The public discussion of Thomas Jefferson and slavery continued this month as The Atlantic Monthly’s Ta-Nehisi Coates posted an essay about a comment that the third President was caught in an “economic system of which no alternative was readily available.” That appears to be a quotation from a commenter, but Coates didn’t single out the author. It has been, as he wrote, a rather common claim.
Coates noted how Jefferson had counterexamples within his own circle, genteel planters who freed their slaves in different ways: President George Washington, his own cousin John Randolph, young correspondent Edward Coles, and the religiously-minded Robert Carter III. As I’ve written someplace before, the idea of emancipation was definitely in the marketplace of ideas during Jefferson’s career. He chose not to buy into that idea because ultimately he found the price too high.
Jefferson made his choice despite what Coates called his extraordinarily eloquent condemnation of slavery. In past decades authors glossed over the mismatch between the third President’s rhetoric and behavior, but that topic appears at the heart of many recent books. However, earlier portrayals of Jefferson as a champion of liberty for all still influence popular conceptions. That means complaining against the received image of Jefferson depends on what one has actually read.
In his next posting, Coates addressed the controversy over Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s will. He also wrote:
There's a temptation here to rage against a man who preached the evils of slavery in public, actually tried to talk others into continuing to hold slaves in private, and then refused to act on his own words, even when it would have cost him nothing. I think this instinct only works if you understand slavery strictly as an economic system. But as we've discussed before, slavery was the foundation of antebellum society. . . .This fall the Kosciuszko will has been one item of dispute between Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain, and Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello. A commenter said Coates’s summary of the issue was too simple, and he agreed.
It seems clear to me that one can salute the ideas of a founding father, and at the same time condemn his cowardice when it came to putting them in practice. In other words, Jefferson can be both the intellectual father of this country and a notorious violator of the very ideas he put forth.
But then Coates went on to quote Gordon-Reed’s critique of Wiencek as a “defense of Jefferson” that “implicitly assumes that Jefferson bears no moral culpability, that Kosciuzko is ultimately (and seemingly totally) at fault.” I think that was also simplistic, seeing a “defense” in a reminder that the situation was more complicated than described in the book she was reviewing.
Gordon-Reed sent a reply, which Coates featured in yet another post. It noted racist statements even from emancipator Edward Coles and concluded:
Many today do not want to face the fact that white supremacy was as much a part of the founding ideology as republicanism. Beating up on TJ, as if he were some singular case, is part of the denialThat prompted more discussion, which Gordon-Reed, Coates, and Wiencek all joined. This might have been the most interesting discourse of the series.
Coates and some of his commenters argue that it’s valid to criticize Jefferson more harshly than other slaveholders of his time because he wrote so well about the harms of slaveholding. As commenter “abk1985” wrote to Gordon-Reed:
The difference here on this blog from what you do is that we are much more likely to make moral evaluations rather than simply attempt to understand historical personages. So there's a kind of built in conflict here.Gordon-Reed’s reply:
Writing history is for me a moral enterprise, but there are different ways to show that. I don't think anyone who has read my books and articles about TJ would think I have not been critical of him when appropriate, witheringly critical at times. My point in writing this post was to make it clear that there were more moving parts to this machine than have been described. As I said in another post, I've existed in this strange position where some people are absolutely convinced that all I want to do is destroy Jefferson and others are absolutely convinced that all I want to do is to protect him. I don't approach TJ, or the founders, with any notion that my goal is to hold them to a standard. I don't "expect more". I don't expect anything beyond what my knowledge about them, gleaned from my study of them, suggests they are capable of doing at any given point of their lives, and what their society would have allowed them to do.