Jefferson’s Race Obsession is a Response to Emancipation, not Slavery

Thanks to some provocative comments from my friend Nikhil Singh, and a spirited critique of my post from someone at Crooked Timber, it occurred to me that we may really be missing the significance of Jefferson if we think of him solely in the context of slavery (and I may have contributed to that). As both scholars and defenders of Jefferson have pointed out, Jefferson was not a fan of slavery. He had grave moral doubts about the institution, which he expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia and elsewhere, even if he almost never acted on them. Especially in his earlier years, he thought emancipation was inevitable (though that belief got somewhat more strained as time went on).

But if we shift our lens of analysis from slavery to post-slavery, Jefferson’s writings on race, which I explored at length yesterday, assume a far more illuminating—and ominous—cast. For what Jefferson is clearly trying to grapple with, in a way that few other theorists of his time are, is: what in the world are we (whites) going to do with these people (blacks) once they are free? How can we share this land with creatures that are so obviously inferior and subordinate and other? And the solutions he comes up—not just colonization but actual deportation (or extermination through race war)—reflect his orientation to the future, not to an institution that he doesn’t believe will exist much longer, but to a post-emancipation situation.

Jefferson’s haunting obsession, in other words, is black freedom, not black slavery—and indeed he spent quite a bit of time drawing up legislative codes in Virginia that would have imposed major liabilities and restrictions upon the movement and freedom of free blacks.

And it is in that light that we start to see the European parallels. For what was the Jewish Question of the 19th century if not an extended meditation on what we Germans or Europeans were going to do with this ancient inscrutable people who, thanks to Napoleon, had suddenly been thrown among us. Among us, but not of us. Simply read Richard Wagner’s Judaism in Music (1850) to get a taste of an equally cultivated European grappling with a similar problematic as Jefferson.

And the answers, of course, that Jefferson mooted—deportation, elimination—point us, as I said, forward. It’s not to say he was a fascist; too many other elements would have to cohere for that to occur. But he was laboring in nearby vineyards. Again, because unlike many of brethren, North and South, he truly grappled with the problem of how a dominant majority must deal with a despised minority when it has been forced upon the national scene.


  1. JMc December 2, 2012 at 11:34 pm | #

    Thanks for these last couple of Jefferson posts. Highly illuminating for sure. Do you think that the growing minority share of the debate in this country will force more close looks at some of the horrible sentiments on race held by the founding white land and slave owning class? Washington may have freed his humans upon his own death and certainly had many reservations about slavery. But in the end, most of his concerns were regarding the expense of maintaining their lives. He hated the fact that due to age and health he had many non-contributing slaves and found ways for them to “contribute.” He may not have broken up families but he lamented the costs of that policy quite often. Most of his slaves were his wife’s and could not be legally freed upon his death anyway.
    Thanks again for your work.

  2. Frank Moraes December 3, 2012 at 12:09 am | #

    I still maintain this is all about the entitlement of the rich. As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” I just don’t think that it works like this, “These savages! Oh! And ain’t it great that them being savages just happens to justify keeping my wealth?!” Rather, it is, “My wealth is dependent upon these people. But you know, they aren’t really like us…”

    I understand all about in group/out group politics and that is all very important. But if Jefferson had been born in Massachusetts, he would have an unblemished record on slavery. Again:

    Thomas Jefferson’s Entitlement

    Also: the thought that he felt slavery would soon be over makes his selling 85 slaves to buy luxury goods particularly repugnant.

  3. The Raven December 3, 2012 at 2:07 am | #

    But why are emancipated blacks a problem, if whites are so obviously superior?

  4. ponce December 3, 2012 at 3:41 am | #

    I’ve read just about everything Jefferson wrote, and I can’t recall him ever proposing a “race war” to solve the problem of slavery.

    I do recall him fearing one once the slaves were freed, but he certainly wasn’t in favor of one.

  5. Brian A. Graham December 3, 2012 at 9:41 am | #

    He was opposed to slavery on the grounds of what it did to Whites, not the effects upon the enslaved. His lifelong obsession was with miscegenation. I suggest that you examine his writings on miscegenation which predate his so called “abolitionist” phase.

