It’s Old Home Week in the American media. First there was the welcome back of Abraham Lincoln (and the brouhaha over the Spielberg film). Now Thomas Jefferson is in the news. But where it was Lincoln the emancipator we were hailing earlier in the week, it’s Jefferson the slaveholder who’s now getting all the press.
Yesterday in the New York Times, legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote a bruising attack on Jefferson titled “The Monster of Monticello.” This was a followup to some of the controversy surrounding the publication of Henry Wiencek’s new book on Jefferson, which makes Jefferson’s slaveholding central to his legacy.
Finkelman’s essay has already prompted some pushback. David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy (h/t Samir Chopra) wrote:
Jefferson, Finkelman tells us, was not a “particularly kind” slave-master; he sometimes “punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.” And he believed that ”blacks’ ability to reason was ‘much inferior’ to whites’ and that they were “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” So what? Really – so what? If you want to think that he was a bad guy — or even a really bad guy, with truly grievous personal faults — you’re free to do so. But to claim that that has something to do with Jefferson’s historical legacy is truly preposterous.
Jefferson’s real legacy, says Post, is not what he did or didn’t do to his slaves—that’s a strictly personal failing, I guess—but the glorious words he wrote in The Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths…you know the drill. (Various folks on Twitter have made similar claims to me.) Post also links to a short paper he wrote on Jefferson’s contributions to the cause of antislavery.
In that paper, Post liberally quotes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, “an extraordinary book” according to Post, in which Jefferson does voice some of his ambivalence over slavery. Curiously, Post never cites the lengthy and disturbing passages from Query XIV, where Jefferson offers his most considered views on the nature and status of black people and their fate in America. And it’s clear why. It makes for chilling reading. I’ll just cite some brief excerpts here:
The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation.
The Indians, with no advantages of this kind [as that enjoyed by black slaves in America], will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem. Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition…But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky. His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration. Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column.
With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture. Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence. When a master was murdered, all his slaves, in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death. Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman. Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done with them?’ join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.
I bring up these passages less because I’m interested in Post’s omissions and his arguments than because of the general way the debate about Jefferson has been framed thus far. The basic idea seems to be that Jefferson had some fine ideas—and terrible practices. And whatever of his legacy that’s terrible, the argument goes, is entirely caught up with, and consumed by, the institution of slavery. So once we abolish slavery, thanks in part to the words of the Declaration that Jefferson wrote, we’re in the land of the good Jefferson.
But as this passage in Notes on the State of Virginia suggests, Jefferson’s real and lasting contribution to the American experiment is not exhausted either by the Declaration or by the institution of slavery. It is as a theorist of race domination—of white supremacy, of the perdurability of race (and specifically the black race), of the ineradicable shallowness of blackness as against the textured profundity of whiteness—that he stands out. And that is a legacy that persists to this day.
Jefferson was not a liberal hypocrite, a symptom of his time. He was the avant garde of a group of American theorists who were struggling to reconcile the ideals of the Declaration with the reality of chattel slavery. His resolution of that struggle took the form of one of the most vicious doctrines of racial supremacy the world had yet seen. That is his legacy, or at least part of his legacy. He was by no means the only one to take this route, but he was one of the earliest and easily the most famous. He is the tributary of what would become an American tradition.
And as I argue in what follows, which is an excerpt from a paper on Louis Hartz that I never published (though a passage or two of it may appear in The Reactionary Mind), Jefferson’s race theory—along with that of such men as Thomas Dew, James Henry Hammond, and William Harper, who feature prominently in my discussion—points not only to the eighteenth century (he was much more than a man of his times) and not only to the categories of liberalism and republicanism, which are so familiar to US intellectual historians. It also points, albeit only in a suggestive way, to the future, to the twentieth century and European doctrines of racialized fascism.
Jefferson, I would submit, should be remembered not only as the writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, but also as a contributor, along with his successors, to a doctrine of race war and what Hannah Arendt would later call, in another context, “race imperialism”—which would find its ultimate fulfillment a century later, and a continent away.
In the interest of legibility and flow, I’ve eliminated all the footnotes
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Racism was tailor made to the counterrevolutionary task of combating abolition, of reconciling the Declaration of Independence with the reality of chattel slavery. It combined ideas of equality and inequality, and fused the radical’s vision of political plasticity with the conservative’s notion of the stubbornness of history. It proved an ideology of extraordinary and protean—extraordinary because protean—resilience, precisely because it had something for everyone, save of course for the slaves themselves.
