The Smithsonian, Slavery, and Jefferson

Posted by on Jun 17, 2013 in Articles | 0 comments

The Smithsonian, Slavery, and Jefferson

Those who follow my work know that I have for some time been one of the few white guys today who speaks and writes openly, and apologetically, about the problem of Negro slavery in the American Founding. When my time on Earth is over, I’m sure this will earn me some kind of title as yet another dreaded “dead white male from an outdated past” by future historians—if any bother to take note of me, that is. Who knows if they will.

I emphasize the problem of slavery for several reasons:

  • First, it is a glaring and unavoidable instance of human cruelty, and stands in stark opposition to the idea of individual human freedom. The darkness of slavery helps us better see the light of freedom, methinks.
  • Second, it is a persistent, recurring theme in American political life. No matter what public policy is dominating the public debate of the day, as soon as someone mentions a constitutional concern, someone else fires back by denouncing the Constitution as a racist document produced by slave-owners, a move designed to shut down any constitutional critique of any unconstitutional policy proposal. The recurring subject of slavery in our politics is almost as regular as the ebb and flow of the tide.
  • Third, the story of slavery in America is unique precisely because slavery became a problem in America. And not merely A problem, but THE problem, so great that within “four score and seven years” after the Declaration of Independence, more than 600,000 mostly white men would be slaughtered in an epic fight to end black slavery in America. That had never happened anywhere, anytime. It is a tragically beautiful story, and a cause for Americans to be proud of their country.


The mountain of academic scholarship attempting to knock the Founders, and Thomas Jefferson in particular, off the pedestal of historic respect is too massive to survey in detail. At least it’s too much for me. One can always point to yet another book or article or study describing the evils of slavery at the time of the American Founding that one has not read. So let me sum up what all this scholarship attempts to convey: Slavery was ugly, cruelly ugly.

The latest such article to come across my radar is “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” written by Henry Wiencek and published in the Smithsonian Magazine. The article chronicles the cruel means employed by Jefferson and his slave “managers” at Monticello. The picture painted by the essay is ugly, and it is a disservice to the poor slave souls who suffered so greatly to try and sugarcoat it in any way. Slavery was a living Hell that no one then or now wants for himself.

But the question that must be asked is, qui bono? To what end or benefit does such scholarship aim? Sure, the job of historians is to dig through evidence and try to discover who said and did what in the past, accurately. But once we have a fairly complete historical picture, the important question is to ask what it means. How are we to understand or interpret the historical facts? What does it matter for us?


The narrative that animates the minds of most historical scholars seems to go something like this: The world was perfect, perfectly just, perfectly free, perfectly right. Then the American Founding came, and those damn Americans sponsored or even invented slavery and the racism that flowed from it. The conclusion seems to be that there is no cause to respect or admire or venerate what the Founders said or did. They are less than impressive. If anything, they are a cause for shame and embarrassment.

But this is all wrong. It is untrue.

At the time of the American Founding, slavery was no new thing. It was very old, dating back to the dawn of human history. Slavery still exists in sad parts of the world today. Further, in 1776, slavery and the slave trade were global institutions. Almost everyone was in the slavery business one way or another, perhaps most prominently the people of Africa who were quite willing to sell their own to anyone from anywhere who would buy.

There had never been a large-scale, public and political effort to end slavery prior to the American Revolution. England took up the fight under the leadership of William Wilberforce and his allies, true. But their focus was limited to the slave trade—slavery continued to exist among the English well into the Nineteenth Century. Moreover, the British slave trade was ended only after the Americans had declared and won independence.

Further, slavery had existed in various forms for centuries throughout the Western and non-Western worlds. In the West, slavery existed before and continued after the life of Jesus, even among Christians. Slavery existed before and continued after the life of Moses, even among Jews. Slavery existed before and continued after the life of Socrates, even among Greeks.

