Two very stable geniuses say Thomas Jefferson enslaved people but didn't support slavery

Originally published at: Two very stable geniuses say Thomas Jefferson enslaved people but didn't support slavery | Boing Boing


The nuance required to understand how these two things could be true (TJ owned slaves; TJ also did not support slavery) are exactly why we need a better system of education–one that includes in-depth examinations of how race has to inform our understanding of American history.


I don’t think it’s really that complicated. It’s not “nuance,” just hypocrisy.

Thomas Jefferson knew on at least some level that slavery was wrong but couldn’t bring himself to make any personal sacrifices in the name of ending the practice. Of the more than 600 people he enslaved during his lifetime he freed a grand total of two. He couldn’t even bring himself to free his own enslaved children, who he fathered by raping a child (who was also his sister-in-law).

In practice he never took any meaningful stand against slavery, regardless of the pretty words he wrote about the ideals of freedom.


He wrote extensively about it in his Notes, and his complicated relationship with slavery as well as with his slaves are why it’s so difficult to use TJ as an example for anything. Much of his objection to slavery came from his concern about what it did to whites–he feared that it made whites lazy. Not himself, of course, but as more of the middling sorts had access to slave labor (either by purchasing, lease, or short rentals) he worried that middling whites would lose their willingness to work, and that upper-class whites who didn’t pursue other avenues of intellectual achievement were similarly lazy. He also worried about what would happen to whites if slaves were freed. Likely something along the lines of what happened in Haiti. So, was he opposed to slavery? Yes, but with some nuance and caveats. These nuances can’t be taught in Florida anymore.

And him not freeing his own slaves upon his death isn’t, I think, any kind of statement one way or another. He couldn’t have–he was in too much debt. Even so, Washington freed his slaves, to take effect after Martha’s death. That doesn’t particularly absolve him of anything at all, in my opinion. He was a horribly cruel man who likely set up his slaves for eventual freedom because he was concerned about his legacy, rather than anything approaching a sense of humanity.


“On the one hand, treating people as livestock is arguably the most evil practice ever conceived by human beings. On the other hand, that mortgage isn’t gonna pay itself.”


I think the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s behavior is far, far worse than that example.

It’s conceivable that someone could have either inherited a pet tiger (as Jefferson had inherited the majority of his slaves) or had their viewpoint evolve for the better after purchasing a tiger, realizing that owning such an animal as a pet was inherently cruel but also believing that there was no good way to fix the situation since the animals could not be safely released. Such a person might reasonably come to the conclusion that letting the animal live out the rest of its life in captivity was the only viable option.

Jefferson, on the other hand, profited from slavery, bought and sold slaves, and always had the option to free them. He didn’t even free his own biological children until after his death. Whatever else he may have done in his life, and whatever he felt in his heart of hearts, there’s just no excusing his actions regarding slavery.


Well, more like “his slaves were seized and sold on his behalf to pay his creditors. Him freeing them (which he wouldn’t have done anyway) wouldn’t have happened.”

ETA: He did free a couple of them. 4 or 5, if I recall, in addition to his children who were slaves. That doesn’t absolve him of anything, nor does it outweigh the evil committed during his lifetime. It does add to the nuance.


I still say a person who isn’t willing to face the prospect of financial ruin to emancipate his own children from slavery isn’t actually against slavery.

Heck, he didn’t even agree to release his own son and personal chef James Hemings from bondage until James trained his little brother Peter as a replacement. How fucked up is that?

Posthumous emancipation doesn’t count as an act of benevolence. Even those lucky few (save for two) were kept in bondage until his dying breath.


I seem to remember Washington could not have all of his slaves freed after his death. Many were on loan through Martha’s family so he did not own them. Who ever did own them would not free them.


Washington and Jefferson: Sorry, we’d like to free all of you but the dang government won’t let us.

Enslaved People: Didn’t you literally just fight a war against the greatest military empire on the planet to establish a new system of government based on individual freedom?

Washington and Jefferson: Yeah, sorry. Totally out of our hands.


miss jay gif GIF

But… but… that’s CRT!!! /s


He also wrote quite a bit about the importance of thrift, but could never manage to live within his considerable means. So yes, once he died, his slaves and other assets all went to his creditors. Because of course living somewhat more modestly so that he could have freed those that he enslaved was something that he was incapable of.

He wrote noble things, but was himself a deeply flawed man.


Exactly, and the efforts to see him as “complicated” and somewhat forgivable are basically an emphasis on his noble thoughts and writings that serves as a way of overlooking his actual, cruel, enslaving, dehumanizing behavior.

I mean, doesn’t it make him even worse if he knew his behavior was all wrong but did it anyway?


Better education also may help them to understand that you cannot hold two contradictory things to be true. It bothers me far more than it should that this position/ability has become the de facto standard in many conservative circles.


That has been my contention.


This is something I didn’t know. Sweet jebuus, an honest telling of the truth in history would have affected my choices in picking a field of study. That bit of not freeing your own flesh and blood, looking at your own son or daughter and maybe putting them to the lash, or selling them maybe so you weren’t reminded that you were scum. It’s seldom that I read things that make me physically ill but this is on the verge of making me heave it up.


Yeah, that’s a bullshit excuse. Let’s just assume that the ownership was somehow inviolate (it wasn’t). Did he work them, yes. Martha’s family owning them didn’t mean he had to do that. Did he have to have them beat and their dogs hung if he found them owning dogs, indeed. Martha’s family owning them didn’t cause that. Did he keep some slaves of his own, yes.Did he personally sign the Fugitive Slave Act, that allowed for reclaiming the children of escaped slaves, yeah that too. Even if you assume that he couldn’t free that subset of human beings, he could have just said, it’s cool guys have a nice life. He chose the way he treated them, and no ownership structure or probate law caused that.


Adding generations of insult to injury, the “legitimate” Jefferson descendants were still refusing to allow the descendants of formerly enslaved Jefferson descendants to be buried in the Monticello graveyard or otherwise acknowledged as part of the family until well into the 21st Century.


And, some of them still refuse to acknowledge the truth of it all.


AFAICT the “Monticello Association” still excludes Hemings’ descendants, and the “Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society” exists for the sole purpose of still, today, denying their paternity :disappointed: