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Who Was the Real Thomas Jefferson?

A heated Op-Ed war among historians is picking up where two controversial new biographies left off this fall.

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Jefferson marveled, with melancholic persuasion, at the sublime scenes that nature, day and night, produced on his mountaintop. And this same man, born into a world of slavery, saw human ownership in terms that he could convert into practical experiments – slaves were pawns in his experiments with fruit trees and rice cultivation, too. Yet he was not a monster. We must always try to assess the true boundaries of the moral universe that existed, as we seek greater insight into the social limitations he and they contended with. It’s hard to do this without making premature judgments, which is why historians continue to find employment.

Still, there is something seductive in Wiencek’s argument. We want to get inside the heads of people who came before, who left a paper trail, whom we can imagine still speaking to us. Salon’s book review editor, Laura Miller, does not pretend to be an archivist of early American sources, and in reviewing Wiencek’s book she positively responded to its stark provocations. It is perfectly reasonable that she would not have identified senior scholars who were missing from the endnotes. And that is what moved experts on Jefferson and slavery to go public in their denunciations of the book. Selective evidence, presented effectively, is how prosecutors stage an argument, and Wiencek is clearly prosecuting his case against Jefferson. His detractors are not “Jefferson defenders,” but scholars whose more nuanced perspectives are absent from his argument.

Over the last two weeks, Op-Eds have rolled and roiled. Legal historian Paul Finkelman, writing in the Times,  said that Wiencek is wrong only in his timing, and that Jefferson was not suddenly roused to racism when he discovered his 4 percent solution–no, he was always “deeply committed” to slavery. Finkelman terms Jefferson “creepy,” fixing understandably on Jefferson’s words in calling free blacks “pests in society” and emotionally primitive. Finkelman targets Jefferson, but at the same time excuses Washington, whose slave-owning experience differed from Jefferson’s only in that Washington was not perpetually in debt as Jefferson was, and could therefore have lived quite well if he had freed his slaves while he was in his prime and set a standard for others to follow. (We should add that even the urbanite Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner, and only freed his slave in his will.)

Everyone seems to have an ax to grind. Professor Finkelman is correct to charge Wiencek with exaggeration. To reduce Jefferson’s views on slavery simply to profit misses all the other ways that he engaged with the institution. This is the problem when a writer takes a very complex man and makes him familiar; this is what scholars call reductionist, wherein one solitary trait stands in for an entire personality.

But to call Jefferson “creepy” reflects Finkelman’s long-held bias. His Jefferson is incorrigible, a morally deformed figure lurking in the bowels of historic memory. When we isolate Jefferson and see his actions apart from those of his fellow Southerners (and a clear majority of Northerners), we miss the larger picture. Of course, he wrote in “Notes on Virginia” that Africans were a “blot” on the American landscape, and it sounds horrifying to our ears; it should. But his language drew on the respected 17th-century travel writer George Best and the ethnographic science of the mid-18th century’s ingenious (if misguided) Comte de Buffon.

We cannot do without historical context. Jefferson’s obsession with blood lines and breeding reflected his reading on animal husbandry and population theories. That is how he came to argue that interbreeding between Africans and Europeans improved the black race. So Wiencek is wrong to limit Jefferson’s view on slavery to the cash nexus alone; and Finkelman, while a deep constitutional thinker, also tends to be single-minded when it comes to Jefferson. For the historical Jefferson, race and procreation were conditioned by forces of culture beyond the obvious–his evolved theory on the “fortuitous concourse of breeders” asserted that uncontrollable human passions made it impossible to breed superior offspring.  So he wrote tauntingly to John Adams in 1813.  Reading Jefferson’s “Notes,” Adams offered unconditional praise, not only overlooking its reprehensible racial arguments but calling Jefferson’s remarks on race “gems” of political expression.  Is Adams creepy for not condemning Jefferson?  When we make Jefferson the measure of all things, we simplify what came before and distort the contested nature of past ideas and practices.

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