Placed in this larger historical light, what the Americans accomplished in such short order is nothing less than astounding. Americans came to see the intrinsic wrong-ness of slavery, almost spontaneously, and they took actions at tremendous cost in money, blood, and sacrifice to get rid of it. Why? Because of the true, immutable, universal principles of the American Founding itself. And there was no greater poet who helped ingrain those principles into the public mind than Thomas Jefferson.


The academic narrative is wrong for another reason: Slavery was only one of the massive wrongs that no one in the Western World had yet solved. Property rights were neither universally acknowledged nor vigilantly protected. Throughout feudal Europe, the only real property rights recognized by law and enjoyed were the rights of the sovereign, usually a king or prince who claimed authority bestowed by God to rule others. Related, countless Europeans had been slaughtered or tortured by means of religious persecution, Christians going after one another viciously because some did or did not believe in things such as transubstantiation or the virgin status of Mary. And government by consent of the governed was either unknown, or only partially exercised.

The Americans tackled all of these problems, in addition to slavery, without flinching. They established the first regime of genuine religious liberty. They made clear in their Constitution that there would be in America no titles of nobility – no lords or kings or priests vested with political power in the land of the free. They established the principles and paved the way for a truly self-governing regime in which government had those powers only that the people chose to grant it, nothing more.

If the critique of the Founders is that they failed to solve, instantly, the myriad injustices and evils that had plagued human societies since the inception of history, that seems more than unfair to me. If congratulations is offered for a group of people who set out to make things right and establish justice framed by law—at a time and in a place where they had no more of an obligation to do so than had any of the people who had preceded them for centuries—then I say that sounds about right.


It’s easy pickings to challenge the character and belittle the accomplishments of a relatively recent statesman such as Jefferson because so much of his life is available for historical investigation. Dig deeply into the personal life of anyone, and you’re sure to find things that can embarrass, disgrace, and cause moral suspicion. Christians chalk it up to the idea that all human beings are “fallen.” Aristotle chalked it up to the fact that the human soul contains appetites and desires alongside with reason. I chalk it up to the fact that men are men, neither angels nor beasts.

It’s interesting that those typically assigned the status of saints, or prophets, or demi-gods, or gods, are those about whom we know almost nothing before they entered the spotlight of the public arena. Were they really perfect or god-like their entire lives? We don’t know because there’s no evidence to investigate. But for real men about whom there remains real historical records and evidence, there’s always something that can be used to show they were all-too-human.

And that leaves us in a pickle: If a principle can be true only if it was spoken by a perfectly flawless being, then much of what we think we know must be tossed out the window. Think of every mathematical, scientific, moral, political principle that one holds to be true. Then think of the man or woman who discovered it, publicized it, taught it to others. If those men and women were not perfect, apparently our friends in academia would have us discard the principles they promoted. We thought the sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals the sum of two right angles, but maybe we need to discard that principle if it turns out Euclid treated his wife badly or had slaves? Silly, right?

It also suggests that we cannot think through, understand, and evaluate various principles on our own. If the only true principles are those uttered by perfectly flawless beings, and the only perfectly flawless beings are those about whose lives or vast stretches of their lives we know little or nothing, then we must say that belief in a principle is inseparable from blind faith in the alleged perfection of the being reported to have uttered the principle. When we are confronted with competing faiths and the competing principles that they present, however, we’ve given up the authority of reason to decide which is more and which is less likely to be true. One faith, qua faith, cannot refute a competing faith, if the platform of reason is off limits. All that remains is the ground of fanaticism. Stated differently: We ought to believe in a thing because it is good and true, not insist that it is good and true merely because we believe in it.


For budding academics who want to strike up a career by publishing some inconvenient truths about Thomas Jefferson or any other Founding Father, let me save them work and offer this self-evident truth: Jefferson was no saint. He was no god. Nor was anyone else in Independence Hall in 1776 or 1787.

