Thomas Jefferson, Antislavery Man?

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

People disappoint us. I think everyone probably wants, at least a little bit, some kind of saintly mouthpiece for their views. We want a pure vessel beyond reproach to illustrate wrongs we see and how to right them. Then, we imagine, the basic decency of humanity will win out. The scales will fall from our enemies’ eyes and they will come over to our side. With everyone together, we could fix things. It wouldn’t take any compromises or half measures; we could really get it done. We could begin the world anew.

I’ve thought about that idea frequently in the last few weeks. It appeals to our sense of fairness. We like to think that everyone, deep down, really thinks and feels and has values more or less like our own. It can take hard work, especially if we don’t have a personal stake in an issue, to resist the notion’s seduction. No one wants relishes perpetual anger and we rightly worry about the potential of a well-cultivated hatred. I see at least two problems with this approach. Firstly, other people do not always share our values. Human beings really do have deep, fundamental, and often irreconcilable differences. Often for one party to win, another party must lose.

We can try to manage those contradictions, but often the compromises we make do nothing more than postpone the conflict. They may even help ensure it. The Armistice’s Fugitive Slave Act got the South little, but gave antislavery men in the North a great issue with which to appeal to less concerned neighbors. Four years later, the KansasNebraska Act purported, again, to settle all controversy over slavery once and for all and so ignited a firestorm of new controversy. Dred Scott, the work of a conscientiously moderate, Unionist court trying to manage the same resolution, did much the same. In more recent times, some Americans did not find the sight of police dogs and fire hoses set on civil rights activists all that horrifying. Quite the opposite, they saw the movement getting what it deserved. More, of course, simply didn’t care one way or another. That put them in the same party as the others, since they would do nothing to stop it but might make excuses and certainly tolerated it.

I wrote all of that so I could write about Thomas Jefferson. The other problem with the idea of a saintly, pure spokesperson comes in the fact that the world does not produce saints. People have flaws and blind spots. They care about some things more than others. Did Thomas Jefferson, as Salmon P. Chase would have us believe, really oppose slavery? He talked a good game, but words come easy. He freed very few of his own slaves. He introduced very moderate, very conditional, very limited antislavery legislation that did little to disturb slavery where it already existed, and then scurried back from it at the first sign of serious opposition. He advised Edward Coles to keep silent, work only in secret, keep his slaves, and keep living in enslaved Virginia. When Virginia made manumission easier in the late 1700s, many Virginians freed their slaves. Jefferson freed only two in his lifetime, despite complaining to Coles years later that the law made manumission much harder then. Other men of his class did much more, swelling the number of free blacks in Virginia.

Does that sound like an antislavery man? It depends on what one means by the term. I do think Jefferson had serious, sincere qualms about slavery and thought it, on some level, bad for white and black alike. He probably thought it much worse for whites and certainly thought blacks an inferior sort of humanity that could positively benefit from bondage. If having some personal sentiment against it makes you an antislavery person, Jefferson qualifies.

But Jefferson’s personal sentiments rarely drove him into any conflict with proslavery men. Quite the opposite, he rarely found occasion to stay in a fight with them. Late in life, he encouraged Edward Coles to do the same. I don’t think that’s good enough. Jefferson’s feelings against slavery might do him some credit, but ultimately they didn’t amount to much.  His actions and words align on that point. Jefferson may have opposed slavery in his heart and wanted it, someday, ended, but he did precious little to make that happen and encouraged others to do less. When Coles asked him to take a stand, Jefferson took one that looked not to slavery’s end but to its perpetuation. Freedom would inevitably come, Jefferson thought, but best it come quarter to never.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend of mine has a saying. I forget the exact words, but it goes something to the effect of this: One should not try to schedule the liberation of another. Jefferson would, and he would always schedule it for “later”. Many white men did. Freedom later meant, of course, slavery now. Writing in a different context, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the essential problem here:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

A. Phillip Randolph

A. Phillip Randolph

Slavery, or segregation, now meant perpetuating the injustices. Righting wrongs can require revolutions, if not always violent ones. The March on Washington happened fifty years and two days ago. I neglected the anniversary, but here’s A. Phillip Randolph speaking there:

We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education, all forms of education. We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines. Now we know that real freedom will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions. For one thing we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin.

The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits—for we are the worst victims of unemployment. Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.

With something as deeply baked into society as racism, removing injustice requires more than taking away the most visible forms. Part of grappling with our past and present inequities involves owning up to how our notions of justice, of how things ought to be, cooked in the same sauce of injustice. Our ideas and our personal behaviors have to change along with our laws. I think that Jefferson, and many men like him, knew that. Abolition could, at least potentially, turn into a widespread social revolution. That scared them, as it should have. We can say that revolution needed to happen and the sooner the better, but of course we have nothing to lose. We don’t own a hundred slaves and a Virginia plantation. But we have our own unfinished revolutions, many entwined deeply with the successes and failures of those long ago.

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