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Thomas Jefferson's reputation has suffered in recent years because of his attitude to slavery. This has been described as ambiguous, racist, changing over time, driven by political dogma or hypocritically saying one thing but doing another. This well-written and enlightening study by John Chester Miller examines what Jefferson said and did about slavery, slaves and free blacks at various times in his long life. The title comes from Jefferson's comments on the 1820 Missouri Compromise which represent the considered opinion of his maturity: that, if freed, former slaves should be removed from the United States but the massive cost of their repatriation and resettlement and of compensating their owners would prohibit this.
Jefferson asked to be judged on his acts not his words and much of the apparent ambiguity in his attitude to North American slavery relates to the wide gap between his repeatedly stated hatred of the institution, the little he did to end it when he held power and his promoting slavery in his later life. Miller suggests that he particularly objected to the enslavement of intelligent people, so he denied the intellectual abilities of blacks. He regarded them, slave or free, as basically inferior to whites, and thought the two races could never live together as equals. He denied civil rights to free blacks and recommended expelling them when slaves were freed. Even if these views were held by many of his contemporaries, they mark Jefferson as a racist.
Jefferson's acceptance of Enlightenment ideas convinced him of the injustice of slavery, but he rarely made it the basis for practical action after his early years. Miller sees his most unequivocal actions as banning the slave trade (not slavery) in Virginia in 1778 and drafting a 1784 ordinance prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territories. Even in his early public life, he proposed only to improve the conditions of existing slaves' and a very gradual future emancipation, but only if the owners agreed. When president, he supported abolishing the international slave trade, which benefited Virginia's slave exports to other US states, but not abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, and he accepted the extension of slavery to parts of the Louisiana Purchase where it had not previously existed. Following his retirement, Jefferson defended the property rights of slave-owners against the natural rights of the slaves, and the rights of states over enslaved individual. Even if, up to the end of his life, he claimed abolishing slavery was the ultimate object, Miller notes that, after 1785, he left achieving this goal to future generations.
Political issues certainly affected his thinking. Before 1800, Jefferson argued that the abolition of slavery in New England was a Federalist attack on the agrarian interest and its property in slaves aimed at weakening republicanism and subverting the Constitution. Friendship for France made him refuse to recognise Haitian independence and support French attempts to recolonise it. Hypocrisy allowed him to condemn Britain for introducing slavery into North America while remaining a major slave-owner, and presenting himself as a yeoman farmer while hiding the slave quarters at his Monticello plantation out of sight of the mansion.
The weakest part of the book is Miller's attempt to deny Jefferson might have fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, suggesting his Carr nephew were the fathers. This has now been disproved by DNA evidence, and his claim that Jefferson's relations with married white women of his class show his character would have restrained him is unconvincing. Sally Hemings conceived six children at Monticello over 13 years when Jefferson was in residence. Although he was only one of several men in the Jefferson patrilineage who could have fathered her children, none of the others were in the vicinity of Monticello at all the likely conception dates. As her owner, he controlled sexual access to her; allowing his close relatives to father her children would be little less a betrayal of his often-stated principles than doing so himself.
Miller's book is a convincing picture of a man whose principles were corrupted by self-interest and political convenience. Slavery made Jefferson's life comfortable, and upholding the interests of planters helped him in Virginian and national politics. Many writers to make excuses for Jefferson as a Founding Father who voiced principles of freedom and equality. However he was quick to condemn others for lacking principles in other areas, but failed to live up to his own in this one. Perhaps the fairest and deserved censure of Jefferson is in the last words of the book; that it is not enough to proclaim an idea; it must be acted upon.
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