Did Jefferson perfectly live up to the principles he espoused? Nope, he did not. Was Jefferson a hypocrite? Perhaps. If so, I say we have a day of national celebration for hypocrisy! Remember, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, always. Hypocrisy does not prove that vice is choice-worthy. Rather, hypocrisy points to the choice-worthiness of virtue, and the real human fact that we often fail to live up to that standard.

It seems there are only three options for how Jefferson might have lived: One is to expect Jefferson to have been perfect, god-like. Let’s rule that out for the simple reason he was not a god. The next option is to expect Jefferson’s speech to have lined up with the fact that he owned slaves: Jefferson could have used his poetic prowess to teach the world that only white people have rights, that black people have no rights and are inferior to those of lighter skin, that Negro slavery therefore was right, not wrong. This would have saved Jefferson from the label of hypocrite, but I for one and happy he chose not to say or write such untrue things. The third option is to see Jefferson wrestling with the problem of slavery in his own life, in a very human way, while promoting the absolutely true, universal principle that all men are created equal and therefore slavery is a moral wrong, something to be condemned and eliminated if possible, not celebrated or encouraged.

If anyone wants to criticize Jefferson because he did not do more to free his own slaves, that is fair game. I have occasionally commented that I wish Jefferson had spent more money manumitting his slaves and less on booze and books (he loved imported wines and had one of the largest personal libraries in the country). Jefferson could have been better, yes. But so can each and every one us. Is that somehow news? Is it news that a man or woman falls short of the teachings he or she professes, sometimes to anyone who will listen? (This is the age of Facebook and Twitter, after all, where almost everyone has a larger platform than ever from which to broadcast how they think others should live.)

Jefferson was the greatest poet of the modern world who helped teach others about the principle of human equality, even if – nay, especially because! – he was a very human being who had no foresight of the future, no guarantee of a place in Heaven, and wrestled with all the temptations with which human beings wrestle. If a god falters morally, that’s an important reason to question him and his authority. But if a man falters morally, that is the most unremarkable thing.

What is truly remarkable is when a mere man freely takes a risk and tries to establish something good that will protect the freedom of others. We look petty when we criticize such a man for not doing more. But we elevate ourselves when we imagine what it must require to establish a new regime on the principles of moral right. Among Jefferson’s academic critics, how many of them, personally, have done anything that even approximates the good that Jefferson did?  They would do well to humble themselves. We would do well to look up with admiration to that which deserves admiration.


Jefferson’s principle of equality was and remains the foundation of every moral axiom. Ask yourself a simple question: Why is murder wrong? Why is theft wrong? Why is rape wrong? Why is slavery wrong? Why do we want laws criminalizing such behavior? Answer: Because all men are created equal in their individual, natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the free pursuit of happiness. If equality is not right, then there are no wrongs. If Jefferson was wrong, then we must conclude that we have no rights.

But Jefferson was right. We are all equally human beings, each with our own free mind to govern our own bodies. That is the simple moral meaning of equality in the Declaration of Independence, and it is right.

Jefferson and his generation solved the problem of religious persecution. Jefferson and his generation overthrew the ridiculous notion that God authorizes some men to rule over others as kings and crowned princes. Jefferson and his generation enshrined property rights into law so that a man is free to keep what he produces.

Jefferson and his generation stated the principles and started the process to eliminate slavery, but they left the completion of that noble mission to the next generation, who took it up heroically and selflessly.  There would have been no Lincoln if there had been no Jefferson; and there would have been no grand effort to eliminate slavery while trying to preserve the constitutional union of America without Lincoln. And unlike the rest of the world that took centuries or millennia to figure out that slavery was wrong and do something about it, the Americans did it within two generations.

Perhaps the good folks at the Smithsonian can publicize that theme as they go about teaching Americans their own history? Perhaps they can be as big-souled as the mere human Founding Fathers who gave so much to do such good? Let us encourage them to do so. It’s the right thing.

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