Spring 2018 Bulletin

Jefferson, Race, and Democracy

On February 6, 2018, Annette Gordon-Reed (Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and Professor of History at Harvard University) and Peter S. Onuf (Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society and Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia) participated in a discussion on “Jefferson, Race, and Democracy,” drawing from their recent book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. The program, which served as the Academy’s 2065th Stated Meeting, featured welcoming remarks from Jonathan F. Fanton (President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Peter S. Onuf

Peter S. Onuf

Peter S. Onuf is Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society and Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.

Our plan for this evening is to talk about how scholars today think about Jefferson, particularly on the question of race. We will draw from our book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, but range widely from it. We hope to discuss the current state of Jefferson’s reputation and then move on to an assessment of history and memory more broadly and how we think and rethink race today. We do not have to stick with Jefferson. He is the springboard for us. Annette has played a leading role at Harvard Law School about how we remember or try to erase slavery, and this is the great challenge for us right now: how we remember, what we forget, and what we can learn and take from the past. I think a simple way to put it is this is the era of fake news and of alternative universes. Is there some solid grounding that historians and proper historical understanding can provide us in this era?

The first order of business is to talk a little bit about Jefferson, race, and slavery and a nice way to begin is to explain why we chose the title of our book and how that might provide a way of getting into the problems of race and slavery. Our agenda in writing this book was to put Jefferson together using the different images of Jefferson: the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration with the Jefferson who was the loving grandfather with the Jefferson who owned human beings. Are they the same person? Do we call him schizoid? The fashionable thing to do is simply call him a hypocrite so that we can take the parts that we like. But we thought that was not the way forward. He has been an enormously controversial figure. There are many Jeffersons out there in the national imaginary. Can we construct out of the best available evidence a Jefferson who seems right for his times? What then does he say to us, metaphorically speaking, once we have put him back together?


Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed is Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and Professor of History at Harvard University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2011 and serves as a member of the Academy’s Council.

We grew tired of the idea of a compartmentalized Jefferson with parts that do not speak to one another. Dumas Malone published six volumes’ worth of a biography of Jefferson and left many things out. Then we entered the era of “Jefferson and . . .” Jefferson and slavery, Jefferson and the press, Jefferson and . . . . We wanted to get away from that approach. Our notion of putting Jefferson back together comes from the sense that he had been separated out and he seemed to be a strange character in lots of ways; someone who was not very approachable, not human, not someone we could understand why he became the person that he did. How did he have such influence? How did he manage to demand such loyalty? He was president and then he had acolytes, people who were loyal to him from the time that he left public life and up until we get to John Quincy Adams. And that included Jackson, whom Jefferson was not overly fond of, and yet Jackson considered himself to be a Jeffersonian. We have never again had that kind of political influence from one person over that number of years. So it is inexplicable as to why people followed him, why he was an attractive figure.

People have asked us about the title of our book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. If you notice, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” is in quotes. It was a controversial issue. Our editor said that we do not put quotes on the cover of books.

 

Peter Onuf

 

Because then there would have to be a footnote.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Exactly. We did not want people thinking that we were calling him most blessed of the patriarchs. That is how he described himself in a letter to Angelica Schuyler, who everybody knows now because of the musical Hamilton. There is no night about the Founders that is safe without a mention of Hamilton, the musical. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. I love it.

When we started writing this book we had no idea that anybody would know who she was because there was not any reason for anybody to know who she was. And then the musical comes along and she’s one of the Schuyler sisters so everybody gets who she is.

Jefferson is writing to her in 1793. He has lost the battle for Washington’s favor in the Cabinet and he is going back to Monticello. He writes to her, telling her about his life, what he is going to do now that he is leaving the government. Of course, he does not mention why he is leaving. He does not mention that her brother-in-law was the source of all the angst and the reason that he was departing the Cabinet.

