The Monster of Monticello?

by on December 3, 2012 at 6:23 am in History, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is a good NYT Op-Ed on Thomas Jefferson.  In one of his periodic falls into exaggeration, Bruce Bartlett (whom I admire and often agree with), tweets: “I have yet to meet anyone on the right willing to deal honestly with Jefferson’s slave ownership.”  I have met large numbers of such people and they show up at virtually any Liberty Fund conference, for a start.  In fact that is one reason why they call it Liberty Fund.

I would add this: I am grateful for Jefferson’s contributions to this country in the form of the Declaration and also the Louisiana Purchase, to cite the two biggest.  But as a thinker I find him decidedly mediocre, other than that the Declaration is truly stirring in parts and of course of major historical importance.  (That said, I don’t think it was obvious ex ante that independence was a good idea, so even there Jefferson may be open to criticism.)  Reading the rest is a chore and for me there is little or nothing of analytic interest, unlike with say Madison or John Adams.  I don’t mean to detract from his peaks, but his overall record has lots of negatives, in addition of course to owning slaves and often treating them badly.  His record in practice on civil liberties for white people also left a lot to be desired.  I am not a fan of the agrarianism and arguably that could be labeled less politely.

Here is my previous post on Thomas Jefferson.  I have never liked him.

Addendum: For an alternative perspective, you can try this post and paper by David Post.

TGGP December 3, 2012 at 7:47 am

” I don’t think it was obvious ex ante that independence was a good idea, so even there Jefferson may be open to criticism”
It’s not obvious ex post that fighting that war was a good idea either. Just look at Canada. I would also criticize Jefferson for being too forgiving of the faults of the French Revolution, at least early on (not sure if he changed his tune later). Perhaps not surprising for someone famous for saying “the tree of liberty must be replenished from time to time with the blood of patriots”, and hoping the country would have a revolution every few generations.

OneEyedMan December 3, 2012 at 7:53 am

Viewing Canada as the counter-factual to the American revolution takes a more inevitable attitude towards history than I like. The American Revolution is a big event in modern history and the UK’s costly wars with America could well have (and likely did) shape the way Britain subsequently interacted with British colonies. Just to pick one alternate history, if the French Revolution became the governance model instead then the modern world would be very different and likely much less modern.

Roy December 3, 2012 at 8:59 am

Canada would not be the free and developed country it is today if the British had not learned from the mistakes they made to the south and then not had to compete with and defend itself from its very dynamic southern neighbor.

Any actual analysis of Canadian history with reference to what London was thinking only makes sense if the existence of the United States and its challenges are recognized. The CP, Confederation, the laissez faire policy, Montreal’s rise as a commercial center, the addition of British Columbia to Canada and the development of much of Canada’s industry are tied to defending Imperial interests and competition with the independent US.

Bill Gardner December 3, 2012 at 9:14 am

Canada also benefited greatly from the immigration of the refugee loyalist population.

Roy December 3, 2012 at 11:41 am

Exactly the settlement of Upper Canada by Anglophones was a direct result of the revolution, thus Canada as anything recognizable is a result of the Revolution.

Hazel Meade December 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Agreed. And especially Canada’s subsequent history had to have been strongly influenced by the existance of the United States.
Up until the late 20th century there was a lot of pro-American sentiment in Canada, and thus a strong political push by Canadians to “patriate” as they say the Canadian constitution – which itself largely copies the “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” from the Bill of Rights.
In other words, Canada isn’t a double blind control. It’s been heavily contaminated by the American experiment.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 9:55 pm

It’s funny how, as pointed out in D.P. Moynihan’s Law of the Canadian Border, American states near Canada seem to be lacking in exactly the same problems Canada doesn’t have much of, such as crime and low school test scores.

Joshua Holmes December 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm

The benefits of ending slavery quickly and not running a century of apartheid are astounding.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Moynihan had a more Occamite explanation in mind: his Law of the Canadian Border also applied to states that never had slavery in the West.

Moynihan wrote in 1993:

“A few months before Barton’s study appeared, I published an article showing that the correlation between eighth-grade math scores and distance of state capitals from the Canadian border was .522, a respect- able showing. By contrast, the correlation with per pupil expenditure was a derisory .203. I offered the policy proposal that states wishing to improve their schools should move closer to Canada.”

TGGP December 5, 2012 at 1:54 am

I believe Haiti ended slavery before a good number of northern states.

dearieme December 3, 2012 at 7:58 am

Once you accept that the Declaration is a mendacious advertising flyer, it’s easier to see the man in perspective. The Constitution: there’s something worth discussing. Washington, now, there’s a big figure. But slimy Tom – nah!

albert magnus December 3, 2012 at 10:02 am

My high school history teacher pointed out that the Declaration of Independence sounds like a teenager whining for about the last two thirds of the document.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Maybe it sounds teenage whiny because Jefferson pulled two straight all-nighters to write it. Echoing Lincoln, artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy once told me that if he were proofreading the Declaration in July 1776, he would have pointed out the typo in the most famous sentence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, [in] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

ad December 3, 2012 at 10:27 am

“the Declaration is a mendacious advertising flyer”

Most political manifestos are. But at least it gives you something to hold the new government to.

