J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Interview with Jefferson Scholar Annette Gordon-Reed

The Harvard Gazette shared an extraordinary interview with university law and history professor Annette Gordon-Reed.

She talks about experiences ranging from being the first black student at her East Texas elementary school to running from the World Trade Center complex during the 2001 terrorist attack.

Here are portions of Gordon-Reed’s thoughts on how Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder and the Adams family were not:
I suppose I have come to know different Jeffersons as I have become different myself, because you notice different things as you get older. And after working on “Most Blessed Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” with my co-author Peter Onuf, I tend to notice vulnerability more than I did before. The book is about him through his entire life, but I would say the perspective is from the older guy looking back over his life, and from that perspective you realize how hard it is to do things.

The Jefferson that I see now is more vulnerable. When I was younger, I saw Jefferson as more powerful than any normal human being. And that tendency to attribute supernatural powers to him helps account for a lot of the anger that people have about him: “Why didn’t you end slavery? Why didn’t you do something about slavery?” And then you think about someone who was a lawyer, a governor, a revolutionary, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was an ambassador, who was a vice president, who was a president, who founded a university, and then you say, “And why didn’t you end slavery?”

I think about the people who say that, and I think about myself. What is it that I’ve done that approaches all of that? And in asking that question, I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things. . . . The goal for the last book was to try to understand him on his own terms, to accept the problematic aspects of his life and work, but to also have a degree of humility in looking at a historical figure who didn’t have the advantages that we have in understanding the world. I am much more concerned about people today who harbor racial sentiments that are destructive, who have had a chance to learn more than somebody who was born in 1743. . . .

I think it’s comparatively easy to be John Adams when it’s not a slave society [in Massachusetts] and there’s no huge population of blacks. It’s not what whites do when there are one or two black people; it’s what they do when there are large numbers of black people, and that is in operation today. John Adams did not grow up in a slave society. He didn’t have the same things at stake.

There’s a famous letter Abigail Adams writes about seeing “Othello” for the first time, in which she expresses revulsion at the idea of this black person with this white person. Their son, John Quincy, wrote a review of the play as an older man in which he basically said: “Desdemona deserved to die.” And abolitionist Fanny Kemble mentions Adams at a dinner party essentially saying she deserved to die for marrying “a nigger.”

So you honor John Quincy for being a great champion of [abolishing] slavery but recognize that he was also stone racist. That’s a contradiction I think people may not know. A lot of these people had really conflicted views about race. Unlike Jefferson, John Quincy tried to do something about it as a member of the House of Representatives. But he was really, really racist.
Of all the Adams family, John Quincy commented most explicitly and unfavorably on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. It apparently bothered him not just because of the man’s old rivalry with his father but also because of his prejudices.

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