This week Crooked Timber seems to be on a bit of a thanksgiving roll, and has various commentaries on the greats of the revolution and the civil war, mostly negative. In amongst them is a nasty little piece on Thomas Jefferson as prototypical fascist racial theorist, which is stirring some aggressive debate. As always there’s some really interesting material in the comments, and it appears that some genuine historians of that era are stalking the comment thread, dispensing their wisdom. At the same time, various defenders of Jefferson are rocking up and throwing stones, and I note that (rightly or wrongly) the response over there to the suggestion that one of the founding fathers was a racial essentialist is very similar to the response that I sometimes see here to my accusations that Tolkien’s work presents a model of inter-war or Nazi racist theory. We get quotes from his letters presented as proof against his public utterances; we get elision of the central question of the debate (did the man propound a racist theory?) with other, less relevant questions (was he a bad man?); we get accusations that it’s all just do-gooding liberal self-haters hating; we get told to leave off because he was just a product of his time[1]. Admittedly the debate as presented there is simultaneously murkier and clearer: Jefferson’s writings are political writings, and he held political influence, so any racial theorizing in his writings is rather more relevant to black people in America than anything in Tolkien’s; but at the same time Jefferson enacted good laws to free slaves, so we have to find a way to understand the laws in light of the speech, and this is not a problem that applies to Tolkien. But I sense that a certain proportion of the American populace, including academia, hold the founding fathers in a similar degree of reverence to that with which the nerd world holds Tolkien, and for those people the challenge of reconciling Jefferson’s private words with his public acts induces a level of distress that is interesting to observe, and I think similar to the distress some nerds feel when they realize that their central, canonical text is also a racist guidebook.

For my lights, I haven’t a clue about Jefferson and I don’t think the founding Fathers should be held in any esteem – we’re 300 years past their due date and the constitution they wrote is a flawed business, as is the Republic they founded. But the debate is interesting[2], and it seems that Jefferson’s defenders can’t cope with the central thrust of the post, which is that Jefferson believed it right to free slaves, but was preparing a quite unpleasant racial theory to justify nasty measures in the aftermath. There’s a lot of evidence presented in comments that having unpleasant views about black people is not inconsistent with being opposed to slavery, so for example Lincoln is quoted as having said:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgement will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… I agree with judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. (emphasis in original)

I think that this kind of position – standing up to your fellow racial equals for the rights of people you think are inferior, in a situation that is rapidly heading towards war – is an enormously brave and noble undertaking, although the stupidity of the beliefs presented there should be self-evident in the modern age. But it shows that we can judge people of previous eras by our modern lights: Lincoln, though he thought black people inferior to whites, still understood the importance of compassion and basic dignity, and his actions and words show that it is possible to demand a certain basic universal compassion at all stages of history. And from what’s written in the main post, it’s not clear that Jefferson was on board with that compassion, and his defenders aren’t able to make a clear argument to state that he was[3]. This is rather disappointing for an academic blog, but not unexpected given the topic.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that similar defensive strategies appear in both debates. I guess it’s a universal hallmark of the fanboy …

fn1: though Chris Y at comment 24 deals with that nicely:

Samuel Johnson also: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

fn2: There’s a cute side-note about Washington in the comments, that players of my Compromise and Conceit campaign will love: during the retreat from New York the British evacuated all their black allies, and Washington, charming soul that he was, made repeated demands of the British that they leave behind “American property” (i.e. several thousand human beings). That’s exactly what the Washington in my campaign would have done too, had he lived. Or perhaps in suing for peace he would have demanded the repatriation of his “property.”

fn3: Though neither his defenders nor the writer of the post seem to be interested in making an effort to reconcile the conflicting opinions Jefferson seemed to hold, which I would have thought was a key part of the task of defending or damning him.