Sunday, November 16, 2003

Sun-Times Book Review: Thomas Jefferson, Shameless Slavemaster.

Sun-Times book review of Garry Willis' work on Jefferson, by Steven Lyons. I don't like it.

The article starts by stating that: "Anyone who has read the recent revisionist histories of America's "founding fathers" will discover that the men most associated with the establishment of our nation were unabashed slaveowners: George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe and Henry Clay, to name just a few. According to historian Garry Wills, even John Quincy Adams, an avid abolitionist in his post-presidential years, found a rationale of utility in the wicked trade: 'Slavery in the moral sense is an evil; but as connected with commerce, it has important uses.'"

It's "revisionist" to note that some of the Founders were slaveholders? Who didn't know this? Oh, and Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams are not even arguably "founding fathers." They came from an entirely different generation, each became a Democrat, and all were more state's-rights oriented and less concerned with the evils of slavery than their predecessors. Bunching these people together is misleading, because in arguing that the "men most associated with the establishment of our nation" were all slaveholders, Lyons is forced to omit figures like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who practiced what they preached.

I guess this is the part that most drives me nuts: "after reading his devastating account of Jefferson's unscrupulous defense of slavery, it is hard to imagine what is left to admire."

I can name a few things. The Virginia Statute of Religous Freedom. The Louisiana Purchase. Oh, and that little document called the Declaration of Independence. I think that one is pretty good. Dare I say, admirable?

Now I'm not a Jefferson person myself. I find his regenerative constitutionalism pretty silly. He, more than his neighbor Madison, perpetuated a regime he hated in principle, making him hypocritical. But I think his legacy is better than, say, Gray Davis'. But a reader wouldn't know it if they were reading the major papers in Chicago or LA lately.

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