Popeye December 3, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Right, maybe the government would have banned slavery if there had been some standards back then. Oh well.

Hazel Meade December 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I know. A lot of people would like to take the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” out of the national Canon, and replace it with “promote the general welfare”. Pretending the Declaration is nothing but a mendacious advertising flyer would help a lot in that cause.

Chris December 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

“I have yet to meet anyone on the right willing to deal honestly with Jefferson’s slave ownership.”

I suggest Bruce Bartlett needs to dip into the numerous conservative hagiographies of Alexander Hamilton (Richard Brookhiser, Forrest McDonald, Ron Chernow, Henry Cabot Lodge, etc, etc…), which never fail to indulge in a spree of Jefferson-bashing.

Jefferson is much-overrated as an intellectual, but was a pretty good president — mostly because he ignored so much of his proclaimed political ideology once he reached the White House.

zbicyclist December 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Maybe not an intellectual, but he deserves some responsibility for the University of Virginia, which definitely is a fine intellectual institution.

mrmandias December 4, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Most conservatives of an intellectual bent that I know get just a little too much enjoyment out of trying to top each other with ever more outlandish expressions of disdain for the guy. Bartlett needs a wider circle of acquaintance.

TGGP December 5, 2012 at 1:56 am

Ugh, he was a terrible president. His pro-French sympathies led him to embargo the ports from a vital trading partner.

mark December 3, 2012 at 8:29 am

Bruce Bartlett is unimpressive. I don’t have any reason to say anything about Jefferson’s slave ownership. I am not writing a biography of the man. What does it have to do with anything else? To argue that it does is to make an ad hominem argument.

Jefferson helped create what is now the Democratic Party. The logic of Bartlett’s absurd tweet is that the Democratic Party ought to apologize for its founder’s slave ownership. One might ask why Bartlett is not tweeting that as well – it could be that he is just a political bootlicker.

libert December 3, 2012 at 9:47 am

Bruce Bartlett doesn’t need to tweet that “the Democratic Party ought to apologize for its founder’s slave ownership”, since just a few years ago he wrote an entire book saying that:

Dan W. December 3, 2012 at 11:13 am

Ad hominem would be to say my rebuttal to Jefferson’s foreign policy is that he was a slaveowner. But we’re discussing Jefferson himself. So, discussing Jefferson in the context of discussing Jefferson would seem to be, um, on-topic, no?

Hazel Meade December 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Wierd. I usually take Jefferson-bashing as an attack on libertarians, not Democrats.
Should libertarians apologize for the slave ownership of the guy who wrote the words “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” ?

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 8:50 am

I guess Jefferson’s library was just another one of his mediocrities -

‘Thomas Jefferson played an important role in the Library’s early formation, signing into law on January 26, 1802, the first law establishing the structure of the Library of Congress. The law established the presidentially appointed post of Librarian of Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library to regulate and oversee the Library, as well as giving the president and vice president the ability to borrow books.[5] The Library of Congress was destroyed in August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol building and the small library of 3,000 volumes within.[5]

Within a month, former President Jefferson offered his personal library[6][7] as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating a wide variety of books, including ones in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature, architecture and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library, such as cookbooks, writing that, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer, appropriating $23,950 to purchase his 6,487 books.’

Assitionally, though Mason was also instrumental in establishing the framework which separated church and state (not that the university that bears his name ever seemed interested in that fact while I attended and worked there), this is one area where Jefferson has a shining record. Unless, of course, one is a fan of theocracy – then Jefferson would certainly appear monstrous.

And his various inventions may be run of the mill, but do include the following -

‘When in Europe as Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson observed that the Dutch moldboard, which is the front of a plow that lifts up and turns over sod, was awkward and ineffective. Setting his mind to the problem, Jefferson interwove art and purpose to invent a new moldboard based on pure mathematical principles, namely, the right angle. This original moldboard briefly transformed agriculture (before iron came to replace the wooden plows), and yet Jefferson never tried to patent it. Believing that invention should be solely for the good of the people and not for the advancement of the inventor, Jefferson encouraged public use of this easily duplicated invention.’

Cliff December 3, 2012 at 9:44 am

Does donating a library make you not a mediocre thinker?

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 10:59 am

I think being instrumental in creating and expanding the world’s greatest library makes one something other than mediocre.

Just my opinion, though one shared by the Library of Congress. An institution which remains one of the most stunning achievements resulting from American independence, possessing as it does a notable fraction of human knowledge created over the past two centuries, encompassing as it does the achievements of one of the most dynamic periods in recorded history – including the actual development of photography, recorded sound, and movies.

So Much for Subtlety December 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm

First of all, notice Jefferson did not donate his books. He sold them. He had debt problems all his life. So when he praises the collection, of course, he is trying to get top dollar for it. But that said.

He sold 6,487 books. Let’s consider the counter-factual. The core of the British Library is the King’s Collection. A donation by King George III. It consists of some 65,000 volumes. Can we therefore conclude that George III was ten times the intellectual that Jefferson was? It was all collected by George III as well. As his father George II had previously given the Old Royal Library to the British nation. Which consisted of some 9,000 volumes.

