Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thomas Jefferson & Political Correctness

On our recent vacation, Mrs. Trotsky and I spent a day in Charlottesville, VA, touring Thomas Jefferson sites. We visited the University of Virginia, and his home, Monticello.

As an aside, there are some campuses that are just jaw-droppingly beautiful--Cornell University and Indiana University come immediately to mind. I anticipated that from the University of Virginia. But Mr. Jefferson was not a great architect. The Rotunda is a nice building, but absent Mr. Jefferson's fame it would probably not have been rebuilt after the 1895 fire. The other Jefferson-designed campus buildings are undistinguished and would have long since been demolished. Likewise, Monticello is a fine house, but hardly an architectural gem. On the whole, the trip was an aesthetic disappointment.

Trotskyists may very well have invented the concept of political correctness. The premise of the movement is that a vanguard Party with the correct, political program is necessary to lead the world revolution. When I was in the Party in the early 70s, everybody was very conscious of non-sexist, non-racist language. This language discipline is so deeply ingrained in me that even to this day I cannot use the masculine pronoun without cringing.

Whether or not Trotskyists actually initiated political correctness, the cause was soon taken up by English departments, newly staffed with baby-boomer, feminist-minded faculty. Language was power, so they claimed, and since language was the only tool they possessed, they wielded it aggressively. Hence the gender-neutral circumlocutions and ungrammatical formulations with which we are now afflicted.

So I feared for Mr. Jefferson's legacy. We took two tours during our visit--one of the Rotunda, and the other of Monticello. Our tour guide at the Rotunda was a young man majoring in history and government at the University of Virginia. At Monticello our escort was young woman--no longer a student--who gave a very practiced account, and knew the answer to every question.

I am pleased to report that I was unable to determine the political affiliations of either tour guide, or of the people who wrote their scripts. This is excellent news, and it means that the Communist/feminist project to hijack our Founding Fathers has so far not succeeded. Especially at the University, it requires intestinal fortitude to resist the incessant clamor from various crackpots on the faculty. Kudos.

There is one place where perhaps the mask slipped a bit. Both guides referred to Jefferson's slave ownership as "the great contradiction." He was further brought to task for not freeing his slaves in his will, apart from a few. Rather than an error of political correctness, maybe it represents more an oversimplification of history. The issue interests me because it's mostly about economics.

I'll make two points: 1) it is a mistake to hold Jefferson personally accountable to our modern standards of morality. His personal culpability has to be judged in the context of his own time. 2) A consideration of basic economics mitigates Mr. Jefferson's "guilt," even by modern sensibilities. Thus I don't like the phrase, "great contradiction." I don't think Mr. Jefferson saw it as a contradiction at all. Instead, he simply did not have the tools necessary to solve the problem. He didn't free his slaves for the same reason he never built an automobile.

The popular conceit is that Mr. Jefferson was a rich man living on the backs of his slaves. This cannot be entirely true. First, Jefferson was very talented and earned a good living without relying on slaves. He was a farmer by choice, not by necessity. Second, he was never wealthy. At his death his estate was deeply in debt, and Monticello had to be sold by his heirs. It isn't true to say that his slaveholding was hugely profitable.

To the contrary, I think the output from the farm mainly fed and supported the slaves. The productivity of the farm was abysmally low. For example, I learned about a nail manufacturing operation using slave (child) labor. It made a profit during the War of 1812, when America was under British blockade. But after the war it was unprofitable. Even with zero wages, slaves could not produce enough to support themselves. I suggest that most of the farm was like that--it was a charity operation run primarily to feed the slaves.

That puts a different light on Mr. Jefferson's moral culpability. Instead of a being an evil slave profiteer, he's instead running a homeless shelter.

I am particularly offended by the charge that Jefferson was hypocritical in not freeing his slaves. By coincidence, just after my visit I learned that several hundred senior employees at IBM had been laid off. Somehow I doubt that these wage slaves sang free at last, thank God almighty free at last as they left their cubicles for the last time. And likewise for Mr. Jefferson's real slaves, they had no way to earn a living off the estate. Freedom--however good in theory--was disastrous economically and would mean ruinous poverty.

Jefferson did free several slaves in his will. His estate included a master carpenter who built most of Monticello. Jefferson willed him his freedom, along with the tools of his trade. He did likewise for other slaves who had a skilled trade and could earn a living on their own. But the mass emancipation of his slaves would have meant starvation and homelessness, especially since the estate had to be sold after his death.

What I say here renders the characterization "great contradiction" completely misleading. But it does not excuse slavery. Even if you accept my hypothesis in its most favorable light, a whole class of people were still forced to live in degrading poverty at the whim of another's charity. The problem, ultimately, was low productivity. Even following emancipation fifty years later, most former slaves could only become sharecroppers. It took more than a century of capitalism to increase productivity and wealth sufficiently before slaves' descendants could begin to live the American dream.

Thomas Jefferson understood all of this. He deplored slavery, but also recognized that nothing he could do would alter the situation. He did the best he could with the tools at his disposal.

David Gelernter wrote a book entitled Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. It rings true to me--it is undoubtedly my religion. And that's what irks me most about the facile connection between Jefferson and slavery. It's not that Jefferson didn't own slaves. It's just that that fact is not important. There were thousands of slaveholders in the American South during the first decades of the 19th Century, of whom Thomas Jefferson numbered among the least successful. If Jefferson's accomplishments were solely slaveholding and architecture, nobody would have heard of him today.

Instead, he wrote the creed that eventually freed all slaves. It's a creed supported by hundreds of millions of Americans--and not just Americans--of all races and religions. It is the creed that inspires bus loads of people to travel to Charlottesville every day to see mediocre architecture surrounded by ruins of slave shacks. Sadly, it is a creed opposed by Trotskyists, Communists, and many academics.

These are Holy words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. I went to grad school at UVA and, frankly, spent a huge chunk of my life believing Charlottesville to be the center of the universe. From what I can gather now at a great distance, the place has fallen into very bad hands. But Jefferson, if anything, may be underrated. I recommend the biography by Alan Pell Crawford (