Sunday, December 2, 2012

Jefferson's Hidden Legacy of Slavery

Those who document history have always taken artistic license when it comes to creating an accurate narrative. Whether the subject is the first Thanksgiving, the voyage of Christopher Columbus, or Thomas Jeffersons signing of The Declaration of Independence. Much has been said about each event, and if we take all of the information at face value, one might think that the very details of each tale are unequivocally true. They have been passed on in one history book or another, and taught to generation after generation as if the exactitude of the text is simply supported by the fact that it is in a text book.
The legend of Thomas Jefferson is that of a founder father, and one of the drafter's of the Constitution. The fact of the matter is that had he found the descendants of my African-American father or yours, he would have either purchased them like cattle or sold them to buy luxury items for his family. Jefferson owned approximately 175 slaves at the time that he signed the Declaration of Independence. While many of his contemporaries, including George Washington freed their slaves both during and after the revolution, Jefferson continued to buy and sell human beings, and was one of the biggest advocates of slavery at the time. Not only did he have a deep commitment to slavery, he was also opposed to private manumission (the act of a slave owner freeing their slaves), and public emancipation. Over a 50 year period Thomas Jefferson remained the master at Monticello, buying and selling Blacks. When Jefferson died, he failed to live up to the promises of his own rhetoric. His will emancipated only five slaves, who were the children he fathered with Sally Hemmings. The 295 slaves left behind were condemned to the auction block, including Hemmings who was his long time mistress.
Jefferson took great pride in punishing his slaves in an unusually cruel way. He would sell them away from their families and friends, and routinely split families in retaliation. He was a proponent of humane criminal codes for white citizens but he advocated harsh, and barbaric punishment for slaves and free blacks. Jefferson even went so far as to propose a law which would make free Black people Outlaws, even though they were born in the United States. He was also in favor of expelling the offspring of white women and Black men from Virginia. This hyprocracy is depraved and ironic in nature given the fact that Jefferson himself fathered bi-racial children with one of his slaves. In addition, he avoided any opportunity to promote racial equality, and as a state legislator he blocked the consideration of any law that would have eventually ended slavery in Virginia. As President he acquired the Louisiana territory and did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into this expansion. When one of his neighbors (Edward Coles) considered emancipating his own slaves, Jefferson was quoted as saying,
"Free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves."
During any given 10 year period this merciless "founding father" sold at least 85 humans. Jefferson destroyed families without a second thought, because he believed that Blacks lacked human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”
His ignorance, and bigotry rivaled that of any Klansmen or cold-blooded racist in modern times, and his reasoning was a result of his own wicked imagination, and bias.
Jefferson even had a theory in reference to where blackness came from. He speculated that it came “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
This represents an interesting paradox. Separating the legend from the man is a hard pill to swallow for some, and inconceivable to others. But sometimes the truth hurts, especially if it has been blurred through a skewered version of history. But this is one truth that we should definitely hold self evident. One of the framers of The Declaration of Independence only desired to declare white people independent and keep black people dependent.


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