Andersen: Jefferson’s slavery conundrum
Thomas Jefferson is one of the most revered presidents in American history, but his stance on slavery remains an enigma. How could a man of the Enlightenment partake in a medieval institution that relegated fellow human beings as chattel?
This question has plagued me since a recent visit to Richmond, Va., where Jefferson’s lofty persona is affixed to statues, hotels, streets and landmarks — most notably his Greek revivalist home, Monticello.
In Richmond, the chief slave-trading city of North America from 1830 to 1860, Jefferson is lauded as one of the most ennobling of the Founding Fathers. Often pushed aside is the fact that he not only lived a life of comfort because of the slaves that served him but also fathered children with them.
Jefferson’s willingness to benefit from slavery is understandable. We do it ourselves every time we buy goods manufactured by industrial slaves from around the world.
Our rationale is a bit like Jefferson’s. We see wage slaves as a necessary evil. We regard them as free agents of their own labor, selling their every breath and heartbeat for wages that allow them to escape from crippling poverty and share in the fruits of the industrialized world.
Jefferson’s slaves did not have that level of choice. Some chose to escape, at great risk, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Tubman established the Underground Railroad, through which she rescued 300 slaves. Douglass became a potent voice for abolition.
But how much choice do wage slaves really have? Most cannot escape the social and economic limitations that bind them. Economic apartheid long has been the rule in industrialized societies where capitalism delivers rewards to the highest rungs of the social ladder and relegates the basest jobs to the lower rungs.
Industrial workers often are subjected to inhumane working and living conditions. They toil in Dickensian workhouses where human dignity is routinely debased. These workers do not figure into the consumer calculus when we shop at Walmart, Target or any of the discount chains.
Jefferson was in conflict because he witnessed slavery in his daily life and recognized its ills. Since we don’t see the wage slaves who provide for us, their travails are mostly out of mind. Who thinks about migrant laborers while eating a succulent grape?
Jefferson ultimately rejected slavery but was at a loss on how to stop it.
“To give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery,” Jefferson wrote, “is like abandoning children.” Still, he wrote, “A man’s moral sense must be unusually strong if slavery does not make him a thief.”
Many of today’s industrial workers toil in fear of overseers. The whip of Jefferson’s day has been replaced by a sense of gnawing insecurity, of being thrown out into a cruel world like workhouse orphan Oliver Twist.
Slaves of all stripes, Jefferson wrote, are inevitably driven to overthrow the status quo.
“He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own, can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force,” he wrote.
Our greater social conscience must address all levels of slavery, whether it be Jefferson’s chattel property, the legions of wage slaves whose servitude is the property of industry or sex slaves whose ranks are in the millions. Given the great disparity of wealth in the world today, the denial of slavery constitutes a moral delusion.
Having worked in factories in Chicago as a young man, I saw the mind-numbing routine of line workers, of which I was one. There was material necessity but also a dehumanizing sameness to the labor.
Jefferson proposed to import an alien work force of immigrant German laborers to replace his slaves. Someone had to do the work that produced goods and services.
“Should we be willing to have such a colony in contact with us?” he pondered.
Jefferson’s slavery conundrum morphed into the immigration debate, an issue that today stymies the federal government and draws states into moral conflicts. Who does the work and who benefits is a daunting social issue. For aware consumers, it ought to be a moral imperative.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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