Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Revew: Most Blessed of the Patriarchs - Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

Be warned that Most Blessed of the Patriarchs - Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf is not for the faint of heart.  Or for those with a history of fainting while plowing through books that are too intellectual for their own good. And, if you are looking for even a rudimentary biographical sketch of Thomas Jefferson, keep moving people - there's nothing to see here.

Before I go on, full disclosure: I don't like Thomas Jefferson. I find him to be one of the great hypocrites of his millennium and America's answer to Hamlet. Of his many faults, the one that I've always come back to is his hypocrisy on slavery and the fact that, in my opinion, for too long - over 150 years of Jeffersonian scholarship since the end of the Civil War - Jefferson has escaped virtually unharmed from his [and his fellow Founders'] responsibility for the carnage of that war due to his unwillingness [and not just his inability; you have to be willing before you can find out that you're unable to do something] to end slavery at the outset of the Republic.

That's my preface to the review. Certainly Gordon-Reed and Onuf do not condone or even forgive Jefferson for this greatest flaw.  But, in my opinion, they end up doing exactly what they say at the outset that they won't do: become apologists for Jefferson's hypocrisy.

An interesting point the authors make is to imagine if Jefferson - like many other southern leaders who had been moderately antislavery in the 1780s only to become staunch defenders of the institution after it had become further entrenched in the southern economy - had made a similar switch.  As the authors write, though, "Jefferson… never made the pivot to the nascent proslavery ideology that would have rationalized his life in an instant; he would be deemed understandable and consistent had he been a slaveholder who proclaimed that slavery was a moral institution. Instead, he lived a paradox, pushing the resolution of the [slavery] problem off into a future in which the members of his community (whites, that is) became ready for a revolution in public opinion brought on by the persuasion, perseverance, and patience of the enlightened advocates of emancipation and expatriation."

But after declaring at the outset that they would not be apologists for Jefferson, the authors go on to 'explain' why Jefferson didn't do what he didn't do.  The authors write, "Jefferson could tell himself that he understood what had to be done [about slavery] even as the great majority of his fellow statesmen manifestly did not. He could also tell himself that history was on his side. Just as he 'hoped' the people were virtuous enough to resist despotic designs against their liberties - his belief that chaos would not reign if the machinery of government were interrupted - so he hoped that a way would be prepared 'under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the Masters, rather than by their extirpation'. Framed in these binary terms as a stark choice between 'the consent of the Masters' and their 'extirpation', Jefferson was confident that enough people in Virginia would eventually see the light, for the stakes were high and clear."

At least the authors admit that Jefferson's logic was faulty; though, again, they counter that with another apology. They write, "In retrospect Jefferson's faith in the future seems absurdly misplaced. But he did, in fact, see a way forward, even in the dark moments when the death of his wife destroyed his dreams of domestic happiness and when he contemplated the ignominious ruins of his [early] political career." According to the authors, Jefferson had an alternative vision of a white Virginia, "'Peopled by farmers who looked to their own soil and industry', not by planters who exploited slave labor. Focusing on the opposition of virtuous farmers to would-be aristocrats in the gentry who owned the vast majority of Virginia slaves and who were naturally reluctant to forfeit their political power and social preeminence, Jefferson could foresee the progress of an enlightened public opinion that would infuse the regime and it's statesmen with the 'substantial and genuine virtue' of the 'mass of cultivators'. As society progressed, [Jefferson] and his kind would eventually disappear."

While Jefferson did not become an ardent defender of slavery, he did seem to change after his return from his time in Paris.  The authors write that, after returning from France in 1789, "Jefferson appeared to retreat on the subject of slavery. Though he continued to the end of his days to call it an evil, he declined to be an active agent for change. Instead, as an official of the new nation [becoming the first Secretary of State under President George Washington], Jefferson turned his attention elsewhere - to the development of the government of the United States along the lines he favored. He put the project of emancipation (a state matter) off onto later generations of Virginians and others who lived in slave states."

The authors address one of the keys to black-white relations in Virginia in the 18th century.  It's worth noting that in his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote about Native American men and women; and about black women.  Missing, however, was any comments about black men.  Why?  The authors answer, "In part, [the answer lies] in the workings of the patriarchal world that Jefferson inhabited. Patriarchy is not simply about male domination of women. It is males against males, and white men's sense of competition with black men and their fear of them were fundamental to Jefferson's worldview. These deep feelings expressed themselves most often in fantasies of what black men might do if not controlled and in the spreading of canards about their basic nature [sexual endowment, etc.]. This was all very outwardly directed. Not much self-reflection was going on, and certainly no consideration that the problem might lie with white people's attitudes and their way of treating black men. Had Jefferson and other whites been willing to change, their relationship to black men would have changed too. Jefferson's belief that masters and slaves in America existed in a state of war almost inevitably led him to fixate upon black men and their potential as warriors. When he thought of slave rebellions, he thought of black men. Though whole families of enslaved people decamped to the British during the American Revolution, it was black men who bore arms and engaged in violent confrontations with their former masters.... Seeing slavery as a state of war also fueled Jefferson's view of black men as potential sexual threats to his and other white males' ownership of white women's bodies. He was certainly not alone in this. White males' sexual anxiety also played an integral role in their competition with and fears about black men, though this was not something Jefferson could ever admit to in writing.... Jefferson and his cohort evinced much more concern about black men having sex with white women than about white men having sex with black women. Virginia had codified this anxiety - written long-standing legal rules that punished black male-white female sex severely, while largely ignoring sex between white men and black women. In the rare cases in which a white man got into trouble for having sex with a black woman, it was a man from the lower classes."

So, what of Sally Hemings and the children Jefferson fathered with her?  There is no doubt, now, that Jefferson did have a long-standing relationship with Hemings - not just simply sexual episodes. How was he able to justify this? How was he able to 'blend' his children with Hemings and his two white children into a 'family'?" Granted, such blended families were not at all unusual in Virginia at the time. Still, the authors write, "Southerners who visited Monticello would have found the interracial mixing there familiar, for it was one of the features of slavery. But even they were surprised by Jefferson's failure to be more circumspect. He could have moved Hemings and their children off Monticello, putting them out of sight of his legal family and visitors. It is doubtful he ever thought to do so. He [had] built his house on the mountain to suit himself."

And from that mountain, as regards slavery, he did nothing. His hypocrisy would have bloody consequences 35 years after his death.

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