An interesting scholarly controversy has broken out among historians. Independent scholar Henry Wiencek has written a book about Thomas Jefferson, a withering assessment called Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. It has been highly acclaimed by the popular press but, as the New York Times recently reported, the reviews from academia have not been so hot. Historians have accused Wiencek of misreading the evidence and not giving proper credit to other scholars.
I’m not so much interested in that controversy, which at any rate I lack the professional expertise to judge. What fascinates me is the way Wiencek’s book has renewed the debate about Jefferson and his legacy. It’s notable that even many of those historians who don’t have much use for Wiencek’s book are scathing in their evaluation of Jefferson. This is quite an about-face from the mixed but mostly positive accounts of scholars like Joseph Ellis from a decade or two ago
For example, in the Times article, law professor Paul Finkelman is quoted as saying, “I think Thomas Jefferson is one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” He elaborated that statement in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, which focused on Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves. The Volokh Conspiracy’s David Post offered an unconvincing rebuttal of Finkelman’s piece.
The most persuasive of the anti-Jefferson cases that I’ve come across recently is Corey Robin’s, which you can find here. Yes, of course we know that Jefferson owned slaves. Compounding that horrific crime against humanity is the fact that, in contrast to other Founding Fathers like George Washington, he failed to set all his slaves free upon his death. As Finkelman notes in his op-ed, Jefferson’s will “emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block.” Not even Hemings herself was set free (though his children by her were).
No, it’s not merely Jefferson’s appalling personal behavior that is so deeply disturbing. It’s the way he proselytized in favor of racism in its most horrific form as ideology and national policy. Robin quotes at length from two of the more repellent passages from Query XIV in his Notes on the State of Virginia. In it, Jefferson writes that, due their moral, intellectual, and physical inferiority, the slaves, if freed, could never live in the same society as whites. According to Jefferson, there were but two “solutions” to this “problem”: deportation or elimination. Robin writes:
If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.” The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history. When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.”
Robin rightly links these sentiments to Nazi ideology about how to deal with “the Jewish question.” The parallels are real, and they are chilling. No wonder why Jefferson is a hero to many of the extremist racists on the American right like Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party types. Yes, the man also accomplished great things, but nothing could atone for the noxious of stench of the deadly, quasi-fascist ideology that permeates his writings on race.