It is even more modest compared to what the French were doing just over the water. The Kings of France had built up the Bibliothèque du Roi to some 300,000 volumes (despite the British stealing the previous Bibliothèque du Roi and transferring it to Britain where it was sold off). The Revolution then allowed them to steal from various nobles and other national libraries a lot more books so that it contained over a million volumes by the time Napoleon winged his merry way to Elba.

You know, it is admittedly hard to compare Jefferson with Royalty, but it is still a pretty modest gift. Nor do I need to even comment on quality.

chuck martel December 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm

How many of those books did George III actually read? Would collecting and donating books be similar to collecting and donating art? What’s all this collecting and donating mean?

So Much For Subtlety December 4, 2012 at 2:06 am

How many did Jefferson read? Prior_approval is giving credit to Jefferson not for books he read, and not really for books he collected, but for a vast collection of books that other people collected after he had died. That seems odd to me.

In many ways collecting books at the time was collecting art. George III left large numbers of valuable manuscripts. It is a great collection.

Careless December 5, 2012 at 11:38 am

OK, now I need to set aside some time to learn what’s in 18th century cook books

Brian December 3, 2012 at 8:50 am

The only really stirring passages of the declaration were the opening lines, which were essentially borrowed word for word from other people at the time. The rest is a littany of charges against the king, which cited his evidence, but not necessarily inspiring. Moreover, hard to give him credit for independence when he was just assigned the role of drafting the document. He was barely a “staffer” at that point when it was john adams who did the heavy lifting for independence. As Chris mentioned above he ignored his ideology of limited government once in office, used and extended executive authority to the fullest. And from Gary Wills thesis, although he may have personally been against slavery, the electoral advantage it brought is what propelled him to office, so he never publically condemmed it. He was two faced in many spheres of his public and private life. But perhaps he was a very good president…his negotiations with France to secure Louisiana were genius, and another aloof President, Obama, could maybe learn a thing or two about the psychology of negotiating from that episode. But it’s a shame there’s a memorial to him. It should be john adams in that rotunda.

fallibilist December 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Before moving on to POTUS, Jefferson should’ve started with mayor of Charlottesville.

Barkley Rosser December 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Why, fallibilist? He served as Governor of VA. Why waste time mayoring what was at the time a dinky and provincial town?

8 December 3, 2012 at 9:02 am

What percentage of rich Americans in 1776 didn’t have some involvement with slavery or indentured servitude? The whole Northeast shipping industry (or smuggling industry as it were) was involved as well back then.

Jared December 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm

That may be so, but many still saw fit to break themselves free of slaveholding. Jefferson, terrified of the prospect of a multi-racial society of whites and aggrieved freed slaves, actively worked against manumission of slaves, despite his sometimes anti-slavery politics. Jefferson saw slavery as a problem, but had no ability to imagine a peaceful multi-racial society. He, as a chronic debtor, found the money too good to ever act on his nobler inclinations.

So Much for Subtlety December 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm

What makes you think he could not imagine a peaceful multi-racial society? Perhaps he could, he just did not think it likely? Or plausible. You assume that a peaceful multi-racial society is possible. I would like to think so. I will point out that I find it hard to think of a single Black-majority society that has a tolerated White minority. Whites are fleeing from Black majority societies all over the world. You don’t even have to leave the US to see that Whites often get driven out of Black majority cities like Detroit. Remember, a lot of Blacks cheered when OJ was acquitted.

Not a lot has changed to suggest that the descendants of those aggrieved slaves are any less aggrieved. The US is engaged in a vast experiment trying to prove that a peaceful multi-racial society after slavery is possible. The jury is still out but I don’t think it is looking good.

byomtov December 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm

The US is engaged in a vast experiment trying to prove that a peaceful multi-racial society after slavery is possible. The jury is still out but I don’t think it is looking good.

Yep. It’s been all downhill since 1865.

So Much For Subtlety December 3, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Peaceful is not a word I would apply to America’s post-1865 race relations. At best this experiment has been running since the Civil Rights era. And the results have been fairly good. But not entirely promising for the future.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Southerners are frequently attacked for being the descendants of slaveowners, but Northeasterners are seldom attacked for being the descendants of slavetraders.

Yet, much of the financial basis of New England progressivism were the huge profits piled up during the Slave Trade. After the Royal Navy turned against the slave trade in 1818, New England shipping families tend to take their accumulated wealth and turn toward careers in education, liberal Protestant uplift, and political and social reform (feminism, abolitionism, tee-totalism, and so forth).

Rahul December 4, 2012 at 12:06 am

Is the fraction of Northeasterners who were slave-traders nearly the same as the fraction of Southerners who were Slaveowners?

Steve Sailer December 4, 2012 at 1:42 am

The great liberal families and institutions of New England tended to have slave-trading backgrounds.

Here, for example, is Brown University’s self-investigation:

But, it’s not a subject that comes up much, just as the story of slavery and the sugar industry in Brazil would not be popular.