    What we are seeing in this debate is what Nathan Huggin’s wrote about over twenty years ago in his essay entitled “The Deforming Mirror of Truth” which has been reprinted as the introduction to his Black Odyssey. People are unable to process the fact that Jefferson was in many ways not only a typical slave owner but may have been even less humane than average. We are unable to overcome the narrative that America is a “land of freedom” and that slavery and other forms of unfree labor and property rights may not be aberrations but the norm in American history.

    • The Raven December 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm | #

      ” His lifelong obsession was with miscegenation.”

      Really! That does sound like a sexual obsession. I made a few notes about this over on CT, but I was speculating–it sounds like you’ve got the goods.

      Talk about your feet of clay.

      • SocraticGadfly December 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm | #

        And, one might say hypocritical, as well, given .. er … Sally Hemings!

        I’ve pulled together some blog thoughts here, contra both Robin’s post here and his linked one, and David Post at Volokh Conspiracy (and unnamed others), against thinking Jefferson was frozen in authorial amber after 1776 (Notes on the State of Virginia, let alone Kentucky Resolutions, anybody), and more:

  6. SocraticGadfly December 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm | #

    Partially agree with the content; less with the implications. Per Finkelman and his NYT op-ed, the fact that Jefferson was focused on black freedom, not black slavery, doesn’t lessen his cruelness as a slaveowner. A piece like Robin’s would be better read for those who criticize Lincoln the man, or worry that Lincoln the movie is too hagiographic. (The critics also ignore Lincoln’s genuine evolution on the issue.)

    And, as for your earlier post? Puhleese. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence 50 years before he died. Appealing to it wipe out a clear legacy of both later writings, and actions, which point in a clearly contrary direction? (Oh, and Lincoln’s 1858 comments about Jefferson? They were about the Jefferson who authored the Declaration, not the Jefferson who threatened to sell slaves “down the river,” so to speak, etc.)

    • Corey Robin December 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm | #

      I think you’ve seriously misread both of my posts on Jefferson. Like, seriously misread.

      • SocraticGadfly December 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm | #

        Maybe, maybe not. I’m not the only person on this thread who has raised questions about either post. I stand by my observations that Jefferson ultimately did nothing but hand-waving (and that, even in the history of U.S. presidents, he ranks high on the hypocrisy scale). I could mention his comments at the time of the Missouri Compromise and much more.

      • The Raven December 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm | #

        For what it’s worth, I agree with you.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg December 4, 2012 at 1:20 am | #

      You think Dr. Robin was “appealing to [the Declaration of Independence] to wipe out a clear legacy of both later writings, and actions”??

      Nothing like that was in the article (whose very title belies this characterization).

  7. Gina December 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm | #

    I know this is not the point of Mr. Robins posts but…

    I’ve always thought that Jefferson was just resigned to the unfortunate fact that the society/economy he lived in was so invested in slavery that he just gave up the fight.

    The following ‘grievance’ was edited OUT of Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence at the insistence of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia.

    “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.”

    Jefferson explained later that… “The clause re-probating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

    If that ‘grievance’ had stayed in, there would have been a moral imperative to end slavery during the Constitutional Convention. He knew that southern slaveholders hijacked the Convention -(they were threatening to secede!!)- and that the Constitution made slavery legal. Once in the Constitution, it was just accepted that it could not be ended -(too many slave-holding states). Just like Dred Scott was a fact of life once the Supreme Court ruled.

  8. Dollared December 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm | #

    I still find this conversation incredibly distortive of the significance and context of Jefferson’s life and writings. The challenges presented to him as a thinking human in his then-current environment, as well as the intellectual, political and emotional challenges he personally faced as a upper class radical, created some rather obvious contradictions and some rather logical consequences. What we see is Jefferson struggling with these things.

    First and foremost, we should all acknowledge that Jefferson’s claims of equality were first and foremost claims of privileged non-aristocratic white men to legal standing (and legal protections against the Crown or its successor) equal to that of aristocrats. They used rhetoric that carried very broad implications, but it was rhetoric, not policy in any way. They did not assume, or to my knowledge argue, that women should have equal rights. In fact, the new states did not grant voting rights to all white men, just to property owners. This is not a “discovery.” It’s obvious, and any argument to the contrary is 20th century fluffing.

