“Why Don’t People Get It About Jefferson and Slavery?”
So asks David Post, writing at Volokh, in a thoughtful piece that takes to task Paul Finkelman’s insipid and historically inaccurate revisionist reimagining of Thomas Jefferson, which the NYT Op-ed page titles “The Monster of Monticello”.
The founding generation, Finkelman writes, helped perpetuate a “treason against the hopes of the world,” by “fail[ing] to place the nation on the road to liberty for all,” and “no one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.”
This is truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense. The truth is that few people in human history did more, over the course of a lifetime, to “place the road on the road to liberty for all” — and indeed, to eliminate human slavery from the civilized world — than Jefferson. Don’t take my word for it - take Lincoln’s (who was himself, of course, one of those “few people”). ”I am sustained by Mr. Jefferson” he said, in 1858.
The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success. Some dashingly call them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.” These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect—the supplanting the principles of free government . . . We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.
This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.
All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
That “abstract truth” being, of course, that all men were created equal, and that all had inalienable rights to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. Taking his cue from the 25th chapter of the Book of Proverbs – “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” – Lincoln went on:
“The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken.
It was Jefferson, Lincoln wrote, who realized that “there was a question of God’s eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah – that when a nation thus dared the Almighty every friend of that nation had cause to dread His wrath.”
Maybe Lincoln didn’t understand what was going on as well as Paul Finkelman now does, but I regard that as unlikely.
Why is this so hard for people to see? Even if Jefferson had done nothing more than pen those words and get them inserted into the foundational document for the new country — and he did plenty more, see my paper here — declaring that principle to be a self-evident truth and at the foundation of any legitimate government was an act of political courage, not cowardice or hypocrisy, at a time when slavery was at the heart of the way of life and an economy across vast swaths of colonial America. Maybe Prof. Finkelman would have come up with a way to more quickly eliminate the institution from the new republic than Jefferson did, one that would have eliminated the horrible bloodshed of the Civil War. But nobody had such a plan, at the time – not Jefferson, not Washington, not Clay, not anyone.
Historically, of course, Post is correct — not only did an early draft of the Declaration contemn the British for the slave trade, but the idea of natural law and the rights of all men necessarily set the stage for the eventual abolition of slavery, as Lincoln rightly pointed out. The truth is, to get colonies to sign on to the Declaration, certain concessions were made. This was a political bargain struck out of necessity and circumvented out of the genius of the Declaration’s final wording, though it was the progeny of the Founders and Framers, by way largely of the abolitionist movement (social cons!), who ultimately brought to fruition the intent of the Declaration’s call for unalienable rights for all. And the Constitution, note, no where protects slavery or the slave trade in any affirmative manner.
– Which is why for all its usefulness, Post’s piece, having brushed up against the main point of Professor Finkelman’s argument, fails to subdue it, and instead lets it slip by with a bit of unnecessary explication.
And that’s because when Post asks, “Why is this so hard for people to see?,” what he doesn’t do — perhaps out of a sense of collegiality or adherence to some unspoken academic code — is conclude the obvious observation that this is but a rhetorical question: of course people like Finkelman know this — making the real question, why are they so invested in creating these revisionist histories in the first place, then attempting to give them the imprimatur of credentialed “academic” plausibility?
And that answer doesn’t require a whole lot of deep research or footnoted historical marginalia: the goal is to devalue the virtue of the founders and framers in order to erode the legitimacy of the founding documents and the constraints they place on the more contemporary and enlightened socially-forward progressive politician. That is, the answer is that Finkelman, as are many would-be masters of his political stripe, is invested in the narrative that a necessary neo-Wilsonian view of government is being hamstrung by checks and balances and separation of powers, obstructions that prevent the intellectual and (by association, moral) supremacy of the political class from acting in a manner that is, in their minds, necessarily expeditious, and committed to “social justice” and “positive rights.” Liberal fascism with notes of nutty democratic socialism and hints of a vanilla police state.
Of course, to those who believe in the American system as founded — the one that protects individual liberty, natural rights, and sets the conditions for equality of opportunity through a just and stable rule of law, a free-market capitalist economic system, and an unobtrusive federal government with limited enumerated powers — Wilsonian progressivism and it Fabian socialist antecedents, are entirely alien to this country, and were in fact based around ideas that led to our breaking from the British monarchy in the first place.
What Finkelman is attempting is to deconstruct the founding and framing through the founders and framers in order to problematize the products of their unclean and treasonous Enlightenment bigotries.
All to set the stage for the ever-more aggressive attacks on the Constitution’s legitimacy.
The irony being that, like all good anti-foundationalist leftists, I have no doubt that, when it comes to questions of religion and the social contract, Finkelman will be one of the first to dig into Jefferson’s letters and cite his “separation of church and state” line, acontextually, to promote the institutionalizing of secularism and statism, creating the God as State model at the heart of every totalitarian regime, no matter what its outward polished sophisticated trappings.
Resist we much. And we must.
And part of doing so effectively is pointing out the cynical (and dare I say treasonous, too?) motivations behind such attempts to revise the American founding and those who provided the world the blueprint for self-governance and individual freedom and autonomy.
(h/t geoffB; via insty)