strong as our belief in them and our willingness to fight for them. 

Jefferson's ideas, and the centuries of philosophy before them, exist independently of the author's human failings. I wish he'd been a better person, but the ideas count, not the individual. I am equal before the law to any other person. I claim my right to life, liberty and property; to freedom of expression, assembly and worship; to self-defense and due process; and all other rights not specifically enumerated. I do so because I can. I do so because I am willing to fight for these by any means necessary, against anyone who would take them from me. That's it. No more justification is necessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments.