Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and one of the hundred or so Democratic candidates for president expressed his concerns about Thomas Jefferson’s legacy in a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt.
HH: It’s an interesting part of the book. Let’s go to policy now. A very blunt question, because you talk about going to every Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Indiana when you were running statewide. Should Jefferson-Jackson dinners be renamed everywhere because both were holders of slaves?
PB: Yeah, we’re doing that in Indiana. I think it’s the right thing to do. You know, over time, you develop and evolve on the things you choose to honor. And I think we know enough, especially Jackson, you know, you just look at what basically amounts to genocide that happened here. Jefferson’s more problematic. You know, there’s a lot to, of course, admire in his thinking and his philosophy. Then again, as you plunge into his writings, especially the notes on the state of Virginia, you know that he knew that slavery was wrong.
PB: And yet, he did it. Now we’re all morally conflicted human beings. And it’s not like we’re blotting him out of the history books, or deleting him from being the founder fathers. But you know, naming something after somebody confers a certain amount of honor. And at a time, I mean, the real reason I think there’s a lot of pressure on this is the relationship between the past and the present, that we’re finding in a million different ways that racism isn’t some curiosity out of the past that we’re embarrassed about but moved on from. It’s alive, it’s well, it’s hurting people. And it’s one of the main reasons to be in politics today is to try to change or reverse the harms that went along with that. Then, we’d better look for ways to live out and honor that principle, even in a symbolic thing.
I think we ought to cut Thomas Jefferson and the others some slack. These people did not invent the institution of slavery. Slavery in some form has been present in every civilization in history. They did not introduce slavery into the British colonies or inaugurate the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That had been done centuries before their births. For the founding fathers, slavery was simply a part of the cultural background. They were as much a product of that background as we are of ours, and could be no more expected to question the basic assumptions of that background then most of us question the basic assumptions of our our culture and society.
It is, in fact, rather remarkable that some of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington did come to see that slavery was wrong. They were among the first to realize this. With the exception of the Quakers, no one questioned the institution of slavery before the late eighteenth century. Shouldn’t men like Jefferson and Washington get some credit for realizing an institution that was a integral part of the culture they grew up in was unjust and ought to be abolished?
It is easy for us in the twenty-first century to say they ought to have freed their slaves. It was not as easy for them to actually free their slaves. Slaves were valuable property and made up a considerable portion of a slave owner’s wealth. For a master to free his slaves without compensation might have meant consigning himself to poverty and a lower social position. There have never been many people willing to impoverish themselves for their stated principles. Also, many southern planters, such as Jefferson, were deeply in debt. Even if Jefferson had wanted to free his slaves, he could not necessarily act on such a desire. Not only did he require the income from labor of their slaves to continue payments on their debts, but slaves were often used as collateral. Jefferson’s creditors might have had something to say to him if he had freed his slaves.
It is not certain whether a master who freed his slaves was actually doing them much of a favor, considering the racist nature of southern society. In many slave-owning societies, such as ancient Greece and Rome, there was no racial or ethic distinction between master and slave. A freed slave could take his place as an equal to any free man, with only a slight social stigma about his former status. This was not the case in America, either before or after independence. There, a former slave’s dark skin, forever marked him as a member of an inferior caste. Most slaves were uneducated and illiterate, with experience only in unskilled farm labor. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, many states actually made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. There really wasn’t much of a demand in the job market for free Black unskilled farm workers. Moreover, slave owners did not want really former slaves giving ideas about freedom, by example to their own slaves and freed slaves were often compelled to leave their homes and states.
A general emancipation of the slaves would also have been difficult. It may be offensive to modern sensibilities, but the slave owners would have had to be compensated for the loss of their property, otherwise they would not have agreed to emancipation Compensating the slave holders would have been a strain on the young nation’s finances. Then, there would be the vexing problem of what to do with the freed slaves. It would be too much to expect that former slaves and their former masters would live together in a state of equality and harmony. It is more likely that the former slaves would continue be oppressed, holding the lowest positions in society and the economy, as indeed really happened, for the most part, after the slaves were freed after the Civil War.
Instead of condemning the founding fathers for failing to end slavery, perhaps we ought to give them credit for what they did do. The northern states abolished slavery during and after the American Revolution. They included a provision in the constitution banning the trans-Atlantic slave trade twenty years after ratification. The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River, making slavery a regional issue as the nation expanded west. Most of all, Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in his Declaration of Independence;
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
sounded the death knell for slavery in America and throughout the world. No nation whose founding documents averted that all men are created equal could truly regard slavery as simply part of the natural order of things. No matter what excuses apologists for slavery might make, the Declaration of Independence that founded they own nation spoke against them.
The generation that fought for independence and created the republican system of government we still enjoy to this day was truly the greatest generation. They accomplished more than anyone would have a right to expect. It is not reasonable to condemn them for failing to end an evil that had existed since the beginning of history. They did what they could and most of them, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, expected their successors to continue to limit slavery until it died out. It is not their fault that succeeding generations of American leader leaders failed to continue the momentum towards eventual emancipation.
I will concede Greg Buttigieg one point, though. It is inappropriate for the modern Democratic Party to hold Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraisers. Both Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson favored small, decentralized government and the concerns of the common man over the elite, two positions anathema to the contmporary Democratic Party. I would recommend the Democrats hold Marx-Lenin Days as more representative of the Democratic Party’s ideology.