Rethinking Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics
November 25, 2015
[James Bacon is the publisher of Bacon’s Rebellion: Reinventing Virginia for the 21st Century, from where this post is reprinted, with permission.--JW]
Students at the College of William & Mary have carried on a long tradition of festooning the campus statue of Thomas Jefferson with accouterments ranging from woolen scarfs to party hats. The latest fad is to append the effigy with sticky notes denouncing the founding father as a slave holder, a racist and a rapist. The activity imitates a similar movement on the University of Missouri campus, which has been coupled with a petition to remove a Jefferson statue on the grounds that it was offensive to idealize someone who owned and raped slaves. I don’t know if the anti-Jefferson movement will gain the same momentum at William & Mary, a public university in a state where Jefferson is revered like no other historical figure. But, given the tenor of the times, some kind of debate is inevitable.
I find the negative sentiments expressed in the sticky notes to be indisputably true at one level and profoundly misinformed at another. True, by today’s standards, Jefferson’s views and behaviors were reprehensible. He did own slaves. He did sell slaves and break up slave families. He most likely (though not indisputably) did keep a slave woman as a concubine. He did believe blacks to be inferior to whites. It is not unreasonable to ask why, for all his brilliance as an author of the Declaration of Independence, a United States president, an architect, the founder of the University of Virginia, and all-around polymath, we should continue to hold him in such high esteem (or, for that matter, why we should esteem any member of Virginia’s slave-holding aristocracy).
The case I would make for Jefferson (along with James Madison, George Washington, Patrick Henry and George Mason) is not that they reflected 21st-century sensibilities, which they clearly did not, but that they articulated values and principles for the first time in history that laid the foundation for the values we hold today. We could not have gotten to where we are today had Jefferson & Company not laid the groundwork.
Colonial America imported its institutions and mental constructs from a Europe that was emerging from the Middle Ages. Collective entities such as towns, cities, guilds, social classes and ethnicities — not individuals — were imbued with rights. When Nathaniel Bacon led a revolt against the autocratic Governor Berkeley of Virginia in 1676, leading a rag-tag band of impoverished farmers and freed slaves, he called for a restoration of the “rights of Englishmen.” Virginians were entitled to rights and privileges, embodied in the Magna Carta and common law that their ancestors had fought for and won. But those rights were not regarded as universal; they were peculiar to Englishmen and derived from English institutions. Jefferson’s great contribution was to draw from Enlightenment-era principles to argue that all men were endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Essentially, he reinterpreted the rights of Englishmen as rights applied universally to everyone. In Jefferson’s formulation, rights did not belong to collective entities; they belonged to individuals, and they were intrinsic to a person’s existence as a human being — the core principle of 21st-century political thought.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Jefferson is that he articulated principles in direct conflict with his own material self interest as a slave holder. While Jefferson indisputably failed to live up to his own principles, it is intellectually facile and lazy to end the discussion there. It is a truism (and one of Karl Marx’s few useful insights) that economic and social classes, either the rulers or the oppressed, create ideologies that support their material self interest. One must ask: How many ruling elites in the history of mankind have ever developed a governing philosophy that undercut their material self interest? How many ruling elites in history have wrestled with the dichotomy between those principles and the way they actually lived their lives, as Jefferson, Madison, Washington and others did? The answer: precious few. Indeed, I cannot off-hand think of any other ruling elite in the history of mankind that has done such a thing.
Jefferson articulated principles that most Americans, including the people who now despise him, hold dear today. We should revere him for making the leap from rights rooted in collective entities to rights applying to all. We should respect him for making that leap in contravention of his own material self interest, and appreciate the fact that the contradiction haunted him until his dying day, even if he failed to free all his slaves and impoverish himself in the process. The journey to equal rights for all Americans certainly did not end with Jefferson, but it started with him, and he rightly deserves a place in our pantheon of heroes.
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