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Jon Meacham, a nationally known journalist with deep-rooted ties to Chattanooga, who has turned to the role of biographer, notably a widely praised life of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, has just recently released his latest effort which is about our third president, Thomas Jefferson.
John Seigenthaler, long-time editor of the Nashville Tennessean, had Meacham as a guest on his PBS programme, A Word on Words, this past weekend to discuss this new book.
We were struck once again by the discussion of Mr. Jefferson’s attitude towards, and actions concerning, slavery. This has been a subject of much talking and writing for several decades, especially since the publication of a book concerning his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, with whom he had several children.
To many of a simplistic turn of mind, for the author of the Declaration of Independence wherein he speaks of all men being created equal, and other egalitarian pronouncements, to own other human beings brands him as a hypocrite of the first magnitude, and for him to have engaged in sexual relations with one of those slaves just goes to damn him further.
And like so many before him, Meacham is troubled by this situation.
Well, as in so many other aspects of the private lives of public men, this relationship is both convoluted and complex. The background of some of the story may well begin with Jefferson’s marriage to Martha Wayles, daughter of John Wayles and Martha Eppes Wayles, all members of the colonial Virginia slave-owning landed aristocracy.
This John Wayles in 1746 married Martha Eppes and received as a part of her dowry a “bright mulatto” slave named Betty Hemmings.
By 1761, Wayles had lost three wives, and took Betty Hemmings as his concubine, and by her he had six more children, including Sally Hemmings, the youngest, born 1773.
(It might be well here to explain the term mulatto, inasmuch as this and related terms once widely understood are unknown to many today. A mulatto is a person of mixed race, normally half black and half white, wherein one parent is black and the other is white. In the following generation, a child of this half-and-half racial mixture would be a quadroon; and offspring of this quadroon would be an octoroon.)
Thus Thomas and Martha Jefferson became the owners of Martha’s half sister when Sally Hemmings, by inheritance, became their slave! We will not go into the various other relationships between the Jeffersons and the Hemmings children, but there were many.
It seems that when it became clear that Martha Jefferson was on her deathbed, she made Thomas Jefferson swear that he would not bring a step-mother over her children into the household, on account of her bad experiences with John Wayles’ later wives, after her own mother’s death, a pledge which Jefferson scrupulously observed.
But, none of these circumstances go to the core question raised by so many, which is, how could the author of the Declaration of Independence, and spokesman for the concept of “all men are created equal,” own slaves? The answer, of course, is simply that’s the way it was. Slavery is a concept and a practice almost as old as mankind. The Bible speaks of slavery with neither disapprobation nor approval. At some stage in its development, every civilization has had one form of involuntary servitude or another. Greece honed the concept to probably its highest level, with several of their chief intellectual, military, and other leaders being slaves, or freedmen who were formerly slaves.
In Africa, chieftains could, and did, sell their own subjects into slavery, and the outcome of armed conflicts was expected to be either death or enslavement.
The introduction of slavery into the American colonies was done by the Dutch, with the toleration of the British, shortly after the planting of the first colony in Virginia.
So, by the time of the Declaration, Negro slavery had become a fixed institution, especially in the southern colonies, and the idea of abolition of slavery was simply outside the scope of the issues leading to the Declaration, just as the issue of women’s inequality was almost universally accepted. And by no means was every free white man encompassed in the concept of “all men” at the time.
Although Jefferson was a man well in the forefront of revolutionary ideas and ideals, he was still a son of his times, and he was pragmatist enough to know that one man can only push new and radical ideas so far without encountering insurmountable resistance, and so it was with Negro slavery, Indians’ rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and various other customs and traditions which we have long since struggled to rectify, but without complete success in any of them. So, how can we expect that Mr. Jefferson, one man, could have accomplished what three hundred millions of Americans have not accomplished despite our best efforts?
Even Lincoln, the Great Emancipator faced many concerns and complications and acted only as an act of war, not of morality.
To understand more fully this problem, ask yourself: As an institution, which is worse, slavery or war? Probably most people, upon due reflection, would say that war is worse. Yet there is no thought of abolishing war, even at this late date, and despite the efforts a hundred years ago to fight “A War to End All Wars” as World War I was widely called. But, despite the efforts of so many powerful and civilized leaders, not only did World War I not end all wars, it virtually guaranteed the oncoming of World War II and the ensuing armed conflicts of the Korean “police action”; the Viet Nam war; the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War — or the Iraq War; the Afghan War; and the efforts of John McCain and Lindsey Graham to get us into the ongoing Syrian war (about which we hope to write further very soon).
So, if we or our leaders, have been unable to abolish warfare, with its slaughter of millions of men, women, and children, it ill behooves us to criticize one of the great leaders in the long struggle to widen the scope of American freedom just because he could not achieve perfection according to our current thoughts. Slavery was wrong, but war is worse.
The fact that Mr. Jefferson was not perfect does nothing to lessen his greatness. The same can be said for Mr. Meacham’s prior subject.
Andrew Jackson, in regard to his treatment of the Indians, especially the Cherokees, but despite this record of mistreatment using our current measures, it does nothing to lessen his greatness. Especially is this true when one views with an open mind the fact that virtually every day brings another report of some new imposition or indignity or theft of Indian rights despite the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or because of it.
The old saying — People who live in glass houses should not throw stones — may be appropriate here. We all stand on the shifting sands of our own times, even great men such as Thomas ]efferson.