Is Jefferson Worth Celebrating?

Happy President’s Day! Last Tuesday marked the 210th birthday of President Lincoln, and Friday would have been the 287th birthday of President Washington. In 1971, most of our civic holidays were moved to Mondays to allow for three-day weekends, and what was originally Washington’s birthday became our modern holiday of President’s day, sandwiched between the birthdays of our two greatest Presidents.

On this President’s day, I want to answer whether the Founders are worth celebrating. Many of them were slave-owners, and this has been used to argue the Founders are unworthy of the title of heroes. This is mostly a tiny group of motivated activists, many of whom are college students, and it would be easy to dismiss them. However, I would like to present a more complex reading on the relationship of our Founding Fathers with America’s greatest sin.

The argument against discrediting the slave-owning Founders generally takes two tracks. The first is that the Founders were “men of their time”, or “we don’t celebrate Thomas Jefferson for being a slave-owner, we celebrate his role in the founding of America.” Both may be true and allow us to show grace towards our predecessors. But both defenses accept the premise that the Founders were totally onboard the institution of slavery. They sound like excuses, and they should only be used in absence of any other possible arguments.

I want to be clear, I am in no way doubting that slavery is evil, the “opprobrium of infidel powers”, as written in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. It is also a fact the many of the Founders were slave-owners of the most brutal sort. Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 slaves and fathered multiple illegitimate children by one of them in a relationship that could hardly be described as consensual. These men were doing evil. But the legacy of the Founders on this issue is more complex than the detractors would like to think.

When I look back on the source material, I am vexed by the Founder’s relationship with slavery. Their actions were obviously deplorable, but their writings, both explicitly and implicitly, condemned slavery. Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence included this complaint against the King George:

“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.”

James Monroe, fifth President and another slave owner, wrote something similar in 1829, blaming the British for bringing the “evil” practice of slavery to America.

In Federalist 42, James Madison (himself a slave-owner), wrote, “happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!”

Patrick Henry and George Washington, both slave-owners, acknowledged in letters that slavery was evil and Washington had his slaves freed upon his death. Jefferson called the institution despotic in his autobiography. The Constitution is very deliberate in not using the word slavery, which looks to me like people are hiding from the truth they already knew – slavery has no place in a land with a commitment to liberty

The lengths these men went to find an excuse for their hypocrisy is almost comical. Thomas Jefferson tried to find scientific support for racial inferiority, and he was a big fan of contemporary scientific and philosophic ideas that supposedly confirmed this idea. A number of the Founders, in particularly Madison and Monroe, supported freeing the slaves and then deporting them back to Africa, the trial run of which produced the nation of Liberia.

These are obviously the actions of hypocrites, but they’re hardly the actions of men who failed to recognize the immorality of slavery. Is it possible they were writing things they didn’t mean? It’s possible, but I find it unlikely. The Declaration of Independence is fine without an overt condemnation of the slave trade. Jefferson would not have included that line if he couldn’t see the contradiction between slavery and a belief in an inalienable natural right to liberty.

To make sense of this, one must understand the evolution of the debate over slavery. From the founding until about 1830, slavery was generally considered a “necessary evil”. Slavery was lamentable, even immoral, but the economy of half the country relied upon it. So for the time being, America would tolerate slavery until progress moved us past it.

But economic usefulness is hardly a sound justification for the oppression of an entire race of people. As abolitionists made this point, the debate around slavery shifted in the 1830s. Led by men like John C. Calhoun, slavery was now considered a “positive good”, because subjugation under the white man was the natural place for black people. As slavery’s defenders sought justification for the continued use of slavery, the debate turned more vile and overtly racist.

Yes the many of the founders were slave-owning racists. But the point I’m making is that they weren’t Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Django Unchained, feeding slaves to dogs to prove a point. They were caught between two competing ideas, a sincere belief in the value of liberty, and the luster of an economic system that ran counter to it. Their legacy reflects this dissonance.

Perhaps the distinction I’ve drawn is irrelevant. As always, I’m learning as I write, and I’d be curious as to other opinions on this matter. But going back to the source material, the proposition the Founders were remorseless doesn’t bridge the gap between rhetoric I believe to be sincere and actions that run so counter to it. Perhaps our Founders deserve grace, at least for understanding the immorality of this peculiar institution.

Those seeking to discredit the Founders would accuse people like me of being unable to accept that our heroes were deeply flawed men. I’d like to flip that on its head. Maybe deeply flawed men are still worthy of being called heroes.

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