Commentary Magazine

Paying for Jefferson's Sins

At a moment when national unity has assumed special importance, a novel demand by a group of black activists is raising the possibility that race relations in the U.S. are about to take an especially divisive turn. What the nascent movement wants is, in brief, financial reparations, and not for any present-day wrong but for the historic crimes of slavery and segregation. Some advocates of reparations have put the squeeze on particular businesses, like the insurance companies—many of them still in existence—that wrote policies for slaves in their masters’ names. Others have called for a vast program of spending on education and physical rehabilitation in poorer black neighborhoods. Still others have staged an assault on the U.S. Treasury, demanding a substantial lump-sum payment to each black American.

At the “Millions for Reparations” rally held on the mall in Washington, D.C. this past August, the air was filled with chants of “Black power!” and “Start the revolution!” Charles Barron, a New York City councilman (and former Black Panther), told the gathered crowd, “I want to go up to the closest white person and say, ‘You can’t understand this, it’s a black thing,’ and then slap him, just for my mental health.” Such better-known inciters as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran, and Jesse Jackson have also rallied to the cause. On Capitol Hill, Representative John Conyers, the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has pressed for the creation of a federal commission to study the issue.

As the advocates of reparations see it, American society is corrupt at its source. All white Americans have profited from this historical corruption; all black Americans have suffered from it. What remains is for white Americans to take responsibility for the nation’s original sin, and in particular for the acts of the founding fathers who brought the country into being.

Among the alleged malefactors of the early republic, none is held to be more odious than Thomas Jefferson. When the sins of the fathers are recited, the failings deemed most egregious tend to be his. Jefferson’s life illustrates more neatly than any other the disparity between what America promised and what it delivered, a disparity that remains, in the words of NAACP chairman Julian Bond, “our greatest state embarrassment today.” And the reason Jefferson has become the most notorious slave master in American history is that, we are told, he ought to have been the last man ever to hold others in bondage.



Hosting A dinner for American Nobel laureates, President John F. Kennedy lauded the assembled eminences as “the most extraordinary collection of talents . . . that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” The encomium, intended as a witty bow to an acknowledged superior, also reflected a certain barbed ambivalence toward real genius. Jefferson had his violin, his architecture, his library full of classical sages, his collection of mastodon bones. Kennedy had his molls and his James Bond novels, and must seldom have dined alone; he wished to be thought of, and he may have been thought of, as the most intellectually vital President we had had for a long time, but a chasm separated his mind from that of Jefferson.

Everything, absolutely everything, fascinated Thomas Jefferson. He helped to found and served as president of the American Philosophical Society, which devoted itself less to rarefied speculation than to practical concerns in the great American can-do spirit. Father of the University of Virginia, he foresaw the advance of learning into a future whose shape no one could predict but that, he was confident, would leave the past in the dust, giving men greater power over harsh inhuman nature and unruly human nature. Although his classical learning was rich and deep, his heroes were the giants of modern thought—Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, John Locke. He professed Christianity but in his own defiant fashion, blaming churchmen down the generations for the sophisticated perversion of Jesus’ simple and wholly admirable teaching.

In politics, Jefferson had the “vision thing” in abundance. If, as Plato teaches, poets are the creators of the gods, then Jefferson is our arch-poet; he breathed life into the American household deities of equality and liberty. To John Adams he declared his faith in a natural aristocracy of virtue and talent—“the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trust, and government of society”—and in the ability of the democratic masses to separate the genuine aristocrats from the pretenders. Picked by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence, he formulated the new nation’s creed with such eloquence that every American now swears by his best-known words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.”



Applying these high-minded notions to practical affairs was another matter, and one at which Jefferson was notably less successful. As minister plenipotentiary to France from 1784 to 1789, he was filled with republican contempt at the antics of royalty: the king, he wrote, “hunts one half the day, is drunk the other, and signs whatever he is bid.” But he utterly failed to see what the French Revolution would bring, and his predictions of bloodless constitutional reform seem ludicrously sunny in retrospect. More disturbing was his readiness to believe that, come what may, glorious republican virtue would eventually sprout from the reddened Parisian streets.

A decade later, as the nation’s third President, Jefferson again struggled to accommodate his principles to the contingencies of political life. Though the strictest of strict interpreters of the Constitution—he had branded his predecessor in the White House a virtual tyrant for the egregious overreaching of the Alien and Sedition Acts—he soon faced constitutional difficulties of his own in the form of the Louisiana Purchase. As he wrote to one Senator, “The Constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less of incorporating foreign nations into our Union.” Yet, in the name of American greatness, Jefferson himself bulldozed these pesky niceties, not without qualms but trusting that the occasion justified his offenses against the law.

