LINES OF THE DAY

". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, June 21, 2013

Thomas Jefferson, Slave Owner, In the News Again

In the Los Angeles Review of Books: Lawrence P. Jackson on Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves and River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.

Jackson begins with Henry's Master of the Mountain.  For him, that on Jefferson's Monticello  ..."the fact of the “small ones” being beaten meant something to me personally, because my own father’s grandfather was not freed until the Civil War ended, when he was 10."

He includes this family information following a long paragraph about his own experience with the suppression, elisions and white washing by generations of historians about Jefferson the slaveholder:

As a graduate student reading the work of Jefferson, chiefly the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia, I was unaware that the edited materials I had at my disposal in the library contained anything less than the complete historical record. I was still rather na├»ve, and expected the evidence of brutality to lie easily on the surface; I did not yet have a sophisticated sense of the kind of digging necessary to obtain an alternative perspective on enslavement from the documentary evidence left by slaveholders. This is not to say that my own mother wit had left me. I suspected that any number of accredited history books were based on lies constructed to justify genocide. I simply couldn’t prove it. My professor, a renowned Jefferson scholar who appeared on national news programs during the Fourth of July, emphasized (I assumed for my benefit) that Jefferson was a kind master. Thus, I was quite surprised to learn of the suppression, in Edwin M. Betts’s 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, of a line from the president’s correspondence about the routine of brutalization meted out to enslaved children. Jefferson’s overseer regularly whipped “the small ones […] for truancy.” It was partial scholars like Betts, and not merely Jefferson’s own descendants, who created a record of piety and purity for Jefferson that he did not deserve. It’s important to understand this: that the attempt to paint a portrait of Jefferson that tolerant liberals could stomach is what produced the whitewash. The more we seek to make slavery better, the worse we make it.
Jackson continues with a rundown of Jefferson's cruelties of commission as a slave owner.  He follows up with two cruelties of ommision, including his infamous behavior with the slaves gifted to Thaddeus Kosciuszko by a grateful Republic for the Polish freedom fighter's heroic actions in the War of Independence:
.... Edward Coles, a prominent Virginian who served in James Madison’s White House, regularly wrote to Jefferson, begging him to lend his national stature to the emancipation cause. “Liberate one-half of our fellow beings” from “ignominious bondage,” the young man requested. In response, Jefferson told him that enslaved Africans “are pests in society by their idleness.” In 1819, Coles undertook something he had “long been anxious to do,” and which required courage: he took the people he owned, traveled to Illinois, purchased land, and “made up my mind to restore to them their immediate & unconditional freedom.” The young squire went to his patron for guidance and gave better than he got. A second example proves that Jefferson had opportunities to end the bondage of at least some of the people that he owned, but preferred not to set them free. In 1817, Polish Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko desired to have Jefferson execute a trust of $20,000 and purchase freedom and land for as many black people as the number might have freed. Jefferson decided to ignore his friend’s request.*

The slaves and land were eventually sold;  the proceeds went to Kosciuzko's nearest living relative, who owned serfs in what was now part of one of the three empires that had divided Poland among themselves: Prussia, Russia and Austria, all three of which found the very idea of liberty for anyone not of royal and noble family anathema.

Jackson concludes sadly, despite the careful work that historians like himself and Wiencek do, that by now no one can put right the history of Jefferson and slavery.  There has been too much dedicated whitewash of Jefferson, starting with Jefferson's own organized, assiduous efforts. Or, as Henry himself concludes: “Jefferson’s unchangeable symbolic role is to make slavery safe."

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 In Jefferson's time there were accusations that Jefferson had appropriated the $20,000 Kosciuszko had given him in trust to buy the slaves' freedom.  So far this has not been definitively proven. As it took some time to prove to contemporary historians what was known in Jefferson's time, that he had a slave mistress and fathered children with her, the documentation for this act may also be found, under the whitewashing, elisions and suppression earlier historians have worked on the Jefferson papers.  There are many volumes yet to be published of Jefferson's papers.

1 comment:

Foxessa said...

Of equal if different interest, is an interview with Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain, here:

http://www.thestraddler.com/201311/piece3.php

For example:

Because the image of a benevolent Jefferson is crucial to our culture, Jefferson escaped any general disapproval or condemnation when DNA and historical evidence linked him to a relationship with Sally Hemings. Before the DNA study, there was a consensus that Jefferson would be ruined if it could ever be proved that he had fathered slaves with Sally Hemings. It would reveal him as a liar, a rapist, and an exploiter of the worst kind. Then the DNA tests came out, and there was an immediate reversal. We said, well it’s a good thing: Jefferson was a secret, tormented lover; a secret, tormented father of a proto-multicultural family. The transformation was incredible. When Sally Hemings was revealed as Jefferson’s sexual partner, we didn’t want her to be categorized as a victim or as someone who was sexually collaborating with the master to get better treatment for herself. She had to be transformed into a proto-modern woman who made good choices.

The way was prepared in the 1970s when Fawn M. Brodie released her biography of Jefferson and presented the relationship as a secret romance.[2] Brodie was able to get away with that—and Annette Gordon-Reed painted a similar picture[3]—at the cost of distorting what Madison Hemings said in his memoir.[4] Hemings called his mother a concubine—a very harsh word. His whole memoir is a melancholy, even bitter recollection of his life at Monticello. He says that his father all but ignored him and his siblings, that Jefferson was not in the habit of showing them any affection. Hemings does not give any examples of time he spent with Jefferson, his father. It’s a memoir of alienation and abandonment. So in order to present a happy image of a secret multicultural family with strong emotional ties, you have to completely ignore what the son said