The History Book Club discussion

PRESIDENTIAL SERIES > 7. AMERICAN SPHINX ~ CHAPTER 3 (171 - 199) (03/15/10 - 03/21/10) ~ No spoilers, please

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message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (last edited Mar 10, 2010 10:39PM) (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
Hello Everyone,

This begins the seventh week's reading in our new Presidential Series group discussion.

The complete table of contents is as follows:

Prologue. Jefferson Surge: America, 1992-1993 p.3
1. Philadelphia:1775-76 p.27
2. Paris: 1784-89 p.75
3. Monticello: 1794-97 p.139
4. Washington, D.C.: 1801-1804 p.200
5. Monticello: 1816-1826 p.273
Epilogue. The Future of an Illusion p.349
Appendix. A Note on the Sally Hemings Scandals p.363

The assignment for this week includes the following segments/pages:

Week Seven - March 15th - March 21st -> 3. Monticello: 1794-97 p.171 - 199
Slavery - Madisonian Minuet - Lucky Losers

We look forward to your participation; but remember this is a non spoiler thread.

We will open up threads for each week's reading. Please make sure to post in the particular thread dedicated to those specific chapters and page numbers to avoid spoilers.

This book was kicked off on February 1st. This will be the seventh week's assignment for this book.

We look forward to your participation. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other noted on line booksellers do have copies of the book and shipment can be expedited. The book can also be obtained easily at your local library, or on your Kindle.

A special welcome to those who will be newcomers to this discussion and thank you to those who have actively contributed on the previous Presidential Series selection. We are glad to have you all.



Here also is the syllabus:

American Sphinx The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis Joseph J. Ellis Joseph J. Ellis


This thread opens Monday, March 15th for discussion. This is a non spoiler thread. These threads are being set up in advance as I will be out of the country and access may not always be timely. To avoid any situations where the threads may not be opened; I am opening them in advance; however this thread will not be opened "for discussion" by Joe until March 15th.

message 2: by Joe (last edited Mar 15, 2010 07:35AM) (new)

Joe (blues) Jefferson and Slavery

The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, had an ambivalent relationship with the institution of slavery. During his lifetime, Jefferson attempted twice to legislate the emancipation of slaves, one time in 1769 at the Virginia General Assembly, and another in 1784 at the Continental Congress. Jefferson also railed against King George III of Great Britain and the Atlantic slave trade in his draft copy of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. Yet Jefferson, himself, acquired and sold hundreds of slaves throughout his lifetime, owning as many as 267 in 1822. A profligate spender, Jefferson was deeply in debt and had encumbered his slaves by notes and mortgages; he could not free them until he was free of debt, which he never achieved. All but one of Jefferson's slaves was sold after his death to pay his debts.

This ambivalence to slavery was reflected in Jefferson's letter to John Holmes, dated April 1820. In this letter, Jefferson refused to publicly support the abolitionist movement. Jefferson seems to have suffered pangs and trials of conscience.
“I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery:], in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle [possession:] which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other”

His ambivalence was also reflected in his treatment of those house slaves, (who worked most closely with him and his family) at Monticello and other homes. He invested in having them trained and schooled in skills. On the other hand, African elderly and children were not excluded from manual labor on Jefferson's Monticello Estate and nail factory.

Jefferson also held contemporary beliefs, on the least persuasive grounds, that Blacks were inferior to Whites in terms of potential citizenship, and he wanted them deported. Jefferson's solution entailed gauging what he perceived to be the common good for both Whites and Blacks, and proposed what he considered to be reasonable policies: education, emancipation, and colonize emancipated slave children outside of the United States. According to Laws found in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites in terms of beauty and reasoning intelligence. Slavery, while unconscionable, was a commonplace though still controversial institution in Thomas Jefferson's time. Slavery continued in Virginia 37 years past Jefferson's death in 1826. President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in Virginia and other states in 1863 under the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery was completely outlawed in the United States in 1865 under the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

During his long career in public office, Jefferson tried many times to abolish or limit the advance of slavery. He sponsored and encouraged Free-State advocates like James Lemen. According to a biographer, Jefferson "believed that it was the responsibility of the state and society to free all slaves." Thomas Jefferson worked for many years, ultimately successfully, to repeal the slave trade in his state of Virginia, , and prohibit slavery in any states admitted to the Union inside the Northwest Territory after 1787, and as United States President repealed the slave trade in the United States. Jefferson, while President, also enforced an embargo against the slave rebellion in Saint Domingue (renamed Haiti in 1804). Thus, faced with his one opportunity to provide international support for successful anti-slavery movement, Jefferson sided unequivocally with the slave-owners. Then in 1817, Jefferson refused an opportunity from a friend to pay for the emancipation of Jefferson's slaves. Jefferson claimed he was too old and tired. The complexity of Thomas Jefferson's character as a purchaser, seller, and owner of hundreds of slaves, while at the same time an abolitionist and advocate of abolitionism, mixing in Jefferson’s racial anthropology, has caused difficulty to accurately determine Jefferson's legacy with slavery. This article is a chronological summary focusing on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and slavery and incorporating the many significant events during Thomas Jefferson's lifetime.


