A couple years ago, I got into an argument with an acquaintance. About slavery. And whether it was wrong.
In my view, this is not an oversimplification of things. It went something like this. I made the bold claim that because he owned, bought, sold, and raped slaves we should not admire Thomas Jefferson. Despite everything else that he did and the pretty words that he said, he is still not a man worthy of our respect. That was my stance.
This acquaintance made the argument—stop me if you’ve heard this one—that we have to judge people within the framework of their time. Well, let’s start there.
Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist and contemporary—and sort of a friend?—of Jefferson. I mention him specifically because he’s so hot right now, but it is important to understand that he was not alone. There was a massive and widespread abolition movement even before the Revolution.
In fact, as far back as ancient Greece, there were people who questioned the concept of owning another human being, body and soul (and not just exploiting their labor for profit). Indeed, there have always been people who believed that slavery was not just distasteful, but in fact, monstrous and inhumane. Violently immoral.
Which, we must understand: it is. This is not in question. If, in your view, there is any question about this fact, that is, if you think there is any justifiable reason to own another person, then you are a terrible person. If this is true of you, then this article is not for you because it assumes that slavery is immoral and makes no attempt to argue that slavery is immoral.
The fact of the matter is, among the so-called founding fathers, several of them were openly hostile to the concept of owning slaves, despite the fact that their buddies owned slaves. So the argument that they “just didn’t know” about the immorality of owning other humans is utter nonsense.
Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist and he and Jefferson were friends—after a fashion. So what’s more likely?
- Thomas Jefferson was completely ignorant of the moral arguments against slavery.
- Thomas Jefferson was just, like, super conflicted about it, but continued to benefit from it for his entire life and just sort of forgot to free his slaves after he died.
- Thomas Jefferson was a racist prick who owned humans and gave fuck all about the morality of it.
I know where my money is.
I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind.
—Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)
Dude was racist as hell. That’s the kind of thing that not even a Republican would say today… for the most part.
The thing is guys: the dude raped one of his slaves. Sally Hemmings. Oh, you’re telling me it wasn’t rape back then? Yes it was. It was rape. The author of the Declaration of Independence had sex with a human being that he owned as property. That is rape by any reasonable definition.
Six children folks. With his property. And those children were also his property. How in the world did he not think that was irredeemably fucked up?
To his credit, he did free them. After his death. No joke.
Wait, you say I can’t judge the past by the standards of today? Why the hell not? We can’t own other people and have sex with them anymore because we judge the past by the standards of today. We look at each other and say, “Yeah, they were wrong to do that so we aren’t going to do that anymore.” That’s called progress. If we didn’t judge the past by the standards of today, we wouldn’t have laws in place that prevent these sorts of things from happening again. In theory, at least.
A man as intelligent as Thomas Jefferson should have known it. But he was a morally bankrupt aristocrat who only dabbled intellectually in the morality of the issue, but enjoyed the perks just a little too much to be given the benefit of the doubt.
I have several beefs with O.G. Washington, but I have a bigger beef with people who look to him with the reverence that should only be reserved for Fred Rodgers or Keanu Reeves. People just go all gushy about his farewell address, for example. Oh, he warned about the dangers of a two-party system? Really! Well, you know what’s worse than a two-party system? A one-party system. Just ask China. Perhaps a rant for another day.
But what really bugs me is when people claim that he was an abolitionist. Let me spell it out: you cannot be an abolitionist and have 317 unpaid laborers working at your family estate. It doesn’t work like that.
Oh, but he freed them upon his death? So… like Jefferson, he got to enjoy all of the benefits of owning slaves until the day he died, and also get to be praised for his generosity of spirit? You know what that is actually called? Hypocrisy. He was a hypocrite. And, as a slave owner, he was a terrible person. He ate his cake and had it too. It’s disgusting now, and it was disgusting then.
Because everyone who owned slaves was a bad person.