In my reading group we’ve been discussing Thomas Jefferson, the man who scribed the Declaration of Independence, became the second President of the United States, built a beautiful home in Monticello, supplied the Library of Congress with its books, helped to found the University of Virginia—and who owned a few hundred slaves, even while President, slaves he never freed during his lifetime and would not allow to be freed even though his friend and compatriot Tadeusz Kościuszko offered him the money to do so.
Jefferson was a great man, but a deeply flawed man, who used the labor of slaves to fund his patrician ways, and who increased his debt load to such a level that he sold his own slaves to continue his life of ease.
He also wrote the following:
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.
Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.
And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him.
With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. — But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one’s mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution.
The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.
I have no easy answer. I suspect Jefferson knew it was deeply wrong and that a just God would judge him, but I also believe that Jefferson was trapped by his own position in society, his wealth, his reputation, and his desire to live an untroubled life, no matter the people who had to be destroyed to do so.
He lived the life of a hypocrite, and all his fine words and good deeds are, when matched against his actions of owning slaves, nothing but a façade of a gentleman. In essence he was not a good man, but an abusive one.
He did not do what was right even though he could do so and had the means to do so. What he lacked was not opportunity or ability, but will: he did not want to free his slaves and do justice.
It’s easy to look at that and to be ashamed for him. Such an intelligent man, such wonderful words, such awful practices. How could he not do the right thing when the opportunity was there? What a tool. What a hypocrite.
His entry in the hall of the founders of the U.S. has an asterisk next to it: Proclaimer and defender of liberty; slave-owner. That asterisk will never go away.
Frankly, we face the same thing today. We have incredible opportunities today to do the right thing. It’s not because we are powerless to change what’s wrong in our society. It’s not that we do not have levers to change things. It is because we do not want to do the hard work required to change things. We do not want our words of freedom and justice and liberty to mean anything if it will inconvenience us, cause us to lose our friends, lead to a crimping of our lifestyle. Our children and future generations will look at us and ask: How could they not have done the right thing, when it was within their power to do so? Why did they stop with only good words and fine sentiments? Why did they not take the next steps and act?
I don’t know how to fix that for you, personally. You’ll have to figure out if you want your words and your preaching to mean anything to others. Me, I’m trying very hard to re-think what I truly believe, and re-evaluate my actions. I do not know what this means in my actions. I do know that just talking isn’t enough. Just writing isn’t enough. Just petitioning and arguing and preaching isn’t enough.