message 3: by Joe (new)

Joe (blues) "Throughout this early phase of his life it would have been unfair to accuse him of hypocrisy for owning slaves or to berate him for failing to provide moral leadership on America's most sensitive political subject. It would in fact have been much fairer to applaud his efforts, most of them admittedly futile, to inaugurate antislavery reform and to wonder admiringly how this product of Virginia's planter class had managed to develop such liberal convictions." pg 172

On page 176, Ellis states, "If his position on slavery as a young man merits a salute for its forthright and progressive character, his position as a mature man invites skepticism for its self-serving paralysis and questionable integrity. But latter-day moral judgments are notoriously easy to render from the comfortable perch that hindsight always provides."

Evaluating Jefferson's moral integrity, as far as slavery is concerned, throughout his lifetime is an interesting subject. I am wondering what others are thinking about how Jefferson stands up against others in his generation and beyond.

message 4: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Craig Good post, Joe.

Personally, I struggle with this one, too, as many people do. Slavery is like having a "wolf by the ears." (TJ letter).

Clearly Washington, who freed his slaves and a member of the same class as TJ, was an exception and TJ the rule. In the South, you don't get a strong sense that planters freed their slaves for principle. When they do, it might be for more economic reasons. All the action was happening in the North, not the South. He probably knew what the Quakers were doing in Pennsylvania and he was friends with Benjamin Rush.

Morally you ask yourself: what I ought to do. I think TJ felt he ought to free his slaves. But for other reasons, and I think Ellis does a good job in spelling them out, he does not. Morality does have an action aspect to it. To actually act on his moral convictions would probably, in TJ's head, ruin him and the country. His passion is different than John Brown.

I want to say he lacked the moral courage on slavery, but on the other, you can understand it was difficult for him to act on his morality. I do wish he was involved in the public dialogue, though. I think he failed on this.

message 5: by Karol (new)

Karol Bryan, very good points.

One thing that really bothers me about Jefferson is that it was all too important for him to NOT free his slaves. The author noted that when he needed cash (because of his heavy indebtedness), he sold some acreage or some slaves. He might have lost everything during his lifetime if he did not treat both his real estate and his slaves as property and an investment.

message 6: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Craig I think I see what you are saying, Kay. The bottom line is economics for TJ. He needed the slaves for his livelihood. I think he made personal connection with some of his slaves, especially as Ellis suggests the Hemmings family, but I think he did see them as property.

I liked Ellis' final point about how the house-servants were more white than black.

message 7: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments Similar to other Southern plantation owners, TJ kept his slaves for economic reasons. Could you imagine how much it would have cost him to have hired help? Talk about debt!

Moreover, Ellis implies that TJ felt that the benevolent way in which he treated his slaves helped him to rationalize keeping them in the first place.

I really enjoyed this chapter. I thought that it provided the most insight into Jefferson's mindset than any other part of the book.

message 8: by Virginia (new)

Virginia (va-BBoomer) | 210 comments I think I can understand where TJ's head is as to his reasoning in keeping slaves, especially his household group. He was raised in the southern slavery 'tradition', and he did obviously struggle with this vs. his evidently inate empathy for people. When he had to, he did sell slaves, but it appears that he sold fewer than other owners. But as Sera stated, his debt situation would have been off the map if he had had to have hired help instead of slaves.
He think he did struggle with the morality issue of slavery all his plantation owner life, but used his feeling of obligation to be the slaves' needed and necessary protector to at least partially excuse his not releasing his slaves outright. He was a typical southern plantation master, though I suspect he was much kinder than most of the other owners.

message 9: by Vincent (new)

Vincent (vpbrancato) | 1245 comments Virginia wrote: "I think I can understand where TJ's head is as to his reasoning in keeping slaves, especially his household group. He was raised in the southern slavery 'tradition', and he did obviously struggle ..."

Just a comment that Jefferson's debt was more a question of his spending that his costs I think.

In may areas free men might have been more cost productive - probably not in farming - but in other areas.

I have seen very expensive skilled union labor arrive at jobs and work effectively and fast enough to be less expensive than non-union less skilled labor at the end of a project.

message 10: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments Good point, Vince. Jefferson lived the type of life that he fancied, but that he also clearly couldn't afford.

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