Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and the Challenges of History

N. has been learning about the first 7 U.S. presidents this autumn, reading The History of Us with Tim.  So I thought he'd be interested in the recent Smithsonian Magazine cover story, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" by Henry Wiencek (based on his new book Master of the Mountain).  I read it aloud to N., and we had a long conversation about the disturbing picture it paints of slavery and of Jefferson's actions as a slave-owner.  The fundamental, irreconcilable contradiction between Jefferson's words and his actions is a hard lesson, and N. was troubled by it.  Samuel Johnson put it well in his 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Wiencek's article offers to resolve this contradiction by purporting to show that Jefferson simply embraced slavery in the 1790s as the most profitable economic system that would support Monticello.  Wiencek's Jefferson is no longer troubled by the distance between his famous words and his private actions on the mountaintop of his estate.  He offers as evidence records from Jefferson's Farm Book, private letters, and his declining an inheritance that would have given him means to free his slaves.  Wiencek quotes a letter from Jefferson to Washington which he says shows Jefferson acknowledging "for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children" (oddly, however, Wiencek omits entirely the scholarly consensus that Jefferson fathered some of those children).

Yesterday, however, I read two damning critiques of Wiencek's book by scholars with strong credentials as Jeffersonian historians: Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Ellen Lewis.  They point out that the "4%" letter was not describing Monticello's economy but was a generalization in "response to a request for a comparison of free labor to enslaved labor" (Gordon-Reed).  They point out that Jefferson declined to act on the will that would have given him money to free his slaves because the would-be benefactor wrote three more wills after that, and the competing claims from these wills were not resolved until 1852 (Wiencek omits these details entirely)!  They point out that Jefferson continued to lament slavery till his very deathbed.  They have much more to criticize; I recommend you read their essays.  As Lewis puts it:
"It is inarguable that Jefferson lived off of the labor of his slaves all the time that he was decrying slavery as 'moral and political depravity.' We can call that many things. One of them is tragedy, for the slaves most especially, but also for the nation. Another is paradox —but maybe that’s too complicated."  
I was frustrated with Smithsonian Magazine for publishing something that seems at the very least to need better vetting or peer-review.  I told N. about these critiques at supper last night, and we talked about the challenges of history.  Both Gordon-Reed and Lewis highlight the importance of context for creating historical narratives.  Wiencek's account of Jefferson's thinking is undermined by the larger contexts from which he pulls his selective quotes.  I think N. felt a bit perplexed.  History suddenly seemed very hard.  I tried to point out that this very perplexity is part of what makes history valuable.  There are no easy answers to the complexity of the past (or the present!)  Wiencek's Jefferson is simply a monster who callously abandoned his ideals.  While not excusing or apologizing for slavery in the slightest, it is much more honest to explore how Jefferson continued to believe in those ideals while failing to live up to them.  Surely in our own lives we all face the same challenge.

1 comment:

Megan D. Neal said...

History is a tricky thing, fluid, troubling, and speculative. We've had those kinds of discussions around here, too. It's hard for kids to grasp, 'though, because they want things cut-and-dried. I think one of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that people and life are never cut-and-dried; we are a shaded species.