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Rethinking Thomas Jefferson

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Source: Consortium News


Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States.
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Thomas Jefferson is admired for his elegant prose in the Declaration of Independence, but he was a world-class hypocrite. He wrote, "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" -- but he didn't really believe any of that.

In his thoroughly repugnant book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson even engaged in the pseudo-science of measuring the skulls of African-Americans to prove that not all men were created equal. Some of Jefferson's white supremacy nonsense survives to the present day in the views of unreconstructed segregationists.

Because of his racism -- and his undeniable political skills -- Jefferson also ranks among the Founders as perhaps the most responsible for putting the United States on course for the Civil War. In the years after the Constitution was ratified, he pushed a highly constrained view of federal power, supporting the interests of white Southern plantation owners who feared that a strong central government would eventually doom slavery.

To promote that position, Jefferson injected a nasty factionalism that demonized George Washington's Federalist allies, especially Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, in the 1790s. Hamilton, Adams and Washington believed that a vibrant central government was crucial for the nation's development.

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However, Jefferson and other Southern slaveholders saw an effective central government as an existential threat to slavery. Thus, they ramped up their angry insistence of "states' rights" and concocted an extra-constitutional theory about the power of the states to "nullify" federal law.

Jefferson was the driving force in this movement, creating what became known as the Virginia Dynasty, a string of three consecutive two-term U.S. presidents from Virginia, starting with Jefferson in 1801 and continuing through James Madison and ending with James Monroe in 1825. By then, slavery's roots had dug down even deeper across the South and spread into new states to the west.

It would take the bloodbath of the Civil War to finally pull slavery out of the soil of the South, but Jefferson's weed-like political legacy would keep resurfacing, first after Reconstruction with the South's reassertion of "states' rights" and white supremacy. The South again would resist federal authority and repress blacks under Jim Crow laws and segregation.

Even today's anti-government extremism from the likes of the Tea Party and "libertarians" can be traced back to Jefferson, a common thread from the days when Jefferson's pro-slavery "nullificationists" tied up the pre-Civil War Congress to today's anti-government extremism that has made Congress again a laughingstock of dysfunction.

Fearing Slave Rebellion

So, as Americans admire Jefferson's soaring words -- first read to the American people on July 4, 1776 -- they shouldn't forget that Jefferson and many of his fellow delegates at the Continental Congress considered their African-American slaves as mere investments, albeit potentially dangerous ones who needed to be kept in line with whips, guns and nooses.

A major impetus toward the Revolution in Virginia came when the tough-minded Royal Governor, the Earl of Dunmore, responded to colonial insults and insubordination in 1775 by threatening to "declare freedom to the slaves." This perceived British encouragement of slave rebellions scared Virginia's white aristocracy and created a financial incentive for plantation owners to join the drive toward independence, much as Britain's blockade of Boston's port did for the colonial ruling class of Massachusetts.

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Some of Jefferson's modern defenders argue that he shouldn't be criticized too harshly for his hypocrisy on slavery, saying he should be judged by the standards of his time. But Jefferson -- more than most people today -- knew the horrors and degradations of slavery. He made that clear in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence when he included a segment blaming the King of England for the slave trade:

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's[sic] most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold.

"He has prostituted his negative [his veto] for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die. He is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which  he has deprived them, by murdering the people for whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

This section was largely deleted by slaveholding delegates of the Continental Congress -- only the phrase "He has excited domestic Insurrections among us" survived -- but Jefferson's attempt to place the blame for slavery on the King, rather than on the colonists who owned slaves, reveals that he was well aware of the evils involved in the slave industry. Ultimately, a third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, including Jefferson.

Fighting the Federalists

After the Revolutionary War was won, the country floundered under the Articles of Confederation, which declared the states "sovereign" and "independent" states. To save the nation's fragile independence, George Washington and his then-protege James Madison devised a new Constitution in 1787 that concentrated power in the central government.

However, this major change was fiercely opposed by key Southerners, such as Virginia's Patrick Henry and George Mason, who warned that the federal government would eventually come under the control of the North and would demand the end of slavery -- thus intruding on the "rights" of white Virginians to own black slaves. Despite these warnings, the Constitution won ratification, albeit narrowly in Virginia. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Right's Dubious Claim to Madison."]

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http://www.consortiumnews.com

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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