Sticking with principle often served Jefferson no better. Considering war to be a relic of an Old World immorality that the New World in its purity ought to avoid, he responded to English aggression on the high seas with a widening circle of merely commercial sanctions, none of which worked in the least. Worse, his naive measures, which eventually extended to the treacherous French as well, wrought severe economic and moral harm at home. As Henry Adams would later observe in his monumental history of the period:

The peaceable coercion which Jefferson tried to substitute for war was less brutal, but hardly less mischievous, than the evil it displaced. The embargo opened the sluice-gates of social corruption. Every citizen was tempted to evade or defy the laws. Every article produced or consumed in the country became an object of speculation; every form of industry became a form of gambling.

These episodes in Jefferson’s career have led historians to wonder whether his legendary brainpower found its optimal use in political life, or whether his devotion to metaphysical subtleties was allowed to interfere too often for the nation’s good with the urgent demands of practice. But for all this may suggest about Jefferson’s weaknesses as a public man, it is nothing as compared with the unsettling questions raised by his relationship to slavery. Here, as the strident advocates of reparations appreciate, nothing less is at stake than his moral stature.



As a leading member of Virginia’s landed gentry, Jefferson came into a hefty inheritance in human flesh and blood. His father left him 52 slaves, and his father-in-law, John Wayles, left him 135 more, ranking him second among slave masters in Albemarle County. Wayles also bequeathed to Jefferson a sizable debt, which he paid off in part by selling slaves.

Jefferson was known to sell or buy a slave in order to keep a family together, a benevolent-seeming practice for which, however, it is hard to give him much credit. As he told a correspondent, in such instances the requirements of humanity and sound business happily agreed: when slaves married within “the family”—that is, with other slaves on the same plantation—they were “worth a great deal more . . . than when they have husbands and wives abroad.” In a similar vein, Jefferson thought it not only decent but financially responsible to give easier chores to slave women with infants, for turning out a new child every two years contributed more to the master’s prosperity than the labor of the hardest-working field hand ever could. “In this, as in all other cases,” he wrote, “providence has made our interest and our duties coincide perfectly.”

Jefferson’s more general opinions about blacks received their fullest expression in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782). They reveal a stark and unabashed repugnance. He found blacks physically ugly, and declared that they themselves agreed in this estimate, showing a marked preference for the figures and features of whites. Since blacks urinated less and sweated more than whites, they gave off “a very strong and disagreeable odor.” They were brave enough, but their bravery, he speculated, stemmed from a childish incapacity to appreciate oncoming danger. Lust, rather than the tender sentiments of love, ran strong in them. Their memory was sharp, but their imagination was stunted and insipid, and their powers of reasoning were “much inferior”; Euclid stumped the best of them. Telling a simple story was about as far as they went in evidencing the signs of consecutive thought.

What explained these deficiencies? In ancient Rome, Jefferson wrote, slaves had suffered conditions far harsher than those of American blacks, and yet among them had arisen artists and thinkers of real distinction. It must be, then, that the condition of slavery itself was not responsible for the shortcomings of blacks; it must be the doing of nature. Yet Jefferson scrupulously edged away from this conclusion, proposing “as a suspicion only” that blacks were inferior to whites “in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Where nature had not stinted the endowment of blacks, Jefferson emphasized, was in strength of heart, in the moral sense; there “she will be found to have done them justice.” And, without diminishing the brutal harshness of the opinions enumerated above, it is important to register that, for Jefferson, this was no faint or condescending praise. In his view, the fundamental human desire for goodness and justice resided not in the intelligence, which notoriously served the baser passions and led men astray, but in our capacity for ethical sentiments. By Jefferson’s lights, as Garry Wills observed in Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978), “The moral sense is not only man’s highest faculty, but the one that is equal in all men.”



What, then, of Jefferson’s own moral sense? What we can say for a certainty is that it did not allow him to rest easy with the incontrovertible evil of slavery. Though in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence he had laid the blame for this distinctively American institution on, of all people, King George III, there was at least no mistaking the seriousness of the crime. The English king, Jefferson wrote, had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

Nor was Jefferson blind to the complicity—and corruption—of his own class. “The whole commerce between master and slave,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.” Later in the same passage comes a famous outcry of guilty fear that can leave no doubt as to the state of his own conscience:

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

As for remedies, Jefferson pronounced himself in favor of slavery’s abolition; but he also feared that whites and free blacks would never be able to live together in peace. Contempt on one side and desire for vengeance on the other made a race war all but inevitable. Thus, he insisted, emancipation would have to be paired with a suitable plan for the humane resettlement of freed slaves in Africa—a condition visionary enough to push the whole vexed question, including the status of his own slaves, safely into the future.

