Thomas Jefferson and the Divinity of the Founding Fathers

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

An alert reader points out that I missed perhaps the most disturbing angle of Thomas Jefferson's long relationship with the slave society of America. In 1798, the Revolutionary War general Tadeusz Kosciuszko, hero of America and his native Poland, named his good friend Thomas Jefferson as the executor of his will. Kosciuzko wrote the following:


Thaddeus Kosciuszko being just in my departure from America do hereby declare and direct that should I make no other testamentary disposition of my property in the United States I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name, in giving them an education in trades or otherwise and in having them instructed for their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them good neighbours, good fathers or mothers, husbands or wives and in their duties as citizens teaching them to be defenders of their liberty and Country and of the good order of society and in whatsoever may make them happy and useful and I make the said Thomas Jefferson my executor of this

Kosciuzko died in 1817. Jefferson declined to execute his old friend's will. It has often been said, in Jefferson's defense, that he could not have emancipated his slaves without subjecting himself and his family to some amount of poverty. I find that argument about as morally compelling as claiming that a billionaire banker must continue dealing fraudulent balloon-payment mortgages, lest he sink into poverty. Doing the right thing hurts. That's the point.

But even taking the argument at face value, it doesn't actually reflect history. In his lifetime Jefferson only freed two slaves. With Kosciuzko's will, he had the chance to free many more. Jefferson declined, and when he died, his human property was divided like cattle and put upon the auction block.

There's a temptation here to rage against a man who preached the evils of slavery in public, actually tried to talk others into continuing to hold slaves in private, and then refused to act on his own words, even when it would have cost him nothing. I think this instinct only works if you understand slavery strictly as an economic system. But as we've discussed before, slavery was the foundation of antebellum society. Like, say, home-ownership, the owning of people and pilfering of their labor, was a social institution. 

From James McPherson's This Mighty Scourge:

"The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death," a South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. "The South cannot exist without African slavery." Mississippi's commissioner to Maryland insisted that "slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity." If slave states remained in a Union ruled by Lincoln and his party, "the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone." 

If these warnings were not sufficient to frighten hesitating Southerners into secession, commissioners played the race card. A Mississippi commissioner told Georgians that Republicans intended not only to abolish slavery but also to "substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races." Georgia's commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, "we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything." 

(As an aside, I love that last quote. Someone commented the first time I posted this "Ha Ha--You forgot black president!" Moving on.)


An Alabaman born in Kentucky tried to persuade his native state to secede by portraying Lincoln's election as "nothing less than an open declaration of war" by Yankee fanatics who intended to force the "sons and daughters" of the South to associate "with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality," thus "consigning her [the South's] citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans ..." 

This argument appealed as powerfully to nonslaveholders as to slaveholders. Whites of both classes considered the bondage of blacks to be the basis of liberty for whites. Slavery, they declared, elevated all whites to an equality of status by confining menial labor and caste subordination to blacks. "If slaves are freed," maintained proslavery spokesmen, whites "will become menials. We will lose every right and liberty which belongs to the name of freemen."

Jefferson may well have intellectually understood slavery's great evil, and I don't think any non-slave has explained it better. But there is no reason why this immunize him from the social pressures of his class. Jefferson may well have not liked holding slaves. But he loved the society that came from it. That society was a republic of white supremacy. And the next generation following Jefferson would dream of stretching that republic down into the tropics. The way Lenin believed in communism, the way we believe in capitalism, that is the way Jefferson's heirs believed in white supremacy -- so much so that they would come to denounce Jefferson. 

From the great John C. Calhoun:

I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.

It seems clear to me that one can salute the ideas of a founding father, and at the same time condemn his cowardice when it came to putting them in practice. In other words, Jefferson can be both the intellectual father of this country and a notorious violator of the very ideas he put forth. 

But is that too cerebral an approach? When we say "founding father," do we actually mean God? From ekapa in comments:

... For a nation whose foundational myth is deeply invested in virtue rather than conquest, a founding father who is a sociopath is extraordinarily problematic since virtue by its very nature is a personal rather than abstract quality. 

Yes, Jefferson's contributions were indisputably brilliant and awesome in their import, but in the realm of virtue, brilliance and perception are not leading indicators. In effect the foundational myth of the USA is one of personal morality. This is a nation whose basis is is personal rather than some abstract heroic or divine dispensation. Acknowledging Jefferson's sociopathy if done seriously and thoughtfully, threatens the edifice.

I think this gets at a lot of what I've been missing. I don't really think of Jefferson as "virtuous." I don't think of Lincoln as "virtuous." I'm trying to think of anyone (outside of my family and friends) who I'd apply that to, and I'm coming up blank. I just don't know these folks like that. I've long thought that Malcolm X's recreation of himself was "virtuous." I think King was "courageous" which is a sort of virtue.

But getting back to this comment, I think it hits on a lot of the problems when we talk about Jefferson's moral failings. It's not enough for Jefferson to have laid the ideological foundation for equality. He had to have practiced it, too. And anything contradicting that, anything that can't be hand-waved away in a kind of "Yawn!ManOfhisTimesTLDRMovingOn" sort of way, really troubles the waters.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/thomas-jefferson-and-the-divinity-of-the-founding-fathers/266099/