Plenty of people like to deride the Founders as dead white males possessed of privilege. Readers of this blog will already know how I feel about that. In a nutshell, I believe that the Founders were brilliant political philosophers and truly heroic in their aspirations -- regardless of their gender, color, or income. I don’t accept the argument that their vision for American government was tainted by the self-interested motives of the propertied few. But I do understand that, in idolizing the Founders as I unashamedly do, there is a need to take seriously the fact that many of the Founders owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was invested in the Virginia slave economy.
It’s not easy to reconcile Jefferson the slave owner with the Jefferson who tried to add a passage to the Declaration of Independence that soundly repudiated the practice of slavery (and lost by one vote), or the Jefferson who frequently wrote about the “moral and political depravity” of slavery. Yet, I think that this is an effort worth taking, because doing so may usefully illuminate the dilemma of being idealistic in an era of moral compromise.
|No less a hero for being human.|
Let’s consider a contemporary issue. Let’s assume that the consensus of climate scientists is accurate and that the continued burning of fossil fuels will ultimately cause sea levels and temperatures to rise to the point that many human beings will die or otherwise suffer harms and privations. There are people who believe that this is what the future holds for the human race, but they nonetheless own cars and may even drive to work each day and not even bother to reduce their carbon footprint by carpooling or planting trees. Are they hypocrites? Are they insincere in their desire to see a greater effort by governments to address the issue of climate change? Is this simply another example of a foolish citizenry that is willing to demand more from government than they demand of themselves?
I suspect that many Americans have gazed into the mirror and seen their own hypocrisy and as a consequence have opted to remain silent and passive rather than crusade for issues that they care deeply about. And it is indisputably clear that people who speak out about climate change are in danger of having their voices drowned out by other voices loudly accusing them of hypocrisy. If you visit the
conservative reactionary news site Breitbart and look at the news from January of this year, you will
see the following in big bold print: “A squadron of 1,700 private jets are
rumbling into Davos, Switzerland, this week to discuss global warming and other
issues as the annual World Economic Forum gets underway (source).”
Thomas Jefferson recognized his own hypocrisy. In a revealing passage from his writings, he disclosed the fact that his personal financial situation was bleak. He added, “The torment of mind I endure till the moment shall arrive when I shall not owe a shilling on earth is such really as to render life of little value. I cannot decide to sell my lands. I have sold too much of them already, and they are the only sure provision for my children; nor would I willingly sell the slaves as long as there remains any prospect of paying my debts with their labor.”
Here it is clearly laid out. Jefferson, that great champion of equality and critic of slavery, was himself a slave in his own eyes. He saw no alternative source of income to provide for himself and his family. And he spoke at length about the fact that working people of his time were enslaved by wealthy capitalists. “And with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of their employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave? But do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity. But I am, at present, comparing the condition and degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of one color, with the condition and degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of another color; equally condemning both (emphasis added).”
To more fully appreciate Jefferson’s views on slavery, consider the following passage from a man that Jefferson acknowledged to have been a powerful influence on his political philosophy: Montesquieu.
"Slavery, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel ... where it is of the utmost importance that human nature should not be debased or dispirited, there ought to be no slavery. In democracies, where they are all upon equality; and in aristocracies, where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavors to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have."
What makes this passage particularly important is its implicit construction of what may be characterized as a slave mentality: the slave, it is said “can do nothing through a motive of virtue.” The slave is compelled to prioritize subsistence above other more idealistic, public-spirited aims. Conscious of this reality, Jefferson decided that he should not remain silent on the issue of African chattel slavery, despite being tainted by his own participation in the slave economy.
I suggest that Jefferson’s writings reveal a valuable and timely truth: today, we are all tainted by our complicity in partisan politics and the politics of self-interest. We are all tainted by our participation in an economic system that is designed to transfer wealth from the many to the few. We are all compromised. But this should not prevent us from championing ideals.