And he writes to her that I have one daughter who’s married and I have another and if she comes to live near me I will consider myself as blessed as the “most blessed of the patriarchs.” There is another famous line: I have my fields to form, and he talks about watching for the happiness of those who labor for mine; that is to say, enslaved people. And that is the title of a book about Jefferson’s attitude about slavery by our friend, Cinder Stanton, Those Who Labor for My Happiness. Putting these things together, a person who is considered to be the apostle of liberty, an avatar of freedom, a devotee of the French revolution, Jefferson was seen as a Jacobin, as a revolutionary, by people during his time period. When talking about himself, he describes himself as a patriarch. A couple of years later, he describes himself as living like an antediluvian patriarch in Monticello among my family, my children, and my farms.

When you think of a patriarch, you might think of someone religious, someone ancient. And to pair that with a person who is an Enlightenment figure, we thought that would be an interesting thing to explore, thinking about Jefferson as he saw himself.

 

Peter Onuf

 

One way to begin to put Jefferson back together is to recognize the fractures or divisions that he proclaimed in his own life. One was family, domesticity, home, and the nasty world of politics. That is a distinction that he keeps making: “Oh, I can’t tell you how I long to be home,” and when he gets home, of course, all his political friends show up and he never gets to spend time in the bosom of his family with his beloved daughters, when they are both alive, and his grandchildren. Instead, he is a political animal, but he has constructed an idea of himself as a private self. In fact, the word self is very important in our understanding of him.

There is something interesting about how Jefferson imagines patriarchy, how he thinks about it. In terms of looking out for the happiness of those people who are dependent on him, who labor for him, and are within his patriarchal domain, he thinks he can make them happy. This is the person who tells us to pursue happiness–the dynamic quest for some ever-receding imagined perfect state, a kind of neurotic excitement that defines all our lives. It is that notion of the patriarchal domain, the division between public and private. So we wanted to get into Jefferson’s house, metaphorically speaking, into his private life in order to get a new perspective on what Jefferson thought about the world beyond his house.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

This notion of making people happy, this is something that grates on us because Jefferson clearly sees himself as a benevolent patriarch and that is something that is difficult for us to wrap our minds around. We see the oppression of it, and he sees himself with responsibilities. And those responsibilities take power away from other people. No matter how nice you think you are to others and how reasonable you think you are, to remove agency from them, to remove their own power to pursue their own happiness, to prevent them from playing their chosen role in the world is the tragedy of slavery. We have been looking at things from the perspective of the people whom Jefferson is acting upon, and that is important to do, but we thought that it might be time, at least for a book, to come back and to take him seriously on his own terms. What is it that he thinks he is doing? And if you do that you get a better sense of what other people at the time saw in him that made him an attractive figure, a figure worth following, someone people trusted to remake American society in a particular image.

So the idea was to look at his letters to his family and the letters between members of his family to try to get a picture of who he really was and to reconstruct that person. And to do this in a thematic way that included his home, Virginia, and all the things that made him who he was. Who influenced him and made him into the person who thought that he could actually act in the world.

 

Peter Onuf

 

What would give Jefferson that idea about himself in the first place? This is the unattractive reality we have to grapple with. Why would somebody in a monarchical world, where all men are created unequal, where Anglo-Americans had been subjects of King George III, imagine that they could govern themselves? We just take that for granted and we universalize it as we think Jefferson did. But it is almost commonsensical to suggest that there has to be a sense of power, a sense of responsibility, a sense of agency, and that comes to people who own their own property, who have civic independence, who can see themselves as makers, as people who can change the world, who can do things. In other words, to some extent Jefferson gets his sense of the power of the citizen and the power of citizens collectively by the real power he exercises in his own household.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Yes, and he had that power from the time that he was a young man. He was born into the highest level of society. His father was more of a self-made man, but his mother’s family was an old family in Virginia.

He is the eldest son when that mattered at the time. He was well educated, with the best type of education then. He did not travel as a young man to England, but he had a good education in Virginia. He was an intelligent person. He was tall at a time when that was important. He was white, he was male, and he owned other people. So in a sense you have a person who has this idea about what an individual can do based on a life unlike that of ordinary people. He extrapolates this notion of power. Only somebody who had had that kind of privilege could take his own understanding of what could be done and extrapolate that across the common white man to certain ends.