Ray Lopez December 3, 2012 at 9:04 am

Well TJ was anti-monopoly, hence his love of small farmers; anti-patent (as in the thread above); pro-miscegenation, and that’s a good thing IMO; pro-Independence, which arguably is good though the USA going the way of Canada would not have been so bad IMO; pro-expansionist (Louisiana Purchase), good for the US; pro-deist, which for athiests today arguably is admireable; perhaps lightweight intellectually but he was well read; founded UVA, where he designed the Rotunda. You cannot judge a person by today’s standards, so all-in-all I’d say he was admireable. After all, all the US founding fathers were a bit larger than life and can be cut down by critics; even George Washington when a younger officer in the French – UK Indian wars allowed certain French to be massacred by Indians after they surrendered to the British.

Cliff December 3, 2012 at 9:45 am

Anti-patent? He was the first director of the Patent Office!

Ted M December 3, 2012 at 10:15 am

Pro-miscegenation? From the linked article: “Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.”

He wasn’t pro-expansionist. He bought the Louisiana Purchase in direct defiance of all his stated ideals and only because the price was too ridiculously low to refuse.

Ray Lopez December 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm

@Cliff: being director of the Patent Office does not make you pro-patent. TJ eschewed patenting his plow invention. @TedM: do as I do, not as I say: did TJ not sire mixed race kids? Or maybe his brother. I think Lousiana Purchase falls in the same category.

fallibilist December 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm
Bill December 3, 2012 at 9:07 am

Agree with the criticisms of Jefferson. But please do not forget Jefferson’s achievements as an architect — maybe the best until Sullivan? Founding UVa should also count for something.

prior@approval December 3, 2012 at 11:04 am

Shhh – most people involved with GMU hate to be reminded that their university was founded as a minor extension of UVA. ‘Named after American revolutionary, patriot, and founding father George Mason, the university was founded as a branch of the University of Virginia in 1957 and became an independent institution in 1972.’

Making this year of GMU’s 40th anniversary. Though considering what I have noticed, GMU seems to be celebrating its birthday with the same sort of vigor it celebrates Mason’s contribution to ensuring theocracy would not become a part of the United States of America as long as Americans remain free under the 1st Amendment.

Christopher Morris December 3, 2012 at 9:32 am

Jefferson was a great architect — the UVA campus is one of the greatest pieces of public architecture in the US. But Tyler is spot on regarding Jefferson’s abilities as a thinker. His drafts are more interesting than the final document, but they makes his ownership of slaves even more baffling or shameful.

Tarrou December 3, 2012 at 9:34 am

Step 1: Repeat well known and unflattering facts about historical figure from one’s own political lineage.

Step 2: Accuse one’s political opponents of never criticizing the same historical figure, apparently without ever actually reading anything ever written by said opponents, ever.

Step 3: ??????

Step 4: Profit!

Foobarista December 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm

This, in various forms, is the Pet Conservatives of the NYT algorithm, used with great effect by people like Bartlett, Frum, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and Dave Gergen. A generalization:

1. Those evil right-wingers aren’t doing stuff that “thoughtful” lefties would approve of, like raising taxes and expanding government.
2. They’re all dastardly hypocrites!
3. But I’m a Real Conservative, even though I think Noam Chomsky is a leading center-right thinker.
4. Books, articles, and talking-head show interviews appear. (And no Underwear Gnome ???’s needed)
5. Profit!

successfulbuild December 4, 2012 at 2:17 am

Uhh… I guess you haven’t seen Manufacturing Consent. David Frum hates Noam Chomsky. I guess you haven’t watched Bill Maher, as Sullivan has slandered Noam chomsky by saying he was an apologist for Stalin, though he often critiqued liberal apologists for Stalin and was always opposed to Stalinism.

Interestingly, some supposed real conservatives could claim his anti-war literature as true conservatism, according to the Paul definition of conservatism, which I don’t think ever existed.

So Much for Subtlety December 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Chomsky says that he is opposed to Stalin. But in reality his attacks are always reserved for people who stand up against Stalinists. He is consistent in his support for Stalinists. It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that Chomsky lies.

Although admittedly I think Chomsky is a Trotskyite. Thus he supports the expansion of Marxist-Leninism everywhere even if it comes in an unfortunate Stalinist guise. While all the time proclaiming Soviet history went wrong when Stalin purged Trotsky.

Kieran December 3, 2012 at 9:45 am

If the prudence of a course of independence can only be judged ex post, perhaps we should reserve judgment on the Catalans as well.

Sewell December 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

Good point!

tt December 3, 2012 at 9:46 am

Step 3: Koch dontation? why thank you!

P Ed December 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

For a superb alternative take on Jefferson, try Vidal’s “Burr.”

Marc Roston December 3, 2012 at 10:08 am

Here are my thoughts…

Seems pretty clear that the so-called arguments proposed by the writers of Monticello’s website don’t understand basic economics, and in fact everything stated there supports Jefferson’s rather unpleasant stance on slavery.

Sanjay December 3, 2012 at 10:41 am

I think I share Tyler’s ideas here, but a good waypost for me is John Quincy Adams — a man of many flaws, but unquestionably a brilliant man of good character and extremely rare intellect. His diaries are revealing. As a child, JQA is in awe of Jefferson’s brilliance and skill. But as a young man, after experiencing something of the world himself, he is amazed by what a flimflam artist Jefferson seems to be: JQA (who pretty much grew up in Westen Europe) incredulously recalls hearing Jefferson regale his dinner guests with tales of how France never sees snow, and that seems to open the floodgates of doubt.

ad December 3, 2012 at 10:50 am

“I have yet to meet anyone on the right willing to deal honestly with Jefferson’s slave ownership.”

