Natalia has a problem with Jefferson. I kind of do as well. Usually I am way more forgiving. From my experience people are almost always better than their beliefs and political convictions. The case with Jefferson is the opposite: his views and beliefs are much better than what we perceive as his real persona. And that’s the crux of the matter.
If one wants to stretch casuistry, it might be possible to defend your average American 18th century slave owner. Different times, different sensibilities. But an average slave owner did not engage in penning all men are created equal kind of sentences. An average slave owner didn’t consider life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to be unalienable rights. And he didn’t refer to slavery as an abominable crime a moral depravity, a hideous blot.
What really irks me is the case of Kościuszko’s will. That story is not told by Monticello guides, although they do go as far as calling Jefferson deeply conflicted and tragic and even mention his relationship with Sally Hemmings.
Kościuszko named Jefferson an executor of his will. Kościuszko was a friend Jefferson described as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known. The will was short and simple: I, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, being just in my departure from America, do hereby declare and direct that should I make no other testamentary disposition of my property in the United States thereby authorize my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing negroes from among his own as any others and giving them liberty […]
In case you missed it: Kościuszko requests that his possessions, awarded to him by American congress, are used to purchase and free Jefferson’s slaves. Jefferson somehow never managed to execute the will. He claimed to be too old to undertake such a task. But he only freed 2 slaves during his life and 5 more in his will. Of over six hundred slaves he owned over his lifetime. By contrast, Kościuszko emancipated his serfs in Poland 2 years before his death.
By that time Poland was no more and while the genesis of the partitions was complex, the direct cause was a failed insurrection led by the uncompromising Kościuszko. It seems that dangerous ideas, like writing a progressive constitution, fare better when drafted by an idealist with a strong pragmatic streak. And it does not hurt if one has a separate and remote continent to experiment with. Otherwise ideas are not just dangerous, but deadly.
As far as beautiful declarations go Jefferson was a precursor of, dear to my heart, class of contemporary liberals: lamenting global warming and not bothering to sort the trash, donating to Oxfam and drinking non fair trade coffee, voicing support for illegal immigrants and buying iPhones made by underpaid workers, fretting about peak oil and driving an SUV (or a truck).
So does knowing the enormity of your abomination make you a better or worse person than your less knowledgeable neighbor? Does conveniently forgetting your own ideals make you a pragmatic? Or does it just make you a hypocrite?