Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Crime of Thomas Jefferson

One way of looking at high energy particle physics is that it consists of hitting some stuff with the biggest hammer you can get, then making up stories about the resulting fragments. In human affairs, we do something similar, but the penetrating radiation consists of ideas and facts, and people’s reaction to them. In the United States, one of the big hammers is the Founding Fathers, their ideas and the facts about their lives. Modern Americans project all sorts of things on those guys, which tends to reveal more about modern Americans than the Founding Fathers.

The most recent furor about Thomas Jefferson is a pretty good experimental smashup in that regard, though the first result is one I’ve mentioned a while ago: when sex enters a narrative, the narrative becomes all about the sex. In Jefferson’s case, the burning issue of the day was whether or not he had a child by his slave Sally Hemings. DNA testing of Hemings’ descendents put the debate into the realm of the truly bizarre. The testing was “inconclusive” in that it could only say that someone in Jefferson’s immediate family was the progenitor, so it could have been either Thomas or his brother Randolf. Naturally, a lot of Jefferson scholars immediately set out to prove that it was Randolf, because otherwise, Thomas Jefferson would have had to have had sex with his slave Sally, who, it should be noted was his deceased wife’s half-sister. That would have made Jefferson no better than…his father-in-law.

Sally was also Jefferson’s property, and it’s hard for us to really grasp what that means. A southern slave owner could certainly legally have sex with his slaves. He could also beat them, mutilate them, force them to mate with anyone he chose, or kill them for any or no reason, all without any repercussion other than financial. Do you own a dog or a cat? Your pets have more legal rights now than did a slave in the Old South.

On the other hand, for Jefferson’s brother to have had sex with Sally Hemings without Thomas’ permission, would have been a serious breach of manners and ethics. If it were done with Jefferson’s permission, then, well, which is worse, sleeping with your wife’s half sister or pimping her out to your brother?

As I say, sex in the narrative tends to muddy the waters and muddle the thinking. In any case, Annette Gordon-Reed, in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy pretty clearly demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson was the only possible father of Hemings' seven children. More importantly Gordon-Reed addresses the issue of how it is that the fairly clear and compelling evidence of the relationship was ignored or explained away by scholars who were basically devaluing the evidence provided by historical sources who were black. Not to put too fine a point on it, implicit racist assumptions led to false conclusions.

Jefferson, of course, was a paragon in the founding of America. His was the language of the Declaration of Independence. As President, he arranged the Louisiana Purchase. He was the prime mover behind the founding of the University of Virginia, the first secular university in America. His is the spirit behind the First Amendment, and his aphorisms in favor of freedom of speech, press, and religion are part of the discourse to this day. He was also a major scholar and scientist. As John Kennedy once quipped at a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson’s library formed the basis of the Library of Congress. He was probably, after Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Thompson, (later Count Rumford) the most internationally famous scientist and intellectual in America at the time.

So then, how to react when confronted by something like this:

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 of both 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 color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. --Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”

Jefferson’s ownership of slaves made him a part of his culture, and his racist views were also part of that culture. This is that “cultural relativism” we hear so much about. Those who decry cultural relativism must then decide whether Jefferson was an evil man, or whether slavery wasn’t so bad as all that. Since I have no quarrel with cultural relativism per se, I’m willing to give Jefferson a pass on the slave owning, though not a full pardon. Washington gets a full pardon; he freed his slaves at his death. Jefferson supposedly wanted to do the same, but he’d ran up so many debts that his estate couldn’t afford the gesture, so his slaves got sold off, families split, the whole horror show, all because Jefferson just had to add that extra staircase onto Montecello and import a few more varieties of plants for his experiments.

But those sorts of moral transgressions are transient, personal, and local. The same cannot be said for the scientific racialism that he expounded as a whitewash to his own personal good fortune of having been born white and rich in a society whose wealth depended upon slave labor. It may be asking a lot for someone to give up all those benefits of position and privilege. But to use one of the finest minds of his era to rationalize that situation, that is crime that continues to this day. Certainly scientific racism would have existed without Jefferson, but he was one of its originators in this country. And that was a crime against both free society and against science.


The Constructivist said...

James, great post. What you write about is well-known among specialists, but thanks for helping to get the word out to broader audiences!

Now I'm intrigued as to how you reconcile this condemnation of Jefferson with your recent comments on JP Stormcrow's post at WAAGNFNP....

James Killus said...

I did reflect on that reconciliation in a conversation with a friend last night. Part of it is the "moral relativism" thing, and I see that I've neglected to revise and re-post an earlier essay that I wrote, "What Moral Relativism Means to Me":

Note that I do not condemn Jefferson for being a slave owner, though his failure to free his slaves upon his death was, I believe, a failure on his own terms.

For that matter, I can forgive past racism, at least in part, as that is past, and of its time, and, as the saying goes, "mistakes were made."

But attempts to put a scientific gloss on race and racism still afflict us, and the fact is that Jefferson knew better. He shared a bed with a woman of hybrid vigor and he had children by her. I expect more of men of intelligence than that they use that intelligence to deceive themselves, and I don't think that such a notion is subject to the tides of time. What's more, I think that Jefferson would agree, and I suspect that he was a bit ashamed of his own words and deeds.

That may well be projection on my part. If so, I'm willing to be inconsistant on this particular issue.

James Killus said...

Ah, I see that I had already posted the moral relativism essay here. I thought I had, and was puzzled by not finding it:

I also had a follow up that I just hoisted from my newsgroup archives.

Farrar said...