 

Peter Onuf

 

That extrapolation is an important point. You could say that democracy is based on universalizing the aristocracy. As Jefferson likes to say in his first inaugural address, why can’t everybody have a household economy? Why can’t all the patriarchs, all the white men, not be like me, but be farmers. Farmers would be better than planters. He understands that the existence of slavery is an immanent contradiction, as we might say today. He is discomfited by it, but he doesn’t lose sleep over it because he feels that at that place and time he has other, more pressing responsibilities.

So there is a great hopefulness in Jefferson. He is a progressive. But one of the reasons he is progressive is that he thinks future generations will move beyond the kinds of conditions that exist for Virginia’s planters. One of the nice ways to get into the problem of race and slavery with Jefferson is to talk about how he imagines that happening. How could we get beyond the existence of widespread ownership of human beings in Virginia with 40 percent of the population enslaved at the time of independence?

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Well, he believed in progress. He believed that things were going to get better, and that is difficult for us to imagine.

But he actually thought that things would get better and better. He extrapolates–we have that word again. He thought of the world in terms of science and what he had seen of science. Scientific advancements opened people’s minds. That is why it was so important to have separation of church and state. Organized religion kept people back; it kept them believing in superstitions, as he would call them. He had a notion that there would be progress and it was the next generation that would carry the ball forward. Now, that is unsatisfactory to us because you always want people to be working toward something that is right. But he actually did believe that it was for the next generation to advance things.

 

Peter Onuf

 

Jefferson had a plan. He spelled it out in Notes on the State of Virginia and he repeated it several times throughout. The solution is to take the problem of slavery and to recognize the injustice of enslaved people, who had been denied any civic existence. How do you solve the problem? With emancipation. Slavery is a contradiction in terms for somebody who believes in civic equality.

So how do you get to the next stage? For Jefferson the boundary between the races–between the white nation, the owners, the masters, and the enslaved captive nation–was a belligerent frontier, one that had been policed by the institution of slavery. If you abolish slavery that frontier disappears, but the two peoples are still there. The only solution, therefore, is expatriation or what came to be known as colonization, a favorite panacea of right-minded white politicians up through the Civil War.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Interestingly enough, we talked about this in my class today. Who are “the people” and how do African Americans belong in “the people”? Part of Jefferson’s understanding and his answer to that was no, they could not belong because slavery had destroyed or would destroy any black person’s possibility of loving this country. How do you love a country where you have been treated the way you have been treated? How can white people believe that black people who have been so degraded are equal to them? We will never give up our prejudices, which is basically what he says. And there will be a state of war. Slavery was that state of war. Jefferson accepted the Lockean notion of slavery as a state of war that would continue, giving us unending conflict. And the truth is we have had a war: at the end of slavery, we have lynching, Jim Crow, and police suppression of people in urban areas. It has not been easy and we like to think we are beyond all of that, but we really are not.

One of the things I was saying in my class today is that Jefferson’s real problem was that he wrote things down. He was seriously thinking about how to incorporate African Americans into a community. If the nation is a compilation of families to communities up to the national government, how can you be equal citizens if you cannot be in families with one another? How do you say that we are equal but we cannot marry each other, we cannot have children together? Family formation was a problem. He did not think that there could be such a thing as first-class or second-class citizenship. And so we ended up with a republic that has tiers of citizenship and for him it was you are either a citizen or not, and black people are not going to be citizens. They need to be in a country where they can be full citizens because it is not going to happen here.

 

Peter Onuf

 

If you were a Federalist, you were very comfortable with the fact of social inequality. Now, John Adams is a good democrat, with a small d. He is not going to say anybody should be deprived of the vote, but he would say that aristocracy is natural. In fact, he did say it. He said that there would always be an elite, and they would always exercise power. If you see the world in those terms, and those are realistic terms, you say there is a place at the bottom for you. Now, that is not the usual American promise, but it does mean that you could be part of this thing and you could imagine an underclass. And then maybe even in the long term you could imagine a gradual rising up, maybe through education, maybe through some conservative process that would not disrupt things.

