One of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our involvement with slavery after the Civil War. While our Founders – people like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence but owned slaves himself – were tarnished, morally imperfect hypocrites, in our modern era, we tell ourselves, we’ve risen above that. We are pure! We’re no longer tainted by slavery!
If only it were true.
The recent fires that killed 112 workers in Bangladeshi sweat shops making garments for Wal-Mart and other American retailers show how we, today, are frankly more hypocritical and dishonest about slavery than was Jefferson himself.
As are those Libertarians who argue that the Bangladeshis were “willing workers,” when poverty is so severe in that country that working, chained into a firetrap factory, is essential to survival itself. To call the working conditions of much of the developing world anything less than slavery is to ignore the power relationships that keep workers behind fences, locked 24/7 in often-violent dormitories, and the companies that string nets outside windows to reduce worker suicides.
It’s to rationalize the role we play in this modern-day version of slavery, the same way 18th Century US slavery advocates (and some modern-day Southern Republicans) argued that slaves at least had free housing, food, and medical care as compensation for their labors.
As I point out in my book “What Would Jefferson Do?,” although Jefferson inherited land and slaves as a teenager when his father died, and more, including his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemmings, when his wife’s father died, Jefferson knew slavery up-front and personal, and worked much of his life to end it.
In April of 1770, Jefferson was practicing law and defended a slave who was requesting his freedom (Howell v. Netherland). In his arguments on behalf of the slave, Jefferson said that “under the law of nature, all men are born free, and every one comes into the world with the right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.”
The year before, 1769, as a legislator in Virginia, he had written a bill to abolish the importation of slaves into that state. It was unsuccessful, and even brought down the wrath of many of his peers on him and his relative, Richard Bland, who Jefferson had asked to introduce the proposed legislation.
In his 1774 booklet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson attacked King George III for forcing slavery upon the colonies, a charge that was repeated in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but deleted from the final draft in order to keep the representatives of South Carolina and Georgia willing to sign the document.
That same year, Jefferson tried to write into the constitution of the State of Virginia a provision that would totally eliminate slavery, starting in 1800, and in 1778 he presented an even more radical bill that would have abolished slavery altogether in Virginia that year. While these attempts failed, he was successful in passing a Virginia law that year preventing any more slaves from being imported into the state.
In 1783, he again unsuccessfully attempted to amend Virginia’s constitution, proposing language that said: “The general assembly shall not… permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this State, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the thirty-first day of December, 1800; all persons born after that day being hereby declared free.”
The next year, he proposed at a national level a law banning slavery in the “Northwest Territories” – the Midwest and western states – and stating that any state admitted to the union would have to declare any person of any race born in that state after 1800 to be a free person. His proposal lost by a single vote, although parts of his proposed legislation were lifted and inserted into the Northwest Ordinance, which became law when Jefferson was in Paris in 1787.
Despite his best efforts, and those of his more firebrand contemporaries like John Quincy Adams, slavery was still alive and well as Jefferson was passing into old age.
In 1820, for example, Missouri and Maine were being admitted as states to the Union, and a fierce debate had erupted over whether Missouri should be allowed to join the nation if it continued to allow slavery (Maine was free of slavery). In the ultimate compromise, which was passed by Congress, Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state.
Congressman John Holmes of Massachusetts wrote to an elderly Thomas Jefferson to inform him of the compromise, and on April 22, 1820, just six years before his death, writing with a quill pen, his hands cramped by arthritis, Jefferson candidly expressed his despair in his response to his old friend and colleague. In it, he foresaw the day, after his canoe or “bark” had crossed the River Styx to his death, when the nation would be torn apart across a “geographical line” over the issue of human beings being considered “that kind of property.”
“I thank you, dear Sir,” Jefferson wrote, “for the copy you have been so kind as to send me … on the Missouri question. … I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant.
“But this momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.
“It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.
“I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. …
“But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
After pondering the legal issues involved, Jefferson – who, as president, had signed into law an 1808 Act banning the slave trade with Africa – finally poured out his anguish in this private letter to Holmes, again foreseeing the unthinkable possibility of a civil war over slavery, which gave the lie to freedom in America and was thus a “treason against the hopes of a world” that looked to America as the beacon of liberty.
“I regret that I am now to die,” Jefferson wrote, “in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
The Founders and Framers, who thought they could take the wolf of slavery by the ears and dance with it to a just conclusion in their lifetimes, were wrong. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and, as Jefferson predicted, the 620,000 Americans who died in the Civil War paid the ultimate price of their failure.
Which brings us to today. It’s easy for us, in this day and age, to look back 200 years ago and condemn Jefferson. He used the cheap labor resource of his slaves to maintain his lifestyle, and the consequence of the failure of his efforts to abolish slavery was a bloody Civil War followed by a hundred years of legal apartheid.
Although he rationalized his slaveholding by keeping them in a style that exceeded that of most poor whites of the day (both were grim by today’s standards), it was, nonetheless, a rationalization of slavery. Jefferson’s lifestyle was made possible by slave labor, and there is no other way to say it. Recognizing that fact, many Americans are righteously indignant and quick to judge him harshly.
Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves?
I’m looking into a camera and teleprompter filled with parts made in countries that use slave and prisoner labor. You’re watching me or reading this on a TV or computer filled with parts made in those same countries. Our rationalization is that no companies in America make many of those components any longer, but it’s just a rationalization, and no less hypocritical than Jefferson’s.
I’m sitting here wearing clothes made by modern-day slaves, and probably so are you. I’m lit by studio lights assembled in countries where workers who try to organize are imprisoned, as are many of the lights in your home.
We rationalize all the products of distant slaves we use – after all, we don’t have to look into their faces like Jefferson did – but it’s still just a rationalization.
The stark reality is that we in America didn’t “end” slavery. We simply exported it.
And it’s so much more comfortable for us to criticize Jefferson and his peers for agonizing over – but still using – slave labor 200 years ago, when we don’t have to look into the faces of today’s slaves who are toiling and dying at this very moment to sustain our lifestyles.
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