Extremely well-written and interesting post, but I think you are making the issue more complicated than necessary. Isn't it sufficient to admit that good men sometimes do evil things? I do not see the imperative in your statement,
"Those who decry cultural relativism must then decide whether Jefferson was an evil man, or whether slavery wasn’t so bad as all that."

Your concluding statement also surprises me -
"Certainly scientific racism would have existed without Jefferson, but he was one of its originators in this country. And that was a crime against both free society and against science."
To my mind, your quotation from Jefferson above does not show him to be one of the originators of scientific racism. In that paragraph, he was simply suggesting the possibility of inequality. Do you have other evidence for your concluding statement?

Even Lincoln did not necessarily believe in the physical or mental equality of the races, only in the necessary equality of rights. Nor did my 3g grandfather, who nevertheless was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society (for other reasons) I am under the impression that scientific evidence of racial equality was not available in the 19th century. This would explain commonly held opinions of racial differences based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience.

I am in no way a moral relativist or an apologist for slavery, but I did wish to defend my first cousin umpteen times removed against the crime of which you accuse him (full disclosure). Considering this relationship, I should be more familiar with Jefferson's writings. One viewing of Ivory's "Jefferson in Paris" is not enough despite Nick Nolte's excellent portrayal.

I am also interested in the question of moral judgements in historical biographies in connection with my effort to write a biography of my great grandfather, a Yankee, who fought for the South (another good man whe did evil things). See
entry dated Feb 17, 2007aunt

James Killus said...

I have never seen "Jefferson in Paris," so I cannot speak to whatever misconceptions may have occurred in that film.

I'm frankly at a loss in trying to understand your belief that a quote from Jefferson that clearly references himself as a "lover of natural history" and suggests that Africans may be considered as biologically different from Europeans as to be either a different species or at least a "variant" (what we would now call a subspecies) is not referencing science.

As for "the impression that scientific evidence of racial equality was not available in the 19th century" that is, quite simply, ridiculous. The accomplishments of African civilizations were known to Europeans, and Washington D.C. itself was largely designed by a man of African descent.

More to the point, Jefferson had personal and intimate knowledge of African slaves. If he was incapable of seeing their natures, it was because he desired to see things differently.

At this distance, I see no profit in judging men to be "good" or "evil." Even making moral judgements about actions themselves is risky, so I am probably much more of a relativist than most. But I have a personal interest in science, and I am willing to make a judgement about that. Jefferson failed science, and there are those who propagate that failure to this day. Sometimes one draws a line in the sand, and that is where I draw one of mine.

Farrar said...

James, I respect your line in the sand, and find it admirable that you have drawn it. I doubt that we will reach agreement, however , on where you have placed that line. I will, however make one more attempt to explain my position. Family solidarity is strong even after umpteen generations.

Considering your personal interest in science, I am sure you know more than I do about the historical development of the various branches of science, including the biological sciences. What little I know suggests that all the sciences have progressed through alternate phases of observation and logical analysis, with great advances being made as techniques of observation improved or great flashes of logical or mathematical insight occurred. Until the epoch of Darwin, Huxley, et al, the biological sciences had lagged behind, and were in no position to provide any scientific proof - experimental proof or statistical evidence - of the equality of the races.

All Jefferson could do was to proceed logically (or illogically) from the body of existing knowledge, and from his own experiments and experiences. Certainly, he had access to the evidence that you cite, but that evidence was purely anecdotal and not systematically evaluated. He might just as well rely on his own personal observation, admittedly colored by his interests, self justification and strong libido. We need to remember that if a slave wanted to stay alive in southern society , he needed to "dumb himself down", thus reinforcing the personal impressions of the masters. Thus Jefferson let his logic run off in the wrong direction by suggesting racial inequality as an hypothesis for further investigation. As far as I know, he did not state that racial inequality was a fact. To call his hypothesis a crime is quite an exaggeration in view of the then state of the biological sciences, although it certainly helped make your point.

It probably is impossible to label most men as good or evil, although in this connection you might wish to read Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock" if you have not already done so. Nevertheless, when writing historical biography it is almost impossible to avoid some moral judgement on the subject's actions. Since biographies of great men are still considered as important in the formation of role models for our youth, I would also consider such evaluations as profitable.

I think you might like "Jefferson in Paris". It very clearly shows Jefferson's personal weaknesses and contradictions.

Farrar said...

I have just read and downloaded your essay on moral relativism. Excellent. I shall download it and use it as a reference point as I draft a final chapter on my great grandfather.

James Killus said...


I extend almost full dispensation to "family solidarity" and I hope that all Jefferson's descendants eventually come together in that solidarity. It's my understanding that there have been some admirable examples of reconciliation between the Jefferson and Hemmings branches, and some examples that are less than admirable.

My difficulty with dismissing what you call Jefferson's "hypothesis" of inequality is that science is seldom well-served when people make convenient hypotheses. When confronted with the convenience of conventional wisdom, science can strengthen that wisdom by testing it rigorously, or contradict the conventional and "intuitive" by the same method. Jefferson did neither; he supported the conventional wisdom by mere speculation, covering prejudice with a scientific gloss.

It is human nature to want certain things to be true, and the effect of this desire is pernicious to the actual search for truth. Every good scientist learns this lesson early and often (the latter because it is so easy to backslide). If Jefferson is to have any beneficial effect to science, then in this case, it must be as a bad example of how easy it is to lose your way. That his was a common mistake is all the more reason to condemn it. That his specific mistake continues and propagates to this day makes it all the more necessary to decry a common mistake from an uncommon man.