In short, though Jefferson deplored the institution of slavery, he could not bring himself to resist it. His sentiments were those of a man deeply aware of his and his country’s wrongdoing, but his actions were those of a complacent squire, loath to give up the plantation life for which he had so pronounced a taste.



Damning as this posture appears in principle and in general, its ugliness has been magnified by what we now know—or, in any event, have reason to believe—about Jefferson’s own relationship to the people who were his property, particularly the young woman named Sally Hemings.

The Hemings “affair” has become the chief particular in the indictment against Jefferson, but it is hardly news. In his 1973 historical novel, Burr, Gore Vidal has the title character recall a faux pas he once committed by assuming that a child he saw at Monticello was the master’s grandson. The blushing Jefferson replied, “That is a child of the place. A Hemings, I think.” As the character of Burr goes on to observe (in Vidal’s unmistakable sneer):

Since the child was obviously son or grandson to him, I had seriously blundered and, as in law, ignorance is not a defense. It was a curious sensation to look about Monticello and see everywhere so many replicas of Jefferson and his father-in-law. It was as if we had all of us been transformed into dogs, and as a single male dog can re-create in his own image an entire canine community, so Jefferson and his family had grafted their powerful strain upon these slave Africans, and like a king dog (or the Sultan at the Grande Porte) Jefferson could now look about him and see everywhere near-perfect consanguinity.

What is new is the supposedly hard evidence that now links Jefferson to Sally Hemings. I say “supposedly” because the source of this evidence, the DNA tests described in a headline-grabbing 1998 article in the scientific journal Nature, were hardly definitive. As Eugene Foster, one of the researchers who conducted the tests, pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, “the genetic findings that my collaborators and I reported . . . do not prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father of one of Sally Hemings’s children. We never made that claim.”

It is a question with a long and a cheap history, freely drawn upon by Vidal in his own cheap attack. In 1802, during Jefferson’s first presidential term, James Callender, a noted purveyor of scurrility whom Jefferson had employed to scorch his political enemies, turned on his patron. Weaving rumors into front-page news, Callender accused Jefferson in a Richmond newspaper of having “kept, as a concubine, one of his own slaves.” The opposition press squeezed the story to the last venomous drop. Poetasters composed ditties about “long Tom” and “sooty Sal.” An abler poet, the Englishman Thomas Moore, who had met Jefferson, let him have it with finer skill but no greater delicacy: “The patriot, fresh from Freedom’s council come,/Now pleased retires to lash his slaves at home; / Or woo, perhaps some black Aspasia’s charms,/And dream of freedom in his bondsmaid’s arms.”

Jefferson himself kept silent on the matter (with the possible exception of a private letter he wrote in 1805 that hints at a denial), but after his death his family vehemently rejected the story. His granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge wrote to her brother-in-law in 1858, “The thing will not bear telling. There are such things, after all, as moral impossibilities.” She named Jefferson’s nephew, Peter Carr, “the most notorious good-natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men’s expense,” as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. On the other hand, Sally’s son Madison Hemings told an Ohio reporter in 1873 that his mother began having sexual relations with her master when she was a fifteen-year-old body servant to Jefferson’s young daughter and he was minister to France. She bore him four children, he declared, and all were freed upon reaching adulthood—the only slaves Jefferson ever emancipated—in accordance with a promise he had made to Sally while they were in France, where she could have chosen to remain as a free woman.

Until recently, scholars tended to believe the denials of the white Jeffersons and to discredit the assertions of the black Hemingses. In this regard, the 1998 DNA study had something for everybody. Though it established that one reputed son of Jefferson was unrelated to him, it showed that another, Eston Hemings, carried the Jefferson Y-chromosome. But some 25 adult male Jeffersons with this chromosome were living in Virginia at the time in question, and several of them had definitely been to Monticello. This was the source of Dr. Foster’s unwillingness to speak of clear proof. Still, as he went on to write in his letter to the Times, when all the relevant considerations of time and place were taken into account, the “simplest and most probable” explanation for the data was that the child was Thomas Jefferson’s.

At the very least, it is clear that Jefferson was guilty of terrible moral carelessness. As the historian Paul Rahe has observed, “Despite the distaste that he expressed for the propensity of slaveholders and their relatives to abuse their power, Jefferson either engaged in such abuse himself or tolerated it on the part of one or more members of his extended family.” Yet even to speak of Jefferson’s abuse of authority in this case misses the point: it was within his authority to do whatever he pleased with Sally Hemings, and everyone knows what absolute power does.