I am going to quarrel with you a little bit, Annette, because it always livens things up. Jefferson, you say, should not have written things down.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

The perils of a written record. But, of course, he should have written things down or we would not be sitting here.

 

Peter Onuf

 

Jefferson writes things down that can be–in fact have to be–read in two different ways. For example, take his strongest argument for democracy, one that political theorists who do not know much history get very excited about today. It is his notion of the word republic and his elaboration of this idea in 1816. He writes a series of letters that draws on his experience and his aspirations. He says, “Let’s imagine a federal system that just doesn’t begin with the states. It begins with these little village republics.” He has New England envy. He wishes that Virginia were not made of these oligarchical counties where there was no real democratic government. Let’s start with the ward, or maybe with the farm or the plantation. And the citizen, the patriarch: that is the first stage in his democratic vision. As Annette suggested, it goes all the way from the village to the county to the state to the union . . . and to the whole world. You build up. This is the strongest statement, the inspirational statement, of his conception of democracy. Nobody knows better how to govern his own farm or plantation than the farmer or the planter. Is that commonsensical, my fellow Americans? And what am I saying when I say that? I am saying don’t mess with my slaves.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

That is the idea of control and mastery over your own domain and that is the problem that we have with Jefferson today. It is interesting to talk about the changing fortunes. I taught a freshman seminar this year on Hamilton and Jefferson with twelve students, two of whom you could call Jeffersonian. The rest were Hamiltonians. We are all Hamiltonians now. It is an interesting turn of events that has happened.

 

Peter Onuf

 

Jefferson is black now.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Well, Jefferson is black now. I have a friend who took her daughter to see Hamilton and then afterwards she was reading a child’s book about Madison Hemings and slavery. She looked up at her mother and she said, “Thomas Jefferson was white?” This notion of a multiracial society makes him a hard sell even though there are so many other aspects of his life, of his theories, that are in fact useful.

 

Peter Onuf

 

This is why I insisted on the double reading of Jefferson. To say that democratic theory is simply a cover for slavery, that is reductive. There is a lot more to everything Jefferson has to tell us. And I think that is the challenge, and this is maybe a nice time to segue into Jefferson’s standing today.

We had many conversations at Monticello. Annette and I go there often to give advice about how Monticello should engage with the problem of race as well as slavery in the wake of what happened in my hometown last August: the idea that Jefferson is the ur-racist because he insisted on a distinction between black and white and did not envision a multiracial or a biracial republic. Maybe he is the problem and maybe it is time to put him down yet again. How do we deal with the notion that Jefferson stands for something we need to repudiate? That is a logical conclusion that we can understand. But it is not going to get us anywhere. Jefferson is a richer resource than that. In the moment we are now in, we know Jefferson is a complicated character.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

I wrote something about this to try to flesh out the very thing that you are saying here, this notion of how you have this person who is so much a part of the American story that you really cannot write him out of it. It might be a comfortable thing to do–in Communist China you could tell who was out of favor or in favor by whether or not they got airbrushed out of the picture.

But we cannot do that because Jefferson had his hand in so many aspects of the founding. In a sense, it is like dealing with the contradictions of the country itself. There are the strong points and the weak points; there is the issue of race and religion. Putting them away is not going to solve the problem and make it seem like it never happened. And that is the real challenge and why it is so difficult for some people to do that today. Either he has to be the devil or he has to be God.

At Monticello they are trying to find the right balance because people are asking questions that they might not have asked ten or fifteen years ago. It is a different story that is being told. There are more voices and more people who are interested in trying to make sense of all of this. So the project was a chance for us to work together and try to explicate the life of somebody we think is indispensable to understanding the country and ourselves.

