Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 4 · July 2001
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Jefferson

Aaron Garrett is assistant professor of philosophy at Boston University and author of the chapter on "Human Nature" in the forthcoming Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy.

 

 

"Yet it's not at all clear what Thomas Jefferson's political legacy, his racist writings, his slaveholding, his proclamations against slavery, his fear of miscegenation, and his (apparently) active miscegenation mean to us when taken together."

Of Racism and Remembrance
Aaron Garrett

Part I | II | III

Is interest in the racism of past and hallowed philosophers and statesmen the obsession of a politically correct society gone amok? Or is it an acknowledgement of the ways in which the racist ideas of our forebears still hold sway over our present social and political concerns? Does the racism of a thinker like Thomas Jefferson irremediably infect his writings and his legacy? Must it stalk him, creeping from century to century?

These sorts of questions rage around Jefferson. Clearly the third president means a great deal to many Americans. Since his death in 1826--and even before it--the "American Sphinx" has been invoked in countless contexts and to countless purposes. And Jefferson's slaveholding and his attitudes towards race have been debated on-and-off for nearly two hundred years. But no aspect of Jefferson's life has been more hotly contested than his relationship with Sally Hemings, his house slave and purported mistress as well as his wife's illegitimate half sister. As historian Winthrop Jordan has put it, "What is historically important about the Hemings-Jefferson affair is that it has seemed to many Americans to have mattered."

Yet it's not at all clear what Thomas Jefferson's political legacy, his racist writings, his slaveholding, his proclamations against slavery, his fear of miscegenation, and his (apparently) active miscegenation mean to us when taken together. Why do we care about this, particularly the purported relationship with Hemings, and what is it precisely we are caring about?

letter
Thomas Jefferson, autograph letter signed, dated 6 January 1815, to Jeremiah Goodman (exceprt). Regarding marriage among his slaves at Monticello. Courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library.

Jefferson presented his racial views in a number of contexts, most famously in the Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1787. In this work Jefferson argued against the French naturalist Buffon's claims that America was a nation stilted by a brutal climate and thus materially incapable of greatness. Its animals were feeble and stunted in comparison to the hardy European breeds, and its native peoples hairless, enervated, and barely capable of reproducing themselves. Jefferson argued quite movingly for the nobility of Native Americans to bolster his case against Buffon as to the climactic splendor and present and future greatness of America. But as part of this argument he also argued for the deep inferiority of African Americans.

Here's how Jefferson closed his chapter on "Laws": "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."

This argument for the separation of the races based on the natural inferiority of blacks derived from Jefferson's "observations" of the childlike simplicity of blacks, their wild imaginations, their incapacity to reason and create serious art, their "disagreeable odour." Jefferson also emphasized that blacks exhibited a uniform aesthetic preference for the "flowing hair" and "elegant symmetry of form" of whites, a preference as uniform as "the preference of the Oran-ootan for the black women over those of his own species."

Despite this scientifically cloaked bigotry, Jefferson's views about the inferiority of Africans and African Americans were not unique, and taken alone they are not what makes Jefferson's racism of perennial interest. Two things seem to rub us differently about Jefferson's racist statements and those of other statesmen and philosophers. First, they conflict with some of the most eloquent words ever penned about democracy and the rights of man, like these on toleration: "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men: men governed by bad passions."

Or these remarks on the consequences of this coercion: "The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion."

Here Jefferson invokes the metaphors of bondage, slavery, and slave revolt in a powerful plea for toleration. But it is not just the conflicts between bigotry and eloquence that make Jefferson a perennial object of interest. It is also something quite different--sex--and the ways in which Jefferson's much disputed personal life mirrors American feelings about race. Whether one views Jefferson as a man of great character impugned by politically correct wags or as an active miscegenator keeping a hidden family of slave children and never admitting it, these different perspectives both respond to the sexual and racial miasma of plantation life. Was the life of the gentleman farmer a life of Cincinnatean virtue or of Neronian debauchery? And what to say of the great patriarch who was a Virginia planter and the mysterious relationship with Sally Hemings, which can be viewed as benevolent master and servant, as rapist and victim, or as lovers.

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