02/27/2014 by syrbal-labrys
Normally I do not participate in articles about Black History Month. Since I am a white woman, I figure my doing so would be as out of place as I consider it for men to write long monologues about birth or abortion or rape — things they know much less about than they THINK they do. But recently putting up something I found a bit humorous and a bit profound on my other blog, I did get the indignant comment that I did not publish, as well as an email telling me that the writer of our Declaration of Independence was a horrible slave owning rapist and undeserving of ANYone’s attention or reverence. And furthermore, I was no proper feminist for liking ANYthing about him….blah, blah, my eyes glazed over.
Well. As anyone who has known me more than 15 minutes knows, I often bitch about the insufficiency of history courses (and books) in recent American education. I will not presume to know whether or not Sally Hemmings was a victim of rape; at the very least it was surely an abuse of a position of power.
I do not excuse Jefferson that error, but I must point out he is hardly the first or last human ever to succumb to something that was a common practice of his time. And I don’t see why he is singled out so very heartily for it. George Washington was a slave owner as well, as were MOST of the southern colonies representatives and I highly doubt Jefferson was the only slave holder to ever have sexual relations or offspring with a slave. (Ask Mrs. Obama about that, ok?)
However, there were good reasons that Jefferson did not, as is often the cry, free his slaves. First of all, for a long time in Virginia (Jefferson’s home) it was ILLEGAL. Only in 1791 did the “Virginia Manumission Act” legalize the freeing of slaves and even then, it was very difficult…requiring a fee for each freed slave to be paid AND demanding proof they would have employment. Jefferson was many things, good with money he was not. He was continuously in debt and broke — died in such debt that upon his death his estate was sold to pay debts, his family was left without even their home. He could not have afforded to free his slaves as an individual.
Furthermore, those who DID manumit slaves, like another Virginian Founding Father — Robert Carter, faced a calamitous result. Threats of violence from his slave owning neighbors led to his abandonment of his property and fleeing the state never to return. He lost all his livelihood and property. Also, by 1806, Virginia had passed a law refusing any such freed slaves permission to live in any urban area — where jobs for skilled labor could be found, as well as a caveat added to the Manumission Act — that all freed slaves must leave the state within a year or be liable to re-enslavement. Facing such dire circumstances, it might actually have been the more humane choice to KEEP one’s slaves. In any case, Jefferson was too cash poor to manage the manumission requirements his state demanded.
Jefferson actually sought, repeatedly, to eliminate the legality of keeping slaves. His language in the Declaration of Independence originally would have abolished slavery — our other Founding Fathers stripped this from his creation. He tried in a court case in Virginia, in the Virginia Legislature and in the General Assembly as well; he was not successful in his efforts.
Furthermore, and this is the “white” part, ok? Lest any Northern reader be getting on a high moral horse? Abolitionists were whipped from several Northern cities. Freed blacks were seen as a dire threat to employment amongst poor whites. And even most abolitionists did not want former slaves to STAY in America—the preferred ideal was to send them back to Africa, even those born on these shores for generations.
The country of Liberia was actually founded to be “home” to freed slaves who were descendants of Africans from all over the continent. It was not a happy solution. Dropping people on a distant continent where they have no way of even communicating with semi-dispossed natives? Brilliant, right?
Americans are taught the simple sound-bite history and none of the horrid complexities. White Americans are guilt-tripped even if they never had slave owners in their families (I can not escape that guilt; I had family on both sides in the Civil War), black Americans are told to feel victimized. Neither of these ‘black and white” solutions is really the best in recognizing a hideous ‘shades of gray’ set of circumstances. It denies the humanity of BOTH sides of the equation.
After all, another thing not taught often — slaves were ENSLAVED by other Africans, as well as by Arabs and Portuguese. And not only blacks were enslaved. If you follow history’s tangled skein, you find MOST of Europe had slaves of the WHITE variety. The Scandinavians enslaved captives from all over — especially Ireland. In Ancient Greece, slavery was common and not at all color coded, Sparta was infamous for even enslaving brother Hellenes! Rome had slave markets for every taste as well. So, my fellow humans? We have all had slavery in our past SOMEwhere. All of us have been both victims and (possibly savage) victors at some point in our histories.
And slavery of many types still exists. We might consider that, we might attack that (even if you must gloss the fight in religion?) instead of the both brilliant and flawed man who wrote the break-up letter to King George, was our third President, and the man who bought the entire central plains area of our nation for THREE CENTS per acre. Oh, and that debt when he died? A goodly portion of that was most likely the loans he took PERSONALLY to pay for the building and establishment of the University of Virginia.
So, rant as you will about the faults of Thomas Jefferson. For this house? One of its treasures, its heirlooms, is a fountain pen made from the wood of a tree Thomas Jefferson planted with his own hands…which my husband and son were fortunate enough to see before it was felled for safety concerns. He was a man, complete in his glory and his shame — a human, not a god with feet of clay, such as modern politics seems to demand. And that is good enough for me.