 

Peter Onuf

 

About every idea that we think is crucial in our modern day political toolbox has a Jeffersonian genealogy, for example, democracy and rights. How does rights thinking emerge in the United States? It emerges through the strong voice of Jefferson and the Jeffersonians. It is based on a conception of liberty that we now see racialized; we understand its historical context and we reject it. But the modern idea of liberty, the modern idea of rights, and the modern idea of democracy all draw on Jefferson. We need to be aware of how we both differ from Jefferson and how we are indebted to him and that is another way of saying we have to come to grips with the fact that we are Americans.

 

Discussion

 

 

Question

 

The thing that puzzles me about Jefferson is that unlike other people who are so immersed in a way of thinking that they cannot even imagine anything else, Jefferson was an independent thinker. His views of religion were very independent minded. He was not the creature of his circumstances in the way that Madison was. Madison was a much more conventionally religious person. Jefferson was not conventional in many respects, whether it is religion or science. And yet he did not do a very good job in rising above the question of race. There were others who did better. And that may be why people are so taken with Hamilton because Hamilton was not encapsulated in that view.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Hamilton apparently believed that to the extent that there were any problems with African Americans, with blacks, it was because of slavery. He saw slavery as something that negatively affected blacks. Now, we do not want to exaggerate how much antiracist sentiment was loose in Virginia at that moment.

 

Peter Onuf

 

It wasn’t voiced.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

People say Madison was not a racist or Washington was not racist, but was Jefferson? Is it better to be somebody who is not a racist but can hold people in bondage nevertheless or to be someone who has to rationalize this behavior? I think a lot of it is rationalizing behavior. Virginia’s culture was racist. Jefferson was born in 1743, and we are sitting here in 2018 and many people have similar ideas. This is a tough nut to crack.

 

Peter Onuf

 

I think the problem is that Jefferson disappoints us. He lets us down. Why do we think that he should have anticipated the kind of world we are responsible for making now? He could not imagine the future. He could pray, and we argue that he did pray, that it would be better and he was imagining a way out of the dilemma of slavery, the injustice of it, but it would take generations. First he said, “Well, maybe more than my lifetime, maybe an age.” Jefferson had a genius for abstraction, for drawing from the world he lived in to the kinds of principles that Enlightenment thinkers drew about moral sense, about human capacity, about human nature, and about how a great country could be based on a continent open to new settlement. He had no idea of what was going to happen to the economy, to capital, to the kind of world that we live in now.

And here’s my clinching argument. Jefferson said that one day every young man in America would be a Unitarian. Now that is a prophetic statement! My point is that it is up to us to know how to make use of our history not to find role models or people who happen to say the things that please us right now, but to see where we are now, where we were then, and how progress was made that we cherish as our American story. And it was partly because people followed Jefferson’s ideas. It was the idea of progress. It was the idea that at some point justice would be done. It is almost a religious faith. One thing that we are desperately in need of today is a civic religious faith in the prospect or possibility of creating the kind of society in which we have had the unique opportunity in world history to create but which we are putting into jeopardy.

Jefferson is both the source of much that is good–our sense of possibility, our sense of the power and the goodness of people–but he is also responsible for much that we think is bad. It is up to us to read him well for our own purposes and not to distort him, to make him into somebody who would be serving our purposes.

 

Question

 

One of the things that has always intrigued me was Jefferson’s relationship to money.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Jefferson was not a good manager of his affairs. He spent a lot of time in public life away from the farm. One of the points that we make in the book is that people think of him as the great agriculturalist and he was interested in the farm at a basic level, but he was much more interested in building, much more interested in the mechanics of those things rather than agriculture. Debt was a way of life for farmers, then and now. He had a memorandum book in which he kept all of his accounts and daily transactions. There was an illusion: he was wealthy by the measures of the eighteenth-century with land and, for Virginia, enslaved people, but what really happens to him in the end is that the economy changes.

There was a depression and he lent money to people. He was interested in getting money to pay debts. There is no sense that he wanted to gather up money just for the sake of gathering up money.

