Jefferson and slavery

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, on the Smithsonian Magazine website, is a really depressing piece. It documents convincingly that in the years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson changed from an opponent of slavery to an upholder of the system.

Some people will use this article to attack the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, but nothing he did can detract from that document. The history raises troubling questions, though, about how someone can proclaim an ideal so eloquently and then betray it. I’m reminded of these lines from Atlas Shrugged:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you choose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else — that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

It’s particularly dangerous when people’s actions conflict with their principles — or perhaps better put, when the principles they act on conflict with the ones they declare. People don’t like to be hypocrites, so they have to change either their ideas or their actions. Nothing says a priori that it’s their ideas they should stick to; lots of people have horrible political or religious ideas but are quite decent in daily life (at least within their tribe). Either way, though, the contradictions people hold weaken and may corrupt them. They may resolve them for the better or the worse. Too often, they compromise their principles one small step at a time in order to excuse what they’re doing.

Where does this leave us as admirers of Jefferson? We can still greatly honor the Jefferson of 1776, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the eloquent defender of freedom. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that his later actions betrayed his earlier ideals and not excuse them. Complete integrity in people is sadly rare.

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One Response to “Jefferson and slavery”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    I don’t see anywhere in the essay any documentation for the claim that Jefferson ever was “an upholder of the system”. The author makes some generalized claims about Jefferson having “rationalized” slavery and “made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise”; but these claims are not supported by any evidence.

    As president, Jefferson permanently ended the importation of slaves into the US. And he continued to express anti-slavery sentiments all his life; see for example this letter, which he wrote at age 70, six years after retiring from politics.

    (I’d add that it doesn’t speak well of the author of the Smithsonian Magazine essay that he actually quotes from this letter, quoting Jefferson’s characterization of slavery as a “moral reproach”; but never stops to ask how that fits in with his idea about Jefferson having rationalized slavery or become a supporter of it.)

    It is still true, of course, that this is a depressing piece to read. It does convincingly rebut the common idea that Jefferson was exceptionally humane in his treatment of his slaves. It demonstrates that not only did some of Jefferson’s slaves suffer brutal treatment, but that he was well aware of it and in some cases instigated it. We certainly should not make excuses for this side of Jefferson’s behavior, and we should acknowledge how contradictory it was to his stated principles.

    But at the same time, we should not accuse Jefferson of having changed his ideas in order to rationalize his behavior. The evidence indicates that he did continue to hold and express his ideas even when they clearly were a reproach to himself.


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