Sunday, December 2, 2012

The people and "the Monster of Monticello"

Embarrassed perhaps by its two previous reviews of Jon Meacham's new biography of Jefferson which downplays his lifelong cruelty to slaves in other sections, the Times op-ed published a fierce and accurate account by Paul Finkelman about "The Monster of Monticello." Finkelman ignores Meacham deservedly - see here and here - and even criticizes Henry Wiencek, who has done good work on Washington and slavery previously here - for not recognizing how consistently odious Jefferson was - a "creepy, brutal hypocrite" as Finkelman rightly names him.


In his Farm Book, Jefferson records the attempt to escape of Jame Hubbard, how he had him whipped and sold to keep the others in line. Finkelman rightly emphasizes the sheer cruelty of this. He contrasts Jefferson's merciful policies toward white prisoners with his ferocity toward blacks. He highlights that Jefferson wished to expel the children of black fathers and white mothers from Virginia.

A monster, indeed.


Finkelman is also excellent on the racism of the "Founding Fathers." But this is only one side of the story, the less important side - still in the realm of the biographies of Presidents, of the few and heroic Kings, as it were, from whom allegedly America flows.


Still, the fact that the Times has now printed such an op-ed is a step toward seeing the founding in a new way, from the bottom up rather than from the top.

This helps to move toward the theme, so far silenced in the Times, of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (University of Chicago Press, May 2012). For the Revolution was fought from below - whatever celebration we make of its leaders - and large steps were taken within it to achieve emancipation in at least the North.

The Revolution was fought by slaves and freed slaves, seeking emancipation for themselves and others and by poor whites, often led by sailors, who had witnessed uprisings against bondage in the Caribbean in the 1750s and long been abolitionists. Sailors brought the word to J. Philmore in London in 1760 - see Two Dialogues Concerning the Man Trade; and Black Patriots and Loyalists, ch. 2; and to Boston in 1764, where James Otis wrote of the natural rights of every man, black as well as white.

Otis's ideas - or the sailors' own - were then discussed in every working class tavern in the run-up to the Revolution.


Because Royal Governor Dunmore announced his intention from 1772 on to free blacks and indentured servants, "sow destruction wherever I can reach and raze [Patriot] mansions to the ground," the South seceded from Britain to preserve bondage. The actions of the Southern colonies, though ironically within a Revolution for the independence and freedom of some, foreshadowed the Civil War.

They, ironically, write large the particular hypocrisies of Thomas Jefferson.


The British relied heavily on black soldiers and scouts or pioneers and workers, recruited from thousands of escapees who followed every English regiment.


Correspondingly, Patriots were forced to recruit and free black soldiers, for instance in the First Rhode Island Regiment (formed in 1778). The most experienced soldiers, fighting for 5 years, compared to militiamen who served but ten months, black soldiers were 25% of Washington's troops at Yorktown - 1,500 of 6,000 - and the majority of corpses on the American as well as the English side, according to the diary of Private Georg Daniel Flohr who walked around the battlefield the next day and observed the fallen.


Gradual emancipation occurred in the North during and after the Revolution, starting in Pennsylvania in 1780, then Massachusett 1782, Rhode Island and Connecticut 1784 and New York 1799 and New Jersey 1804. In this respect, the American Revolution was also a second Revolution, as I call it, a revolution against bondage.

It thus paralleled other revolutions for independence of black and brown people in the Hemisphere - for instance, the Venezuelan Revolution led by Bolivar relying on Haitian support - which gradually freed slaves.


From the standpoint of freedom for all, the gradual emancipation of slaves in the North was the most significant act of freedom in the American Revolution.


But the Times will so far not cover such historic changes, even to debate them. Nor did biographers: the writing of American history is broken into endless biographies - often featured on the Times' bestseller lists for a new wrinkle in a personal story - and social history, written by black and white historians, and limited, more sharply, to academia.

In contrast, for example, French writing on its Revolution is almost entirely social history and the one good biography of Robespierre was written by Ruth Scurry, an English author.


Until the publication of Black Patriots and Loyalists, even historians - Gary Nash excepted - often didn't focus on the importance of gradual emancipation.


The Times now allows more blacks than Crispus Attucks to have been recruited by the Patriots. See my commentary on the July 4th front page story of the new Daughters of the American Revolution chapter formed by two black women here. The article mentions, in passing, 8,800 black and native american soldiers.

For a long time, the DAR lowballed figures of blacks out of racism; now two genealogists are doing serious work, recognize increasingly how many black soldiers fought for the Patriots and are finding and expect to find more...

And the Times now runs Finkelman's fine op-ed piece.


But if Jefferson was, in major respects, a monster and if Washington recruited and freed blacks in the Revolution but sat by at the Constitutional Convention while those who helped slaves escape were made criminal (Article 4, section 2, clause 3 of the Constitution) and slaves were "counted" as 3/5ths human to increase the representation of slave-owners - see here), where did the pressure for emancipation in the North come from?

Better not to mention it...Or as Nietzsche and Freud once said, better not to remember it...


Even Finkelman's striking op-ed does not mention the importance of gradual emancipation in the North or its possibility even in the South. The greatest act of freedom during the American Revolution was the Laurens Proposal to free and recruit 3,000 slaves in South Carolina and 2,000 slaves in Georgia which passed the Continental Congress in 1779. Finkelman is a fine historian of Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (1996), particularly of the reactionary character of the Constitution - see here and here - and the H-Net review by Lester Lindley here.


But in the op-ed, he is looking mainly post-Revolution at the triumph or restoration of the slave-owners and even in the book, does not see the fierce competition to recruit and free blacks and its consequences during the Revolution itself. He does not see the efforts of blacks and poor whites to press abolition, another and deeper sense in which the second revolution - part of an international revolution against bondage - shaped the revolution for independence.


As Finkelman's op-ed shows, however, the "Founding Fathers'" conception of freedom was bent, or to invert Kenneth Stampp's phrase, the Constitution itself is the "peculiar institution." It was made clean only by Civil War and the 13th Amendment. That is the power and message of the movie "Lincoln." See here.

But Lincoln's conception, too, until late in the Civil War - where he at last grasped the necessity to fight for emancipation and did so - see here and here - was marred by racism (he conceived only of freed slaves emigrating from the United States, for example, to Haiti...).


The fight from below of slaves and sailors and artisans and serious Christians and some members of the revolutionary elite (the forgotten John Laurens, a central figure in Black Patriots and Loyalists and the downplayed, in regard to abolition, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton), during and after the Revolution, and of black and white abolitionists and suffragettes preceding, during and after the Civil War drove American freedom.


And that is how it should be in a democracy. Democracy is about the right of each person to be treated as human which is, importantly, centered on the right to vote. As the Boston Tea Party showed - no taxation without representations - the right to vote was as basic to the Revolution as it was to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. But each had to be fought for, at great sacrifice, from below (the creative nonviolence of the civil rights movement was an enormous advance in this regard).

The people of those movements, and the abolitionists before, during and after the Civil war, made the democracy decent (to the extent it has become so). Leaders like Lincoln, who furthered this cause, were admirable.

But idolizing the leaders is false and betrays the spirit of democracy. It is the people who have made American freedom and a "more perfect union" real.


The Monster of Monticello

Published: November 30, 2012

Durham, N.C.

THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.

We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.

Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.

Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.

As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”

Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”

A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”

Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that “something” should be.

In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.

Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor in legal history at Duke Law School, is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 1, 2012, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: The Monster of Monticello.


*Sylvia Frey's fine Water from the Rock discusses black soldiers for the Crown as a third force in South Carolina.

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