    Yet the Founders’ broad rhetoric did carry dangerous implications of universal equality. And while Jefferson, the Virginia planter and politician, understood those implications, he never would have been elected president had he argued universal suffrage, or abolition of slavery, or even diplomatic relations with Haiti.

    Many of you seem to be speaking as if he represented Nancy Pelosi’s district, not his Virginia riding. He wouldn’t have gotten the votes in his state if he’d been an abolitionist.

    Moreover, I would guess that his expansive rhetoric may have forced him into some rather defensive public positions, in order to explain that his arguments for equality for his peers would not be extended to blacks, women, Native Americans, or for that matter landless white servants. White supremacy would have have been a very natural argument to use to protect himself from assertions that his radicalism went too far. And he may well have couched it in terms of appeal to natural law, that was his standard mode.

    So there is absolutely no need, and it is highly distortive, to invoke “Fascism” here. And while it is disappointing to contemplate Jefferson’s lack of courage in his public life, and his lack of charity and kindness to slaves in his private life, none of it should be surprising. And none of it should be used to call him a “brutal monster.”

    He was a slaveowner and a white man of privilege, so we should not be surprised that he didn’t care much about the Help. And he was a politician, so we know that he was a hypocrite. Of course we’re disappointed, but a monster? Only if you baseline your assessment on some sort of 20th century hagiographic treatment of his life. Not if you properly consider his life and his environment, on its own terms and in its appropriate context.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg December 4, 2012 at 1:28 am | #

      The point is not that he’s a monster. The point is that his way of thinking, his way of problematizing blacks, (and as others have pointed out on Crooked Timber, native Americans), anticipated the fascist way of thinking and problematizing the racial other.

      You are reading “fascist” as synonymous with “monster,” which is not the point at all. Professor Robin is tracing the history of ideas, and addressing fascism as a particular way of thinking.


  9. Glenn December 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm | #

    Jefferson is no worse than right wingers of both parties today, disenfranchising blacks, poor, and other minorities, impoverishing the many so the wealthy can be wealthy, claiming the value created by labor for himself while forcing those who work for him to live on a bare subsistence share of the wealth they create in their laboring.

    The owner of Frederick Douglas sent him out to earn a wage and then required him to surrender it to him, the man who owned the title to him i.e., he who was entitled to Douglas’s wage, as if Frederick Douglas was a one man corporation who owed all to the shareholder while the worker suffered in poverty.

    Jefferson would have fit into today’s America in a very unremarkable way.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg December 4, 2012 at 1:30 am | #

      I did not know that about Federick Douglas. It’s interesting to me, because this is how a temp agency or a staffing agency works today.

      • Glenn December 4, 2012 at 11:06 am | #

        True. That was my experience as a recent graduate years ago. My boss asked what I was being paid and when I told him $9/hr, he was angry and disgusted that he was paying the agency $27/hr.

        He added $1/hr payment to the agency so I could receive $10/hr. They thought he was crazy.

  10. Displaced Person December 3, 2012 at 10:29 pm | #

    Two quick observations that may help:

    Many seem to be struggling with the criteria for thinking clearly about an important historical figure, and most seem to be applying anachronistic standards. Many if not most historically powerful and influential figures were not morally good in their personal or official lives. It is one thing to condemn Jefferson hagiography – he was a saint all round – the standard view up to the 1970s or so – and another to diminish his historic achievements by judging his personal life. Jefferson was brilliant, rendered great service to his country, and a selfish hypocrite capable of callous cruelty. People, even educated thoughtful people, don’t like ambiguity. Remember the conservative critics of Picasso who cannot deal with his art so attack his relations with the women in his life.

    Second, I do not think that Jefferson, or any other Southerner, was truly concerned about emancipation as a future society of equals. I think that it was far more personal and immediate – just as Jefferson had two families, black and white, so did many powerful and not so powerful white men in the South. They could not imagine, could not countenance, bringing out into the open their duplicity, their sexual conquests, much less a meeting between their wives and their mistresses. Denial is a huge and under-credited factor in Southern history to this day.

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