Is it really the case that no Republican is willing to call the founder of the modern Democratic Party a hypocrite?

Doug December 3, 2012 at 11:19 am

Liberals love this topic of Jefferson owning a few hundred slaves. Ironically they also love FDR, and no one on the left seems willing to deal honestly with his use of a few million German slave laborers.

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 11:26 am

‘Ironically they also love FDR, and no one on the left seems willing to deal honestly with his use of a few million German slave laborers.’

Please enlighten us on this apparently well hidden aspect of history.

So well hidden that I have never heard it spoken of, even once, after living in Germany for 20 years.

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

My day for posting too fast.

However, the number of times that Germans have told me that America was just one vote short of having its official language be German shows just how effective propaganda can be, even after several generations, this story orginating in the same time that FDR was president, actually.

‘It is likely that the myth of German as the official language of the US first arose in the 1930s, but it dates back to the country’s earliest history and another similar story. Most scholars suspect that the US legend originated as a German-American Bund propaganda move aimed at giving German added weight via the spurious claim that it had very nearly become America’s official language. By mixing wishful thinking with certain historical events in Pennsylvania, the Nazi-influenced Bund produced the national vote story.’

Or this version -
‘It is the theory of the Historical Materials Division of the Library of Congress that the German-American Bund of the ’30s created the national myth out of Loher’s fiction and Lohr’s fact, and circulated it as Nazi propaganda. This theory is bolstered by the fact that the rumor (in its national form) does not appear before that time.’

And who knows, not only is that second link actually relevant to demonstrate just one of Jefferson’s numerous contributions to our republic, but you might even find some like minded people at a place advocating English as our official language.

Doug December 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm
RPLong December 3, 2012 at 11:39 am

You can poke holes in every historical figure that has ever walked the Earth, but few if any of us today will ever be able to impact the world so deeply and so positively that people will still be nit-picking the sordid details of our personal biographies 250 years after the fact. At a certain point, we have to be willing to acknowledge that no person in history has every exactly and perfectly represented our own personal value systems. To fault Jefferson for not being Cowen seems a little silly to me.

Jefferson was one of a couple dozen people who gave the people of the United States a libertarian vernacular. That vernacular is so powerful and emotionally moving that we all really want to believe that the man who wrote those words was a perfect avatar for liberty. He wasn’t Christ, he was Jefferson. That’s good enough. But I’ll never understand those of us who are inclined to poke holes in historical figures who failed to live up to our 21st Century ideals. How much can we possibly expect from one human being?

Tim December 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Christ was also not good on the slavery question.

msgkings December 3, 2012 at 12:23 pm

This comment is hilarious. And also true. Probably hilarious because it’s true.

The Anti-Gnostic December 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Heh. Nor was St. Paul or the Petrine succession. Or Mohammed, or the Buddhas for that matter. And from the other end of the joke, Stalin was good on the single-payor health question and Hitler’s vegetarian diet and teetotalling is an example for us all.

It’s silly to judge historical figures retrospectively. If you thought Africans were incapable of rational decision-making and self-rule, as many people of Jefferson’s time thought, then slavery wasn’t a contradiction. The modern mindset loves to preen, but who knows what current social policy could be considered barbaric in the future.

For the dregs of society, slavery or serfdom is probably their only bargaining chip for some form of dignified employment. Currently, we give the left-end tail welfare, but what happens to them when the money runs out? Libertarians tend not to think too hard about this.

bluto December 3, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I’d have thought libertarians would be pro slavery, so long as it were entered into by concenting adults.

fallibilist December 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Nozick and I are with you.

chuck martel December 3, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Catch-and-release sport fishing will be regarded as fish torture in a few years and high school football will be in the same class as dog fighting shortly thereafter.

derek December 3, 2012 at 11:48 am

The more interesting question is whether Bartlett would have owned slaves if he lived at the time. It would have taken someone willing to forgo economic advantages as well as to challenge the common assumptions of the time. Writing the next ‘republicans are racist’ column for the New York Times shows no of the willingness to do any of those things.

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm

‘It would have taken someone willing to forgo economic advantages’

No, that is not the case for many (likely most) American slave owners, like military officers before the Civil War. Slaves were owned servants – Benjamin Franklin, owner of two slaves, was quite typical of this.

mrmandias December 4, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Owning servants *was* an economic advantage.

sourcreamus December 3, 2012 at 11:51 am

Isn’t saying that Jefferson did not do much worthwhile besides write the Declaration of Independence like saying that besides playing drums for the Beatles Ringo Starr did not contribute much to pop music?

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Hey, Starr stands on his own – ‘”It Don’t Come Easy”, “Photograph”, “You’re Sixteen” all went gold, after all.

He only looks less than stellar compared to Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison.

Andrew' December 3, 2012 at 11:54 am

He owned slaves.

