Synopsis of a Proposal for A response to Conor Cruise O'Brien's "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist"
by James S. Turner
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To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act. The bill reported by the revisers does not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it was prepared, to be offered to the Legislature whenever the bill should be taken up, and further directing that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the, males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household, and of the handicraft arts, seeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c., to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they shall have acquired strength; and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants; to induce whom to migrate hither, proper encouragements were to be proposed. It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the State, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which Nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of color. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf skin, or in the scarf skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in Nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of color, figure and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps, too, a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether Heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them, indeed, have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society; yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never seen even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her as Hercules to the author of that poem. Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honor to the heart than the head. They breathe the purest effusions of friendship and general philanthropy, and shew how great a degree of the latter may be compounded with strong religious zeal. He is often happy in the turn of his compliments, and his style is easy and familiar, except when he affects a Shandean fabrication of words. But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric as is the course of a meteor through the sky. His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning; yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration. Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own color who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column. This criticism supposes the letters published under his name to be genuine, and to have received amendment from no other hand; points which would not be of easy investigation. The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life. We know that among the Romans, about the Augustan age especially, the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the blacks on the continent of America. The two sexes were confined in separate apartments, because to raise a child cost the master more than to buy one. Cato, for a very restricted indulgence to his slaves in this particular, took from them a certain price. But in this country the slaves multiply as fast as the free inhabitants. Their situation and manners place the commerce between the two sexes almost without restraint. The same Cato, on a principle of economy, always sold his sick and superannuated slaves. He gives it as a standing precept to a master visiting his farm, to sell his old oxen, old wagons, old tools, old and diseased servants, and every thing else become useless: "Vendat boves vetulos, plaustrum vetus, serramenta Vetera, servum senem, servum morbosum, & si quid aliud supersit vendat." — Cato de re rustica, c. 2. The American slaves cannot enumerate this among the injuries and insults they receive. It was the common practice to expose in the island of Aesculapius, in the Tyber, diseased slaves, whose cure was like to become tedious. The Emperor Claudius by an edict gave freedom to such of them as should recover, and first declared that if any person chose to kill rather than to expose them, it should be deemed homicide. The exposing them is a crime, of which no instance has existed with us; and were it to be followed by death, it would be punished capitally. We are told of a certain Vedius Pollio, who, in the presence of Augustus, would have given a slave as food to his fish for having broken a glass. With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture. Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence. When a master was murdered, all his slaves in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death. Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman. Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled, too, in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master's children. Epictetus, Diogenes, Phaedon, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but Nature, which has produced the distinction....
Notwithstanding these considerations, which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity. The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the anatomical knife, to optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various, and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as Nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question, "What further is to be done with them?" join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.
-- Notes on the State of Virginia, by Thomas Jefferson
In 1889 Henry Adams, carrying on his family's sometime vendetta against Thomas Jefferson, wrote a history of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, trying, apparently, to put a stake through the then barely-beating heart of Jefferson's reputation. As an honest reporter, Adams told the truth about Jefferson's actions, evidently assuming Americans would find them objectionable. Instead, this book rehabilitated Jefferson by pointing out his great nation shaping-feats.
A complete and accurate, examination of O'Brien's charges in the full context of Jefferson's life, the revolution, and the American experience might also lift Jefferson's currently flagging reputation. Jefferson played well a key role on a team of revolutionaries whose ideas and actions continue to hold the world's imagination and affect its actions. Americans need to come to terms with their Jeffersonian heritage, whether or not Jefferson held (as he probably did not) unacceptably radical, racist views.
American revolutionaries were of many minds. Some early patriots went to Canada when war broke out. Fervent kaleidoscopic activity typified politics during and after the war. Allies and enemies often, if not routinely, changed sides. Events confounded politics. As Gary Wills points out, it took Lincoln to establish 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, not 1789 and the Constitution, as the birth of the nation. The Gettysburg address, Wills says, transformed the United States into The United States.
Jefferson tended toward political liberty and economic independence. His foil, Hamilton, urged economic efficiency and political order. Their struggle defines America. In 1876, Henry Cabot Lodge -and a hundred years later Walter Lippman--called America a Hamiltonian nation governed by Jeffersonian forms. Americans tend, consciously or unconsciously, to see reality as a balance of efficiency, independence, liberty, and order. Viewed this way, America without Jefferson will not be America.
A discernible back-and-forth with Jefferson at its core characterized the American revolution laying the groundwork for America as we know it. First came the Declaration of Independence a Jeffersonian thrust. A Hamiltonian parry, the Constitution, preceded the Jeffersonian Bill of Rights riposte. The Hamiltonian Federalist government of Washington and Adams, succeeded by the Jefferson electoral sweep of 1800, carried on the duel.
The Hamiltonians struck back after Jefferson's massive November 1800 victory by appointing the infamous "midnight judges" (including Chief Justice John Marshall) between election night and Jefferson's March, 1801 inauguration. For the next thirty-five years, Jeffersonian Presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams and Jackson) battled Hamiltonian Marshall and the courts to shape the nation. At Jefferson's death on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the die was cast.