According to Josiah Nott, races are “marked by peculiarities of structure, which have always been constant and undeviating. Human races—as opposed to other species of animal or plant—are particularly immutable.” From these deep and enduring differences of physical structure, moral differences, equally enduring, followed. “Is it not a law of nature, that every permanent animal form…carries with its physical type a moral of its own, which cannot be obliterated, changed, or transferred to another, so long as the physique stands?”
More than classifying men and women into distinctive types, slavery’s racial theorists made the quite radical argument that humanity’s every attempt to rise above its physical nature was a misbegotten enterprise. We are, they claimed, beings of the utmost and comprehensive constraint. Our character, personality, individuality—none of these is self-fashioned or amenable to artifice. Each is an irrevocable and irreversible given.
If the intransigence of biology was the back-story of race, it followed that there was only one race, properly understood, in America: the black race. According to Nott, white people reason, imagine, and create—activities of transcendence that do not jibe with the liabilities of race. The white man “takes up the march of civilization and presses onward.” He frees himself of his inheritance, his circumstance, history itself. For that reason, “the Caucasian races have been the only truly progressive races of history,” which means nothing so much as that whites were not a race at all.
Among blacks, however, “one generation does not take up civilization where the last left it and carry it on as does the Caucasian—there it stands immovable; they go as far as instinct extends and no farther.” In the words of Thomas Cobb, the black man’s “mind is never inventive or suggestive. Improvement never enters into his imagination. A trodden path, he will travel for years, without the idea ever suggesting itself to his brain, that a nearer and better way is present before him.” Blacks can no more rise above their station than they can sink below it. They are what they are, have been and will be. As William Harper wrote, “A slave has no hope that by a course of integrity, he can materially elevate his condition in society, nor can his offence materially depress it…he has no character to establish or lose.” Even contempt or scorn, claimed Harper, would not spur the black race to do better.
Writing long before these theories of racial difference were fully formulated, Thomas Jefferson offered a glimpse of what it means to think of blacks as a race, as the race, and whites as individuals. Blacks are brave, he says, but this is due to “want of forethought.” The black man is “ardent,” but this is lust, not love. “In general,” he says, “their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.” In “imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” One can see their brute incapacity for historical transcendence and moral or political freedom in the color of their skin. While whites sport “fine mixtures of red and white,” reflecting the diverse range of passions and sensibilities at their disposal, blacks suffer from the “eternal monotony” of blackness, that “immovable veil” that makes any subtlety or nuance, any gradation of feeling, any distinctiveness or idiosyncrasy of character and personality, impossible.
No mere contradiction or sleight of hand, this dual portrait of whites as individuals and blacks as a race was the perfect counterrevolutionary argument. It ascribed to whites all the virtues of a ruling class—capable of action, freedom, politics itself—and to blacks all the deficits of a class to be ruled. “This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people,” wrote Jefferson of black slaves. Even among free blacks in the North, Thomas Dew argued, “the animal part of the man gains the victory over the moral.” After the Civil War, Nott would write that “all the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau, or ‘gates of hell cannot prevail against them’ [the inequalities between whites and blacks].”
But while race thinking prescribed the most vicious forms of domination, it also absorbed a mutant strain of the egalitarianism then roiling America and turned it into a justification for slavery. “Jack Cade, the English reformer, wished all mankind to be brought to one common level,” wrote Dew. “We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.” By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery had eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks of society.” Anticipating the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Edmund Morgan, and David Roediger, the slaveholders openly acknowledged that slavery made white men feel equal. Equal and, more important, superior: under slavery, freedom became a scarce privilege, a prized distinction that just happened to be possessed by all white men. It thus discharged the egalitarian debts of America—not by paying them (Alexander Stephens would claim that the claim of equality in the Declaration of Independence was “fundamentally wrong”) but by democratizing feudalism.
However vigorous were these nods to a feudal—if democratized—past, the defenders of slavery remained firmly fixed upon the future. Refusing the identity of the staid traditionalist, they preferred the title of the heretic and the scientist, that fugitive intelligence who marched to his own drummer and thereby advanced the cause of progress and civilization. John C. Calhoun compared the criticisms he received for his positions to the “denunciation” that had fallen “upon Galileo and Bacon when they first unfolded the great discoveries which have immortalized their names.” Like all the great modern—William Harvey, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and James Mill were also among their other models—the slaveholders were guided, or claimed to be guided, by the light of truth and reason. Just as Galileo was initially persecuted and now revered, so would the South one day be hailed for its innovations. “May we not,” asked Stephens, “look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?” In 1837, Calhoun declared that the “experiment” of racialized slavery “was in progress, but had not been completed.” The “judgment” of society, he warned, “should be postponed for another ten years,” when the experiment would presumably be concluded.
