Victor Nuovo: Modern-day enquiry raises questions about Thomas Jefferson
Editor’s note: This is the 22nd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
A generation or more ago, composing an essay about Thomas Jefferson would have been an unproblematic task. It would begin with a description of a man of outstanding intelligence, limitless curiosity, and boundless energy, a scholar, a master of the English language, a patriot possessed by a deep passion for liberty, the author of the Declaration of Independence, a principal founder of our nation, a very great man of world historical importance, whose genius and accomplishments would be celebrated in this nation for as long as it endures.
With the passing of time, none of this has become untrue, but all of it has become problematic, ambiguous, and needful of numerous qualification. What caused this change? No doubt some of the causes are in ourselves; the times have changed and because of these changes we interpret the past differently. But it may be that the passage of time and the accumulation of political experience have put us in a better position to judge the past. Historical enquiry is always in the last analysis objective and retrospective, a search for truth in this instance infused with moral urgency, because the past we have received determines what we are now.
In particular, Jefferson’s opinions about race have come under closer scrutiny and these along with the fact that he owned slaves, some of whom he fathered, who were instrumental to his wealth and comfort, and this has led to skepticism about his character and the sincerity of his passion for liberty. This skepticism is not new. Abagail Adams, who had low regard for Jefferson, felt it and confided it in a letter to her husband. Her comment was cited in a previous essay, but is worth quoting again in full:
“I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that other should do unto us.”
Jefferson’s views on race are summarized by him in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), which was written as a guide to the State of Virginia in the late eighteenth century, a report giving detailed accounts of its geography, geology, climate, flora and fauna, people, public works, religions, customs, government and laws. It was written to fulfill a request of the secretary of the French Ambassador, who desired a better knowledge of the states. It is a descriptive work, dispassionate, factual, and comprehensive, requiring considerable research to complete. Jefferson began composing it in 1780 while he was governor of Virginia, the war of revolution was ongoing, and Virginia was a major theatre of war. It was written under great hardship and personal misfortunes — chief among them, the death of his wife. It is extraordinary in scope and detail. I suspect that no public official living today anywhere in the world could provide such a learned account of his country, written by himself without any assistance.
Shortly after independence, a committee of the Virginia legislature was created to revise state laws to fit their new political condition. Jefferson was one of its members. He summarized their recommendations in section XIV of Notes, which at the time of writing were not yet enacted. They cover a broad range of topics: property rights, citizenship, public works, taxes, and more. Notable among them is the recommendation for religious freedom “on the broadest bottom.”
He mentions another statute to be added as an amendment that would emancipate all slaves “born after the passing of the act.” Note this did not apply to those already existing under the conditions of slavery. They remained “movable property,” like tools and furniture, only their children born after the enactment of these newly revised laws would be free; they would remain under their parents care until they reached adulthood.
When they became mature adults these free-born blacks would be deported, or rather “colonized” to another continent, after being provided with the means to live gainful lives in their new homes — arms, household implements, domestic animals, etc. Jefferson recognized the economic costs of this policy. Slaves did essential work and would have to be replaced. White workers would have be imported to replace them. All this would require additional expenditures. It would be far less costly to incorporate American-born free blacks.
So, Jefferson asks, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state?” Why not allow them to remain as free citizens?
He gives two sorts of answers, one social or political, the other biological. Socially, he thinks it would be impractical, because of “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained.” He imagines that their presence will result in an enduring conflict between fueled by white prejudice and black resentment. It is the latter that he emphasizes. Jefferson never enquired about the causes of white prejudice.
He supposed that these social consequences arise from racial distinctions that “nature has made.” Among them is color: “whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane … whether it proceeds from the color of the blood,” or of the bile or from other physical sources, whatever its cause, it is a physical condition that can’t be changed, and, Jefferson opines, it has moral and aesthetic consequences. White faces are supposed to be more diverse in color and therefore more expressive, the emotions and passions are visible, in contrast to the “immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race.” He adds other differences which he has observed that he also ascribes to nature. Blacks are more ardent, but less reflective, “in memory they are equal to whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one of them could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
It is disheartening to read all this, and difficult to write about it. Yet it is part of the American heritage, and considering it enables one to understand why the Declaration of Independence has become ambiguous to us. One can also hope that the memory of it can become a potent antidote to white prejudice, which is still a vital contagion — it inhabits the White House.
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