CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — The Incomprehensible Machine

I’m fascinated and troubled by the mystery of Thomas Jefferson.

I’m reading a biography in which he is working hard in 1784, spending political capital, to try to convince the Continental Congress to outlaw slavery in the American West. Jefferson is working on his celebrated Bill for the Government of the Western Territories. He reckons that if we can keep slavery confined to the original 13 states and not let it seep into the West, we may be able to rid ourselves of this appalling institution before it is too late. Jefferson calls slavery an “abominable crime.” He seems at this stage of his life (he’s 41 years old) to be strongly, even passionately, committed to abolition.

So, slavery is an “abominable crime” against humanity, a violation of every human being’s natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s the Jefferson we love.

But wait. Then he is selected in May 1784 to go to Paris to represent the United States in Europe for the purpose of commercial treaties. The minute he gets the appointment, Jefferson begins preparing for the long and somewhat dangerous journey, which he has been dreaming of for 20 years. He decides to take his slave, James Hemings, with him to Paris as his personal body servant, fixer and valet.

So, James Hemings leaves Virginia for the first time, travels 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, to a country whose language he cannot understand one word of, as Jefferson’s personal slave. For Jefferson this is no brainer decision. Of course, he will take a slave with him. That’s what a Virginia gentleman does.

But wait? Jefferson just now called slavery an “abominable crime.” And now Jefferson is carting a man he owns, James Hemings, to Paris for his own personal convenience.

How do we square these things? Does Jefferson believe he is committing a moral crime by taking Hemings as to France as his slave? Surely not. So, either he must think of James as his servant — in effect, lying to himself about Hemings’ actual legal status — or he must think that he, Jefferson, is so enlightened and humane a man that it cannot really be called slavery. Do you think at any point during the hectic preparations for the ocean journey from Boston to Europe Jefferson said to himself, “Given my passionate attack on slavery before the Continental Congress, maybe I should prove to myself in the next couple of years that I can wean myself of my dependence on slaves? It’s easy enough to condemn gross slavery out in the fields, but equally importantly, what about the slaves who set my table, draw my bath, lay out my clothing, run important errands for me, make my bed, fetch the pan of cold water I bathe my feet in every morning?”

Did he think, “I’m a hypocrite for taking James to France given my publicly stated abhorrence of slavery?” No, certainly not. In Jefferson’s mind there were several types of slavery: There were illiterate field slaves who did the rough agricultural work of Jefferson’s plantation. There were slaves who were carpenters, wheelwrights, barrel makers, bricklayers, nail makers, etc. He respected their skills and he depended on their excellent work in furnishing his house with Palladian ornamentation, creating vehicles including carriages, wagons and wheelbarrows for the plantation, building him writing desks and other gimcracks.

And then there were his black and mulattro household servants, individuals he regarded certainly as more than slaves, essentially on a level plane with the white Europeans who served as servants in great houses. Jefferson regarded his immediate household staff as not-slaves, not free but not quite fully slaves, either. And in certain moods and certain cases, he regarded them as “family.” Which, of course, he had genetic reason to do, since some of them were progeny of Martha Jefferson’s father, John Wayles, and therefore his own in-laws.

What I am saying is that I believe it is possible that Jefferson could get through a whole day, if he stayed inside, without having to face the fact that he was a slaveholder, even though it was his slaves who fed him, helped him dress and bathe, attended to his personal laundry, changed his sheets, dried his towels and hauled his urine and excrement out of his primitive indoor toilet.

I believe Thomas Jefferson could look on his household staff and let himself believe they were not-slaves, or perhaps it is that the fact of their servitude would not necessarily be apparent to Jefferson, on any given day, because he had a great capacity for compartmentalizing his mind, pushing disagreeable truths to the periphery of his consciousness and casting a gauzy mist of optimism and cheerfulness over whatever gritty thing was actually before him.

That was a gift — and a curse. It allowed Jefferson to live with an “abominable crime” at the center of his life and yet not be debilitated by that problem, that paradox, that inconsistency, that contemptible hypocrisy.

Jefferson hates slavery and makes his distaste for it a serious public issue, and then, almost on the same day, almost in the same breath, blithely takes his slave ,James Hemings, with him to France. And when James, after mastering French faster than his master and having free access to the great city, which was in a state of fermentation about liberty, the right of man, human dignity, rebellion and self-government, when James figured out that under French law he was free and Ambassador Jefferson could not possibly make him go back to Virginia with him, James let Jefferson talk him out of his one chance at true freedom.

Jefferson convinced James that if he came back to Virginia and taught another Monticello slave the art of French cookery, why he’d free James and give him some travel and startup money, presuming that James would move north to Philadelphia or New York just about as quickly as possible. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when that confrontation occurred in Paris. I’m sure Jefferson was taken aback by James Hemings’ assertiveness. At home that kind of thing could bring on a savage whipping.

And as I say, Jefferson probably did not think of James Hemings as a slave. He probably thought of him as an important member of his household staff, a promising young man he had magnanimously brought to Paris to see a wider world, which Jefferson must have regarded as a gift of special privilege, a sign of trust. In Jefferson’s mind, James should feel proud and privileged and even grateful to Jefferson, which probably he did, but that did not prevent him from speaking truth to power when he asked Jefferson why he (and his sister, Sally Hemings) should return to a nation that was not only OK with slavery, but still extolling its moral and economic benefits?

Jefferson may have felt hurt when James confronted him. There’s your ingratitude. He may even have been bewildered, as if it never had crossed his mind that James Hemings would want to be free, not in France, not in Virginia. It was one of those moments when Jefferson had to face the fact that he was a good and enlightened man, a republican visionary and human rights advocate, who knew better, and who did not try to defend slavery when thousands of others did, but yet he was a slaveholder, a perpetrator of this “abominable crime” against humanity, against human rights, against everything Jefferson said he believed in.

He said it himself in “Notes on the State of Virginia”:

“What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment or death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict  on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”

Jefferson is saying, wow, humans can really be hypocrites even about the most important principles of their lives. Was the elegant Mr. Jefferson looking in the gilded mirror in his salon de Langeac when he said this? How could he not see himself in this devastating portrait of hypocrisy?

But notice that Jefferson begins by saying this paradox is “stupendous” and “incomprehensible.” The paradox fascinates him. But he does not say what a wicked, greedy, violent, rapacious machine is man, or what a contemptible hypocrite is man. He stops short of that. He is more fascinated than appalled. He’s approaching the issue as if he were a third-party sociologist, not himself a slaveholder. At no point does he say here, and of course I, too, am a slaveholder, committing this abominable crime day by day, including in France, where slavery is actually illegal.

If you want to understand Jefferson, you have to try to make sense of a moment like this in 1784, when he denounces slavery more firmly than at any previous time and fights to keep it out of the American West, and then blithely takes a slave with him to Europe to attend to his every need. Well, not every need. That involved James Hemings’ sister.

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