Are we done here?

prior@approval December 3, 2012 at 12:08 pm

As did 4 of America’s first 5 presidents, all being slaveholders while holding the presidency. To expand the scope a bit, twelve of our presidents owned slaves and eight of them owned slaves while serving as president.

But this brief review has a trick ending –

‘The last president to own slaves at all was the eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).’ That’s right, the last slave owner president was a member of the Republican party. And a man instrumental in destroying the slave holding Confederacy.

Are we done yet? I hope not, since historical reality is always so entertaining.

The information comes from , which also has a link to the ‘The Slave-owners in Your Wallet.’ Anyone willing to bet they can name them all? Hint – only one non-owner of slave is found on American paper currency, so it really shouldn’t be too hard.

Andrew' December 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I was gonna say “how ’bout that guy right before Lincoln.”

At least Lincoln killed 600 grand Americans. No pain no gain he was heard to say.

Well, I guess how ’bout that guy AFTER Lincoln, then.

Maybe the other founders just didn’t have much going on.

And there is this:

We are the allegedly enlightened ones.

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I’m confused – are we agreeing on the profoundly racist society which America is? Or on the fact that it has slowly, if only very slowly, it has actually improved over time? To the point that our current president is a man which the commonwealth I was born in tried to legally prevent from ever existing.

A framework only overturned after my birth, illustrating just how slow that progress has been. (Loving vs Virginia – ‘Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967),[1] was a landmark civil rights case in which the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, declared Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924″, unconstitutional, thereby overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. – )

Andrew' December 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I have no idea. All I’m saying is nearly a hundred years after Independence Lincoln still didn’t really end slavery, and he certainly did no do it in a way where a Jefferson would have looked on with an “I could have had a V8 head slap.
Nothing done in war can be taken at face value.

As for today, we imprison 2+% of blacks at any given time. Many of the rest we bribe to stay out of prison.

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm

‘All I’m saying is nearly a hundred years after Independence Lincoln still didn’t really end slavery’

A bullet in his brain after re-election and just as the Civil War was ending might have had something to do with that, it must be noted.

‘Many of the rest we bribe to stay out of prison.’

And here I was, thinking the prison-industrial system was the one handing out the political contributions and favors to keep their business model afloat, especially after the Clinton era reforms pretty much ended a number of Great Society programs, especially in terms of how long one could receive benefits. Though strangely, when large numbers of white Americans were unemployed, benefits were repeatedly extended (supported by politicians in both parties), without a majority of their fellow citizens seemingly worrying about how white Americans were being coddled, or bribed to not commit criminal acts.

Careless December 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm

The guy was conceived out of marriage, and bigamous marriages still aren’t legal.

TheAJ December 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Absolutely a fair criticism.

Do you remember the right-wing attacks on Obama for calling the Constitution an imperfect document? Rightwingers are so convinced of the holy nature of the founding fathers that they go to great hyperbole to whitewash some of their negatives (eg, Michelle Bachmann saying the founding fathers worked “tirelessly” to end slavery) and absolutely hate it when you point out common sense things like the fact that the Constitution, isn’t perfect.

Remove Jefferson, replace with “Mohahmed” and consider the differences in right-wing reactions.

prior_approval December 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Well, the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, took his oath of office on a Koran that had been Jefferson’s. Maybe the ongoing plot to implement sharia law can be laid at Jefferson’s feet too?

DocMerlin December 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Nonsense, Jefferson was the first president to invade a muslim country.
He studied islam because he was curious as to the motivations of the Barbary pirates. After much study and correspondence with said individuals he began to believe that islam was evil. You can read his letters about the subject if you wish.

Barkley Rosser December 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm

John Adams was warring with the Barbary Pirates prior to Jefferson.

derek December 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm

One of the salient characteristics of the constitution is how it limits the power of government by design. It seems that the folks who wrote it didn’t trust themselves nor anyone else with the type of power that a King had at the time. Obama regularly chafes at the limitations to his power by the constitution, it limits his ability to transform America.

Must be that those evil slave owners back then foresaw a time when there would be a black president and they put in place limitations in his power. Evil and omniscient.

TheAJ December 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Are you dense?

Thanks for proving my point.

Right wingers cannot accept the the notion that the Constitution may not be “perfect.”

derek December 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I’m curious. In what way is the constitution flawed?

Historically when someone describes it as a flawed document it is usually in the context of wanting more power. Wilson, for example, someone famous for imprisoning those who disagreed with him, didn’t like the limitations on his power.

So what power do you want to grant to the executive branch that they don’t have now?

TheAJ December 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Do you really believ the document is infallible? How can imperfect men write a perfect text?

The PolyCapitalist December 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Without judging the entirety of Jeffersons’ intellect, contributions, and sins, I will say that Ambrose’s account of Jefferson’s personal tutelage of Meriwether Lewis across an extremely broad range of disciplines, which Lewis would need to understand for the Lewis and Clark expedition, left me quite impressed with Jefferson’s wide ranging knowledge.

Further, if one has a lot of respect for Adams’ intellect then surely that must say something positive about Jefferson’s own given the pair’s long friendship and correspondence.