He did not pay attention to these things, and one of the points we make is that the patriarch, the person who is going to watch out for the happiness of people, ends up dependent upon his grandson who was much better with money and a much better manager and steward of the farm than Jefferson. He was an intellectual. He lived the life of a writer. The notion of moneymaking for the sake of it or managing it eluded him and it was not something that he spent his time on; that just was not his passion.

 

Peter Onuf

 

Well, the mark of a good master, of a good planter, was keeping families together, of running a profitable plantation enterprise that would not have to be liquidated. If we keep in mind that, of course, plantation slavery was vitally important to the spread of capitalism in the modern world and of course to the wealth of the United States of America, that was the criterion. And ultimately it became the foundation and justification for pro-slavery arguments. Remember this about Jefferson. Living as long as he did–and I have always said he lived too long–he had to know that slavery was not going to disappear. You could tell that by just checking out the price of slaves at the Richmond slave market. The price goes up and up. So the idea that somehow the rising generation of Virginians would say, “Well, you know, this is not an efficient way to deploy our capital, let’s be more like Pennsylvania” is not realistic. I think Jefferson had Pennsylvania envy as well as New England envy. His poor management was because he was looking beyond all this and he imagined that things would get better and what is saddening for him and for us about his life is how it just does not happen.

 

Question

 

What was in Jefferson’s thinking in trying to ship slaves back to Africa? In his mind, what was the American Colonization Society?

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

He never joined the American Colonization Society. He never thought that they were really serious.

 

Peter Onuf

 

Jefferson never joined it, but Madison did.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

There was no real plan for the idea of shipping back blacks. Blacks could not be incorporated into the society as part of the people; they had to find their own place where they could be citizens in a black country.

 

Question

 

Did Jefferson have any notion about that?

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Jefferson had a gigantic map of Africa in the hallway at Monticello and he had chess pieces with African players and African people.

 

Peter Onuf

 

He was very interested in what the British were doing in West Africa with Sierra Leone. Maybe that would be a place to send freed people, or criminals in the case of Gabriel’s rebellion. The idea was that African Americans were a captive nation with no claim on the land. Property rights were very important, then and now. The British and Euro-American settlers owned the land. So colonization and expatriation would give a landless people a land of their own.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

There are the people who came here voluntarily, like the European settlers and even indentured servants, versus the people who were captured and brought here. If you were captured and brought here, why would you want to stay? How could you love this country when you had been treated this way? I end two books talking about the fact that Jefferson frees five people in his will and then he petitions the legislature and says they need to stay in Virginia because this is where their family and their connections are.

Family and connections to a particular land were important so that is why they get to stay here. But thinking about what is happening on a national level in terms of the policy of the United States is very different than on the personal level.

 

Peter Onuf

 

I think the most striking statement in Jefferson’s writings is in Notes on the State of Virginia, query 14, where he talks about his plans for colonization. He talks about how we would emancipate these enslaved individuals and then send them someplace, who knows where, and declare them a free and independent people. It is of course a perversion and reversal of the Declaration of Independence. They are people who are being declared independent. But the vision is one of the ultimate national self-determination of people who had been unjustly captured in war.

 

Question

 

What did Jefferson understand by happiness? He was a highly educated man whom I am sure had read Aristotle, who said that happiness was the ultimate aim of everybody. Was this a conventional statement that Jefferson was repeating or was it something more personal to him?

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Well, there is some indication that Jefferson got this from James Wilson. It is not happiness in the way we think about it. It is not licentiousness, but the pursuit of a life of usefulness, a life of virtue. That would be his understanding of it.

 

Peter Onuf

 

And he would draw on the classics, the ancient philosophers. It is about achieving balance.

Fulfillment and flourishing are a favorite term of art. The word happiness obviously has multiple meanings. We talked about the pursuit of happiness. The other idea that we have also mentioned is in the unquoted part of the title of our book, which is drawn from political economy. It refers to how a whole society is functioning. Its happiness would be measured by personal welfare, by the availability of a plentiful subsistence, by a high rate of reproduction. It has more to do with keeping bodies alive and healthy and promoting people’s welfare. A manager and owner of human beings would tend to think in those terms about his people.