But there was another side to this embrace of the fugitive intellect: the acute sense of wounded victimhood, which sounded like nothing so much as the grievances of a revolutionary class in the making. The master class performed that strange alchemy, so peculiar to privileged groups, by which the enjoyment of power—not just on the plantation or in the South but in national political institutions as well—is turned into the anxiety of persecution. Calhoun was the master of this transposition, borrowing directly from the abolitionist canon to make the case that it was the slaveholder that was the true slave. He compared the tariff to the exploitation and extraction of slavery and the federal government’s use of coercive power against the states to the “bond between master and slave—a union of exaction on one side and of unqualified obedience on the other.” Burke made a similar move in his account of the fate of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution: his treatment of the hounded queen resembles those stories of feminine victimhood—think of Richardson’s Pamela—that Lynn Hunt has recently argued helped give rise to the popular discourse of human rights during the eighteenth century.
The slaveholders’ sense of being besieged was not imaginary: outside of Brazil and the Caribbean, they were a lonely outpost of domination; with the abolitionists beginning to gain traction in some northern circles, they were acutely aware—Calhoun earlier than most—of the writing on the wall. Even so, their perception of themselves as aggrieved subalterns subjugated by imperious elites reflects more than a prophetic realism. It testifies to the curious ways in which a revolutionary idiom can infiltrate the most exalted of classes. “We…are in a hopeless minority in our own confederated republic,” cried Harper. “We can have no hearing before the tribunal of the civilized world.”
With their orientation to the future and acute sense of victimhood, the southern writers adopted an ethos geared less to liberalism or conservatism—ideologies arising from previous centuries of European conflict—than to fascism, the one ism of the twentieth century that could and would make a legitimate claim to novelty. They beat the drums of race war. Like the Nazis ca. 1940, they offered deportation and extermination as final solutions to the Negro Question. If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.” The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history. When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported from France with their parents, Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” If the slaves were freed, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.”
Like the Nazis, the defenders of slavery spoke of lebensraum. We often forget that Hitler, in Mein Kampf, spurned Europe’s pursuit of overseas colonies, arguing instead that his countrymen should “direct [their] eyes toward the land in the East” where Germany could escape the industrial present and build an agrarian future. In Poland and Russia, the Germans could “finally put an end to the prewar colonial and trade policy and change over to the land policy of the future” based on the slave labor of the Slavic peoples. The slaveholders spoke of expanding to the west, where they too would create an alternative modernity, an agricultural utopia that would validate their new political economy of land and forced labor. They dreamed of vast empires, like the Roman or the Egyptian, but on the Mississippi. (Why Memphis, after all, or Cairo, Illinois?) “In our own country, look at the lower valley of the Mississippi,” wrote Harper, “which is capable of being made a far greater Egypt.” In “the great valley of the Mississippi” James Hammond thought he saw “the acknowledged seat of the empire of the world,” perhaps even “an empire that shall rule the world.”
Lurking beneath the South’s notions of race war and land empires was a vision of life as permanent struggle, of history as a ledger of agonistic conflict. Not for the slaveholders the pastorals of old Europe, where time stood still or moved forward at glacial pace. “Mutation and progress is the condition of human affairs,” wrote Harper. Like Nietzsche and the Social Darwinists, the master class believed that social friction and political contest made for passion and greatness. The problem with the abolitionist creed, Harper argued, was that it would create a society where “if there is little suffering, there is little high enjoyment. The even flow of the life forbids the high excitement which is necessary for it.” Only in struggle and domination could “the moral and intellectual faculties…be cultivated to their highest perfection.” Better the inequality of slavery, which allows for the highest cultivation of the few, than the mediocrity of equality. Only the “inequality of condition between the front and rear ranks,” wrote Calhoun, gives “so strong an impulse to the former to maintain their position, and to the latter to press forward into their files.” Only inequality, in other words, would guarantee “the march of progress.” Slavery, Dew concluded, would produce not only an efficient economy but also the most dynamic and expansive society the world had ever seen.