Last, on the NYT’s use of the title word ‘Monster’, I’d be curious to know if this word choice was a NYT editor rather than the author’s own similar but different concluding title for Jefferson as ‘*master* of Motincello’?

One of the unfortunate tradeoffs with submitting editorials to newspapers is that that you surrender control of the title to an opinion page editor who sometimes takes a little more creative license that you would like!

Jared December 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Yeah, Finkelman has largely based his career on being as scathing of Jefferson as possible. He likes to call Jefferson “creepy.” I doubt very much he objected.

john knox December 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm

“Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex.” The Sage of Monticello, Notes on the State of Virginia, pp.285-86.

The historical ignorance in those two sentences never ceases to astound me. Heliocentrism anyone? Magellan for 100?

Tarrou December 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Once more for the fences. To judge the morality of the past by the morality of the present is to mistake human nature by a breathtaking margin. Abolitionists were like the PETA of their day, politically marginal, personally eccentric, and opposed by nearly all right-thinking people. That they happened to be vindicated by history is the merest chance. And how will we judge those abolitionists who opposed slavery on virulently racist grounds, that it contributed to race-mixing and the like? I’m willing to lay a bet that not a single one of Jefferson’s modern critics would have been so original and radical as to have opposed slavery had they been born to the average american family in the 18th century. Certainly having the intellectual steel balls to go after (gasp!) a man who’s been dead for two hundred years(!!!), the whipping boy of modern sociological history doesn’t suggest the moral courage/insanity necessary for such a position. I daresay those who need to go hundreds of years in the past to be able to make moral judgments to vindicate their modern prejudices suffer from some deep-seated insecurity and basic moral deficit.

anonymous... December 3, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Wait… the eventual abolition of slavery was the “merest chance” of history?

From the perspective of hindsight, it seems more like an utter inevitability, although perhaps only because of technological progress producing mechanical and electronic slaves rather than any genuine moral progress, which would after all require fundamental changes in human nature.

PETA will probably be similarly vindicated some day (on goals, if not on tactics), once people get used, willy-nilly, to eating vat-grown meat.

You do realize, the average 18th century American family didn’t own slaves. They were far too expensive. There wasn’t much of a middle class back then, so the average family was working class and probably not thrilled at the wage-depressing effects of slaves working for free. The modern analogy might be unrestricted immigration: in general, the 1% are more enthusiastic about it than the average working stiff.

TL;DR: easy pop fly to shallow left (if that was a baseball metaphor)

chuck martel December 3, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Utter inevitability where? Slavery still exists in many parts of the world. There are people even today, in the US, in a bondage that must be considered slavery.

Popeye December 3, 2012 at 11:35 pm

To judge the morality of the past by the morality of the present is to mistake human nature by a breathtaking margin.

Then why would anyone bother *lauding* Jefferson? Why does anyone care about the Declaration of Independence? That stupid document was just a product of its times. We have our own present-day morality, why do we need the inspiration of some past document?

vanderleun December 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm

“But as a thinker I find him decidedly mediocre, ”

Although this is only the blogosphere, Tyler, you need to be more circumspect in revealing what a midget you actually are. It will cut down the time you are remembered after death from a week to an afternoon of plaintive fanboy postings.

Therapsid December 4, 2012 at 12:42 am

The Declaration has stood the test of time. It’s not complicated. Some elements of Enlightenment era American republican ideology still hold up and others do not. Jefferson was an exceptional spokesman for the elements that persevere.

Tyler is showing here his pathetic commitment to political correctness. He posts Ron Unz’s expose of absolutely flagrant racial discrimination in American colleges with admitted reluctance but consigns Jefferson to the dustbin of history without second thought. He simply confirms Unz’s argument – WASPS have been supplanted by Jews as the elite of America which works assiduously to ensure that other groups cannot ascend to leadership.

Jay December 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Excuse me for being this guy. but:

We know nothing about how Jefferson treated his slaves. We do know that he gave them a home to live in and food to eat- we know that he most likely bought them from other slave owners, and we know that he taught a few of them to read and speak english. He also left small portions of his fortune to some of his slaves.

Now let’s look at this from an ethical standpoint- either way these slaves were going to be slaves until well after Jefferson’s death. Let’s also assume that most slave owners didn’t teach their slaves to read and write, nor gave them any fortune. Wouldn’t Jefferson buying the slaves from these owners be more beneficial to the slaves? Isn’t it almost even a humanist idea in those regards?

Btw, I have no political affiliations. I just want to try the waters.

So Much for Subtlety December 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Actually, technically, I think you may find it was his slaves that gave Jefferson a home to live in and food to eat. Not the other way around.

Andrew' December 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

If the NYT piece is good, then why does he have to do this kind of thing: For example…

Read this source piece the author links to:

And decide for yourself whether what Jefferson is saying is EXACTLY as the author insinuates that:
“He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.” “

Ray Lopez December 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I read the passage and I think the NYT author is correct: TJ is saying that as a practical matter the US should not prohibit slavery in these territories, in other words, the US should adopt the Sup. Ct. decision of Dred Scott (which happened later). In other words, TJ was pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist on this question, as a practical matter.