Marshall's decisions cut executive government power. The Jefferson "mob" controlling central government scared Federalists. One 1819 case, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, set corporate rights against federal power. The nation split. Government, ruled by Jeffersonian principle (affected people need a voice -- i.e., vote--in decision making) squared off against corporations (semi-governments) ruled by Hamiltonian principle (only property owners -- i.e., stockholders -- have decision-making rights).
For the next hundred years increasingly "democratic" government (more issues presented to more voters) battled increasingly powerful (more land, money, authority) corporations to allocate national resources. The nation prospered and suffered. Painful pre Civil War agrarian/industrial struggles, cast as free v. slave, led to bloody war and increased corporate power. Post war boom/bust collapses (from railroads in the 1870's to agriculture and industry in the 1920's) destroyed confidence in Hamiltonian corporate economic structures.
Enter Roosevelt's activist government, with which we are just now coming to terms. Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Jackson before and Kennedy after him, drew on Jefferson to help America through complex times. Expelling Jefferson, so entwined with America, from the pantheon for politically incorrect radicalism and racism (even if guilty) poses a greater challenge to America's core viability than O'Brien's thesis considers. Ripping Jefferson from America's heart, necessary or not, will be bloody work.
A broader, more textured appreciation of Jefferson and of history might alter the O'Brien-created impression of Jefferson's pantheon future. "Someone should write a thesis on "The Influence of Thomas Jefferson on Hendrik Verwoerd,"' O'Brien says. Jefferson, racism, South Africa. Point made, further comment not needed. A less obviously anti-Jefferson point could be made by suggesting a thesis on Jefferson and Frederick de Klerk. This might present a different Jefferson for any needed redemption.
For example, O'Brien connects Jefferson to violent radicalism (too slow to condemn French Revolution excesses, alleged Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh wore a tee shirt with a provocative Jefferson quote). He does not mention attacks by contemporaries (and Henry Adams) on Jefferson for being too pacifist-impose an embargo rather than fight the British, buy rather than conquer Louisiana, and move Virginia's capital from Williamsburg to Richmond to avoid armed conflict.
O'Brien says "...the orthodox multiracial version of the American civil religion must eventually prevail -- at whatever cost against the neo-Jeffersonian racist schism" (emphasis added). "At whatever cost" sounds like the kind of unrestrained exhortation O'Brien condemns in Jefferson. One cost (considered by O'Brien?) of dumping Jefferson from the pantheon because of his violent rhetoric might be to lose him as the primary American example of limiting the use of violence as a tool of foreign policy.
By adding resistance to the federal government to his Jefferson indictment, and making it the moral equivalent of racism, O'Brien further weakens his historical case. Northern states like Wisconsin issued ringing states rights endorsements against federal government enforcement of fugitive slave laws. Nothing makes federal government power intrinsically multiracial. Nor do contemporary Americans, individually or collectively, see the federal government as uniformly superior to state or local governments.
One reason so many Americans, including a lot who are not right-wing fanatics, find "liberal" irritating grows out of a perception that "liberals" tend to claim a special identification with "orthodox American civil religion." History suggests that the political Jefferson would shun association with such a concept. In fact it is likely that orthodox civil religion will find less room in the American pantheon than will Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's vitality resists classification. Americans tend to suspect orthodoxy.
Dumping Jefferson from the pantheon comes down on one side of a deep, wrenching, centuries long, social/political battle, predating America's revolution. This battle divides those who, like Jefferson, demand that governments keep hands off individuals' right to use their life and liberty to pursue happiness from those who, like Hamilton, say power concentrated in properly motivated,competent, economically and socially elite hands best ensures the orderly society essential for individual enjoyment of life.
Dumping Hamilton comes down on the other side making more French Revolution type excesses likely. Americans stand astride this divide, one foot firmly in each camp. Each person develops a pragmatic mix of liberty, order, independence and efficiency for personal expression and gain. The Combined Jefferson/Hamilton blood in American veins creates collective decisions pundits find odd-divided government 22 of 28 years; pro choice/pro life abortion consensus; anti-government/anti-corporate anger, etc.
The American dynamic rests on "the pursuit of happiness,' staked out by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, dumped from the Constitution by central government advocates, reintegrated by Lincoln. Dumping Jefferson risks losing "happiness" as a central social value. Cutting the ground from under the Jefferson foot risks toppling Americans into a morass of individual rebellion against government intrusion into privacy, family, and personal values. A bloody business at best. Americans might prefer redemption for Jefferson.
O'Brien's self-described task, ensuring "at whatever cost" that "the orthodox multiracial version of the American civil religion" prevails "against the neo-Jefferson racist schism," has far greater risks and fewer benefits then O'Brien presents or appears to have considered. This fact, combined with O'Brien's brittle historical picture, makes a further, more faceted, reassessment necessary before individual Americans make a pro- or anti-Jefferson choice.
In summary, O'Brien chose to narrow and obscure the Jefferson legacy -- even if he had accurately reported the part of Jefferson's life that he addresses (which he did not). He leaves important aspects of Jefferson's life and actions that bear directly on his thesis, out of his argument. He leaves contradictory assertions unaddressed. And he makes poorly-thought out--rhetorical flourishes that, when examined, weaken his argument. O'Brien's topic is too important not to be addressed more completely.
James S. Turner