Which brings us back to reparations. Jefferson is singled out for opprobrium in Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000), the unofficial handbook of the movement. To Robinson’s (mistaken) mind, it has been “conclusively proved through DNA comparisons” that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children. That some would nevertheless defend Jefferson, especially on the grounds that he was no worse than many another “man of his time,” moves Robinson not at all. He ransacks history for comparable instances of men whose contemporaries and compatriots thought well of them and who nevertheless committed unspeakable deeds: “the same specious excuse can be offered for Atatürk or Franco or Lenin or Mao or Hitler.” As he sees it, American chattel slavery represents the worst thing men have done to each other for at least the past 500 years, and Jefferson’s complicity in this “black Holocaust” marks him as one of history’s grossest monsters.

It is easy enough to fault Robinson for portraying slavery not as just one of the unconscionable enormities of modern history but as the ultimate moral horror. He suffers from a case of what might be called genocide envy, a craving for the special luster that putatively clings to the victims of the worst crime known to man. One wonders what he would say if 18th-century Americans had simply set out to exterminate black Africans like vermin, rather than to work them like beasts of burden.

Robinson is right, however, in refusing to exonerate Jefferson on the grounds that he merely did what everybody else was doing. Once you head down that route, nothing is wrong provided that the cultural norms of the day declare it right. Furthermore, there were other men, even in Jefferson’s Virginia, who knew slavery was wrong and who acted on that knowledge. Although this conclusion has been resisted by those who still cling to the legend of Jefferson the spotless egalitarian, his reputation, like the principles he so eloquently espoused, can withstand intellectual honesty. Whatever the ugly facts of his slave-owning, he remains one of the greatest men this country has ever produced.

What the reparations movement itself gains from such a reckoning is much less clear. Jefferson and some of the other founders may indeed need to pay a debt, in terms of historical esteem, for their participation in slavery, but how can this impose a financial burden on present-day American society as a whole, and white Americans in particular?

As David Horowitz forcefully contends in his recent book, Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery (2001),1 few Americans ever owned slaves, even in the South. Moreover, whites were not uniquely responsible for slavery; the Africans who wound up in America were captured and sold by Arabs and other blacks. Nor were whites the only beneficiaries of slavery. The average income of blacks in the U.S. now runs 20 to 50 times that of Africans in the countries that American slaves came from. If black America were considered a nation all its own, its per-capita GNP would rank today tenth in the world. As Horowitz concludes, nowhere else in the world are black people so prosperous and privileged, “a bounty that is a direct result of the [democratic] heritage that is under assault.”

Like other critics of reparations, Horowitz stresses the obvious historical truth that the U.S. has already paid a considerable toll for slavery, in the form of 350,000 Union dead in the Civil War. Robinson and other advocates of reparations have greeted this claim with smug indifference or even derision, contending that the men of the North fought not to dismantle slavery but to defend their own economic and political interests. A useful arbiter on this question is the black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), who would become the patron saint of black nationalism. As he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903):

The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much those who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict.



Considering the impressive economic and political strides that many black Americans have made over the past several decades, it is fair to wonder why the reparations movement has emerged at this particular moment, and with such extreme demands. Much of the answer, as Jefferson himself would have appreciated, has to do with the notoriously elusive commodity of equality: the more one has of it, the more galling become those inequalities that remain.

For black Americans, the attainment of full equality before the law, ratified and extended by the civil-rights legislation of the 1960’s, naturally begot the desire for equality of fortune, of outcome. When this was not forthcoming, something had to be blamed for the intolerable result, and white racism was quickly identified as the culprit.

What followed were the various remedies—unprecedented spending on education and welfare, racial preferences in universities, corporations, and professions—that black leaders demanded, and liberals readily granted, as compensation for the supposed persistence of discrimination. Today’s proposals for actual cash reparations are but the latest, and most desperate, scheme for enabling America’s blacks to overcome their chronic ills by imposing atonement on America’s whites for their racial sins.

By now, however, it is impossible to believe that a mere lack of financial resources is the essential problem of American blacks. As we have learned in recent years through the work of writers like Thomas Sowell, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and John McWhorter, the roots of our racial divide are overwhelmingly cultural. Why does black academic achievement, even in the growing black middle class, persistently lag behind that of other Americans? Why does anti-intellectualism remain such a problem among black students? Why have so many seemingly unassimilable immigrants succeeded in the U.S. at the same time that a considerable portion of black America remains mired in poverty and dependence?

The reparations movement is not an answer to these questions. Indeed, doomed though it is to failure—even the most reflexively sympathetic liberals have declined to join so outlandish a cause—it has already become a problem in itself, diverting the black community from the reckoning it must do with its own history, a reckoning far more urgent than any to be undertaken with the towering ghost of Thomas Jefferson.



1 Reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn in the April 2002 COMMENTARY.


About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.

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