Unethical Quote of the Week: Thomas Jefferson

 “Brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [blacks] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young. In the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.”

—-Thomas Jefferson, quoted in a new book, “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” by historian Henry Weincek. Jefferson wrote this in 1819, 43 years after the Declaration of Independence, in response to a request for support from a family friend who was taking his own slaves to freedom. Jefferson refused, and this was part of his response.

Great writer. Great philosopher. Bad man.

I have been working on a post on the topic of Presidential character, a lifetime study for me, as a rebuttal of a post on the Daily Caller titled, “Why Good Men Don’t Become President?” Good men do become President; in fact, almost all of the men who have become President were or are good men, Barack Obama included. Leaders, however, are a peculiar breed of good men, since leadership itself requires a different priority of virtues than other roles. Those who do not understand or appreciate leadership, and I believe that the author of that article does not, often conclude that leaders are necessarily bad.

Thomas Jefferson, I submit, was one of the few bad men who did become President. Weincek’s new book, which I have not yet read (I have read his excellent account of George Washington’s slave-holding, which shows a man whose basic decency eventually overcame personal interest and cultural plurality on the matter of slavery, as Jefferson could not), appears to do a decisive job in showing this, which should give the Jefferson apologists and rationalizers quite a task in the coming months. Among the documentation of Jefferson’s pragmatic callousness toward the human beings he treated as chattel are statements like this one in 1792, regarding the financial advantages of selling off slave children (the historian reveals that 143 slave children were born into Jefferson’s possession in the 1780’s and 90’s):

“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.’”

Weincek also discovered that the editor of a published edition of Jefferson’s “Farm Book” redacted evidence that  “the small ones,” among Jefferson’s child-slaves were whipped to keep them laboring diligently. The omission was intentional and necessary,  Weincek suggests, to support the  myth that Jefferson managed his plantations with an unusually kind and humane hand. Evidently, he did not.

Jonathan Yardley’s review of the book concludes with this assessment:

“No doubt the argument will be made that everyone did it, that it is “presentism” — judging yesterday by the standards of today — to single out Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves. That is not the case. Everyone wasn’t doing it. There were voices for emancipation in Virginia, and there were people who freed their slaves: “The long list of people who begged Jefferson to do something about slavery includes resounding names — Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Thomas Paine — along with the less-known Edward Coles, William Short, and the Colored Battalion of New Orleans. They all came to Jefferson speaking the Revolution’s language of universal human rights, believing that the ideals of the Revolution actually meant something.”’

“Jefferson, who wrote much of that language, wasn’t listening.”


Source: Washington Post

23 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: Thomas Jefferson

  1. What?? You mean that slavery wasnt like they show in the movies with all the slaves dancing and singing and happy to serve their master?? That people who are capable of the evil that is slavery were capable of doing other evil things to the people they held as slaves?

    The fact that he beat the child slaves doesnt suprise me and it seems to me that you are saying “Oh its ok that he owned slaves, he is a product of his time, but its not ok to breed the slaves with the point of selling the children and you cant beat the children” . Would he have been less evil if he hadnt done these things?

    The problem with Jefferson is that for too long people have presented him as the “Sage of Monticello”, or worse yet the singing dancing Jefferson from 1776, instead of the deeply flawed and brilliant man that he was.

      • I don’t know if he did, I think that people around him did when he was older and especially after his death. God know his white descendents have protected his image. I find the more complex Machiavellian Jefferson that is being brought to like much more interesting then the one we have been presented for the past 200 years.

        • No doubt. Interesting, yes. He is the best proof I know that people can have brilliant and transformative thoughts and creations, and be thoroughly despicable in most other aspects of their lives. Another example: Arthur Miller.

            • Why? Except that Louisiana fell into his lap, he wasn’t an especially good President. He was an essential Founder, and that’s plenty—it’s why he’s on Mt. Rushmore. He was a lousy leader. As Governor of VA, he was almost arrested.

              • Oh good points. Sometimes it’s easy to let his importance as a founding father slide over in to influence my opinion of him as President.

                • This is the thing, Bill: we owe Jefferson everything, and I don’t begrudge him his mountain or an undeserved rep as a great President. The Declaration changed the world, and he wasn’t faking it—there was a great soul in there, and that was one of the times, thank God, that it got control. In a lot of ways, he was The Man, as much as George or Abe. We wouldn’t be here without him, and don’t think I’ll forget it. If the one great thing you do is great enough, it makes everything else superfluous. Jefferson is the best example of that I know of.

          • Oh and I hate to say this but I can not stand Miller. I find his dialogue to be wooden and he beats you over the head to get his point across.

  2. The fascinating thing about Jefferson is that he is a patron saint for everyone. Everyone claims him: Atheists, Christians, democrats, republicans, libertarians… Such a bundle of contradictions in one guy.

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