The Little Known Dark
Side of Thomas Jefferson
A new portrait of the founding father challenges the long-held perception of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder
This article is in the October 2012 edition of Smithsonian Magazine, and available free on their website for public viewing.
I was really surprised by a lot of the information in it. Jefferson was a slave-holder; this is not news......but, it is a myth that he was
pro-emancipation for his whole life.
“One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams,” writes historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first
statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.”
But in the 1790s, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” And later, Davis
finds, Jefferson’s emancipation efforts “virtually ceased.”
Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.
The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a
paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox.
And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal
was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.
We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his
own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and
rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting
Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not
In fact, he backed off of it, and was the first to "monetize" the value of slaves mathematically.
The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses
of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but
never actually measured.
He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the
first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a
perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take
credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human
assets. The percentage was predictable.
“A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our
duties and our interests coincide perfectly.... [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers
that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”
He and George Washington were at odds about it, too.
In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an
emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will. He proved that emancipation was not only possible, but practical, and he
overturned all the Jeffersonian rationalizations. Jefferson insisted that a multiracial society with free black people was impossible, but Washington
did not think so. Never did Washington suggest that blacks were inferior or that they should be exiled.
It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his
Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and
profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.
Read more: www.smithsonianmag.com...
I know that many members of ATS are big fans of Jefferson; he has long been held up as the best dude ever. Now that there is evidence pointing to his
duplicity --- he counted slaves as assets; and while he espoused hating violence, he hired very violent men to "oversee" his various projects,
including very brutal floggings. from which he shrank, but did not order to cease.
In fact, when one of his "slave-drivers" got caught in the middle between profits and his own people (the slaves), and refused to whip them anymore,
he was replaced...
Most likely he called in William Page, the white overseer who ran Jefferson’s farms across the river, a man notorious for his cruelty.
Throughout Jefferson’s plantation records there runs a thread of indicators—some direct, some oblique, some euphemistic—that the Monticello
machine operated on carefully calibrated brutality. Some slaves would never readily submit to bondage. Some, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of
discipline to make them do reasonable work.” That plain statement of his policy has been largely ignored in preference to Jefferson’s well-known
self-exoneration: “I love industry and abhor severity.” Jefferson made that reassuring remark to a neighbor, but he might as well have been
talking to himself. He hated conflict, disliked having to punish people and found ways to distance himself from the violence his system
Thus he went on record with a denunciation of overseers as “the most abject, degraded and unprincipled race,” men of “pride, insolence and
spirit of domination.” Though he despised these brutes, they were hardhanded men who got things done and had no misgivings. He hired them, issuing
orders to impose a vigor of discipline.
Read more: www.smithsonianmag.com...
This is our greatest American hero and forefather?
Sounds like a typical corporation hell-bent on profit above all else to me. We haven't come all that far, folks. And in my mind, what he actually
DID, as opposed to what he showed the public, is egregious in many ways.
Yes, he was a product of his time; but unfortunately (I held him as a hero, too, having been told of him from childhood), the myth of him does not
stand up to study of the facts left behind. Something to consider.
What do you all think of this revelation? Is it propaganda preceding the election? Is it Smithsonian's own bias and appeal to authority? Or is it
true, and Jefferson has been idolized for too long, when in reality, things were not so great at Monticello?
Anyone wish to discuss?
edit on 11-10-2012 by wildtimes because: (no reason given)
edit on 11-10-2012 by wildtimes because: (no