 

Question

 

What was your writing process like? Were you like Lennon and McCartney? And then how did that differ, Professor Gordon-Reed, from your Hemingses book, which must have been a very solitary process?

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

We started out talking a lot about what we wanted to do before we started to write. Then we started Skype sessions. Peter was going to retire and I thought that we should do a book to keep him from retiring.

Our editor, Bob Weil, did not want a book in which one person writes a chapter, another person writes a chapter, and you have two different voices. So as much as we could we tended to write sections that were not too long so no one became wedded to what they had written, and then we sent it to the other person.

 

Peter Onuf

 

And we talk about it.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Yes, we talked it through. The sentences are the melding of our ideas. There are a few instances in which we could say oh, that might be him, that might be me, but for the most part there are not many sentences that we have not both messed with.

 

Peter Onuf

 

We are very proud of the fact that most of our readers tell us it is a single voice.

 

Question

 

As you mentioned, Jefferson is a man of contradictions, and many of his ideas on race were driven by the culture in Virginia and by his self-interest. I am wondering what did he think about this Enlightenment idea of ending the slave trade and emancipation.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

He was very proud of the fact that he was involved in that. We say ending the slave trade was not an anti-slavery provision. But at the time it was thought of as an anti-slavery measure. As a young man Jefferson copied in his memorandum books a part of a poem by William Shenstone that talks about a person ripped from his native homeland, brought and forced across the ocean to labor for someone else. This is when he is in his twenties, even before he is Thomas Jefferson. So as a young man he sees himself as progressive. This was one of the things that was fixated in his mind as something that could in fact be an anti-slavery measure.

 

Question

 

Peter admitted that Jefferson had New England envy and so John Adams’s idea of everyone rising is an idea that I think Jefferson at his best actually shared, along with the ideas of James Wilson. The question I want to ask you is about a statement that came out of both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, the two professional organizations of our guild. Both statements called for the taking down of Confederate monuments, and the argument was that if you look at the time in which these monuments were erected it was the height of Jim Crow. They were put in place explicitly and self-consciously to make clear to African Americans that despite the Civil War amendments, white male supremacy was still in place and that every moment that an African American saw those monuments that power discrepancy was reinscribed. I find that a persuasive argument, but I would be curious to know how you feel about it.

 

Peter Onuf

 

I agree with it very strongly. The implementation is something else. Our good friend, Ed Ayers, is on the commission in Richmond that is going to deal with Monument Avenue. If you can imagine a challenge: drive down Monument Avenue and you see one horse after another until you get to Arthur Ashe, which is a bit of a contradiction.

What I think is important is to evoke a Jeffersonian idea of progressive public opinion or let’s just say practical enfranchisement to allow through democratic processes local communities to deal with their landscape. The first step, I think, is to educate everybody: what the monuments mean, why they are there, and what they have done. In Charlottesville, it is just finally becoming clear that having Stonewall Jackson right in the middle of town is an insult to everybody.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

I agree with that as well. It is time to rethink this question of why the monuments were put there.

 

Question

 

I have a question based on what you said about Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on the future of the races, of mixing the black and white races. In particular, is there any indication of how, if at all, his child with Sally Hemings had any effect on his thinking?

 

Annette Gordon-Reed

 

Children were white by Virginia law. Seven-eighths white made you a white person. Jefferson wrote in a letter to a man named Francis Gray, who had asked him when could a black person become white, that is, how many crossings did it take, and he said at the end, “When such a person is freed they are a free white citizen of the United States.” When his children are emancipated they are free white citizens of the United States as far as he is concerned. Now, the one-drop rule is what most people think of, but that comes much later. He would have thought of them as white people. n

© 2018 by Peter S. Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/jefferson-race-democracy.

 

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