Bob December 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm

His tweet is silly even if he has made some good points( and some not so good) in the past. The Iraq war costs were one where reality was right there in everybody’s face yet nobody did simple math saying the numbers don’t work. Some of his other statements I’m not so keen on but you have to give him credit for not sucking up to the right-wing base. His book probably would have gotten much more publicity if he had.

Hans Eicholz December 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Paul Finkelman is an able historian and an able lawyer, but when he writes of the “Monster of Monticello,” no one should doubt he writes only as the latter. He composes a damning brief, but that case has been made countless times before. Finkelman is not even writing amicus curiae, but to join the plaintiffs. The hat he wears becomes clear the moment he writes, “Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.” So, would really like to read history without consideration of the products of the time? Without attention to human complexities? Real history tries to understand context. Succeeding elsewhere, Finkelman does not do so here, and so we lose an understanding of the man in his time.

Barkley Rosser December 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm

The worst thing about Jefferson was his hypocrisy regarding slavery. However, much of the worst of his conduct as denounced by many was due to his poor management of money. Washington was able to free his slaves on his death because he was not buying lots of odd books and fancy wines and had also married the wealthiest widow in Virginia.

He was more than “instrumental” in getting at the separation of church and state. He authored and got passed while he was Governor of Va the Declaration of Freedom of Religion that served as the model for what is in the First Amendment. He was proud enough of this to mention it on his gravestone, where he also mentioned the Declaration, founding UVa, and the Louisiana Purchase. Oh, and he invented the dumb waiter, :-).

If one wants to diss the DoI, the passages about teh blood-thirsty savages are probably the low point.

OTOH, JFK famously said when he had a bunch of Nobel Prize winners in for dinner (or maybe it was just a reception) that it was the most brilliant gathering of intellect in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. I would say that Benjamim Franklin was far the intellectual superior of Jefferson, and Madison might have been a rival, but Nobelists aside, has there been any other president since Jefferson who equaled or exceeded him in intellect? Wilson? Clinton? Anybody? Really.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm

“Washington was able to free his slaves on his death because he was not buying lots of odd books and fancy wines and had also married the wealthiest widow in Virginia.”

Right. The head of the Madeira Wine Society once offered me a glass of madeira from a bottle from Jefferson’s cellar.

Think of the characterization of the spendthrift Mozart in “Amadeus:” perhaps not fair to the historical Mozart, but a pretty good representation of the artistic personality in general. Jefferson was not a systematic thinker, but he was a creative one. Consider, for example, his allegiance to the settlers, the frontiersmen, the small, self-supporting farmers: not a lifestyle he, personally, would have enjoyed, but he was awfully good at celebrating it.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm


I read Clinton’s most recent book. It was inferior in style to G.W. Bush’s memoir. It was one of the worst written books I’ve read in years: basically, it was a laundry list of stuff.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Jefferson was an artist (the finest American architect of his age), and like a lot of artists, he spent money profligately and was perpetually broke. A prudent manager like Washington could afford to free his slaves in his will, but Jefferson couldn’t.

Harold December 3, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Martha Washington had more slaves than Jefferson working at Mount Vernon and they were never freed. Jefferson wished Sally and his children to be free after his death and his daughter did free them.

Steve Sailer December 3, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Jefferson played major roles in solving problems that stayed solved, which is why Tyler can’t figure out why people think much of the guy. For example, Jefferson was crucial in seeing to it that America would turn out unlike England, where a few people own a lot of land, and instead become a middle class country where a lot of people own a little land.

Jefferson led the fight against primogeniture, and he did a lot of the bureaucratic work to set up the federal government’s system of land sales to small farmers based on a carefully surveyed small grid. In contrast, Latin America still suffers from how the King of Spain, not knowing too much about his New World possessions, handed out vast expanses hazily defined. Thus, when Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto first came to the U.S. to meet the American economists, they wanted to talk to him about IS/LM curves, but he wanted to visit a County Registrar of Deeds to see how it worked.

chuck martel December 3, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Jefferson’s un-Constitutional acquisition of Louisiana would have been a big thing in his CV if he’d seen fit to turn it over to the inhabitants.

successfulbuild December 4, 2012 at 2:24 am

This Libertarian critique of the Revolutionary War sounds interesting. I haven’t seen a lot on it, but so far it at least sounds better than Libertarian critiques of Wrold War I and II, which are usually god-awful, especially on World War II (Bryan Caplan, Rothbard, the crowd, and so on ). But didn’t this Cowen endorse the Iraq war?

I don’t think Jefferson was less intellectual than the others. And of course the others committed atrocities and made racial statements as well. But if there is little known evidence about Jefferson supposedly cruelly selling his slaves away from their families to make a point I think it’s good that it comes forward.

BrentR December 4, 2012 at 12:12 pm

He was an excellent politician that was smart enough to draw inspiration from the very best thinkers, up to that time, on topics of government and economics. On top of that, he was a pretty good artist. I wish we were so lucky today to have such people in Washington.

DavidH December 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I don’t know much about Jefferson.The quote at the beginning says something about the man though…a a certain overconfidence (arrogance?) and certainly an expansionist bent. I think we are all better off that American expansion to the north was checked in the War of 1812. December 8, 2012 at 8:49 am

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