As an American history nerd I get very annoyed with both the deification and yes, sometimes demonization of the Founding Fathers. Okay, really there’s only one that gets demonized and that’s Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence is often dissed because of his slave holding, Sally Hemings, and (for the more erudite critics) his copious writings on subjects of race in the 18th and 19th centuries that, of course, should never be judged by 21st century standards. But they are. Annoyingly.
The hero/villain thing generally makes me nuts and nothing’s changed as the constant Edward Snowden debate shows. Um, is it possible he’s not either hero or villain, and what he did was neither heroic nor traitorous but instead an act of conscious that will have to be judged in the fullness of time, legality or illegality notwithstanding?
Jefferson was one of the most interesting and complex characters out of a panoply of interesting and complex characters. To single him out as a disappointment or something because of slavery seems to be vastly inappropriate considering where and when he lived and the fact that just about all of the Founding Fathers were slave owners. Even Benjamin Franklin, northerner, the most enlightened of American men, owned slaves! But he did free them.
In the simplistic light of history, the product of our shallow educations and superficial understanding of far away times and places Jefferson was a bad man for having slaves and screwing one of them, Washington was good for freeing his slaves upon his death and Lincoln was great for freeing them.
Or were they? Dun, dun dun!
Jefferson was a brilliant thinker and writer who held extremely common views on race in his time. What always has to be kept in mind for Jefferson and ALL the figures of the revolution and early U.S. history was that they were forging new trails in democratic republican government, starting a country practically from scratch. They believed things and then often changed their minds about them. They conflicted with each other on some issues and then sometimes, in the fullness of their lives, with themselves. They grew and evolved from experience.
By all evidence Jefferson didn’t believe the black race to be inferior (at least later in life), nor did he ever believe in or rationalize slavery as a good. He is said to have had a very common paternalistic bond with his slaves. For him and many others of the time it was just an economic and social reality. The 400 pound gorilla that had to be dealt with, always.
For the most part, at the end of the 18th century the most common belief was that slavery was untenable and would collapse of its own weight. In the North, slave holding was trending downward and many believed that trend would continue to the South as well. It wasn’t until the 1820s that, in answer to growing attacks on the slave power and their belief that it was essential to their economic survival, that the odious propaganda that slavery was a good (and good for the slaves) was put forward and adopted by many in the South.
In belief that they had to compromise to keep the union together – the first of many over the first 80 years of the nation – the Constitution protected the slave trade for 20 years (Article 1, Section 9 prohibited any law inhibiting importation) as a concession to the slave power. Jefferson and Madison, both Virginian slave holders, thought by the end of the 20 year prohibition that the inclination to slavery would diminish. They were wrong. But President Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807, making slave importation illegal as soon as it could, on January 1, 1808. In his 1806 annual message to Congress (State of the Union) Jefferson said:
“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.”
George Washington, did not indeed free his slaves upon his death, as many believe. His heart was there, as early as 1786 he wrote:
“I never mean… to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.”
While his position would make him a wild-eyed radical amongst his fellow planter class of Virginia elites, the “slow, sure and imperceptible” cried out that he was quite pragmatic on the subject. The reality was that Washington had slaves all his life. His wife Martha also had slaves that she had inherited from her first husband. George and Martha’s slaves had intermarried over time creating families that George did not want to break up (good). So George’s will actually stipulated his wish that all of the slaves be freed after Martha’s death. Apparently Martha did not share her noble husband’s feelings and she did indeed break up the families by freeing George’s slaves upon his death, because she thought they might accelerate her death in order to be freed eventually with their families, she “did not feel as tho’ her Life was safe in their hands”. Martha did not free her slaves in life or death (bad).
Abraham Lincoln, for all thinking people who have read anything about the Civil War is understood to have had, again, complex feelings on slavery. By the 1850s slavery in the North had indeed diminished as Jefferson and Madison had thought, but it still existed. The New Jersey census in 1860 still listed slaves. It was a slow diminution in the North, with many defenders of the “peculiar practice” even if they themselves did not indulge, or personally thought it a repugnant violation of human rights. Not everybody in the North who hated slavery was willing to take that right away from the slave holders, either for economic or state’s rights reasons. In the South slavery wasn’t going anywhere.
Interesting tangential fact is that the largest trading partner for the raw materials produced in the South was Britain. Britain was the leading manufacturing power in the world and the battles between the U.S. North and Britain did not end in 1812, they just evolved into a cold war over economic and trade policy fought over tariffs and industrial competition and espionage. Especially after 1830 when Britain freed its slaves, had almost completely de-agriculturalized, and relied heavily on the U.S. South (as well as colonial India) for the raw materials needed for their manufactures. The U.S. North and the U.S. South really were like two separate countries with two separate economies, at odds with each other over tariffs (favored by the industrial North to compete with Britain) and free trade (the British policy used to crush infant industrial societies like the U.S.).
The South had hoped that Britain would side with them in the Civil War, maybe even come into the battle with their armies and navies. When they didn’t, the South was doomed.
Back to Abraham Lincoln, venerated freer of slaves. In one of his famous 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas he stated:
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
So 70 years later Abraham Lincoln believed pretty much the same as Thomas Jefferson. What had changed was the politics, which made it impossible in 1860 to continue to ignore the inherent conflict with the slave power. It had become no longer possible to compromise. A final, inevitable, showdown on what the economic direction of the country would be had to occur.
For prosecuting that fight Lincoln is lionized. For having compromised, in politics and in his life, Jefferson is derided. And Washington’s story is simplified in order to clean up his memory. In each case the simplification does an injustice to the lessons of history.