of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our
involvement with slavery after the Civil War. While our Founders –
people like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “all men are created equal” in
the Declaration of Independence but owned slaves himself – were
tarnished, morally imperfect hypocrites, in our modern era, we tell
ourselves, we’ve risen above that. We are pure! We’re no longer
tainted by slavery!
If only it were true.
The recent fires
that killed 112 workers in Bangladeshi sweat shops making garments for
Wal-Mart and other American retailers show how we, today, are frankly
more hypocritical and dishonest about slavery than was Jefferson
As are those Libertarians who argue that the Bangladeshis
were “willing workers,” when poverty is so severe in that country that
working, chained into a firetrap factory, is essential to survival
itself. To call the working conditions of much of the developing world
anything less than slavery is to ignore the power relationships that
keep workers behind fences, locked 24/7 in often-violent dormitories,
and the companies that string nets outside windows to reduce worker
It’s to rationalize the role we play in this modern-day
version of slavery, the same way 18th Century US slavery advocates (and
some modern-day Southern Republicans) argued that slaves at least had
free housing, food, and medical care as compensation for their labors.
As I point out in my book “What Would Jefferson Do?
although Jefferson inherited land and slaves as a teenager when his
father died, and more, including his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemmings,
when his wife’s father died, Jefferson knew slavery up-front and
personal, and worked much of his life to end it.
In April of 1770,
Jefferson was practicing law and defended a slave who was requesting
his freedom (Howell v. Netherland). In his arguments on behalf of the
slave, Jefferson said that “under the law of nature, all men are born
free, and every one comes into the world with the right to his own
person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own
The year before, 1769, as a legislator in Virginia, he had
written a bill to abolish the importation of slaves into that state. It
was unsuccessful, and even brought down the wrath of many of his peers
on him and his relative, Richard Bland, who Jefferson had asked to
introduce the proposed legislation.
In his 1774 booklet, “A
Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson attacked King
George III for forcing slavery upon the colonies, a charge that was
repeated in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776,
but deleted from the final draft in order to keep the representatives of
South Carolina and Georgia willing to sign the document.
same year, Jefferson tried to write into the constitution of the State
of Virginia a provision that would totally eliminate slavery, starting
in 1800, and in 1778 he presented an even more radical bill that would
have abolished slavery altogether in Virginia that year. While these
attempts failed, he was successful in passing a Virginia law that year
preventing any more slaves from being imported into the state.
1783, he again unsuccessfully attempted to amend Virginia’s
constitution, proposing language that said: “The general assembly shall
not... permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this
State, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall
be living on the thirty-first day of December, 1800; all persons born
after that day being hereby declared free.”
The next year, he
proposed at a national level a law banning slavery in the “Northwest
Territories” – the Midwest and western states – and stating that any
state admitted to the union would have to declare any person of any race
born in that state after 1800 to be a free person. His proposal lost by
a single vote, although parts of his proposed legislation were lifted
and inserted into the Northwest Ordinance, which became law when
Jefferson was in Paris in 1787.
Despite his best efforts, and
those of his more firebrand contemporaries like John Quincy Adams,
slavery was still alive and well as Jefferson was passing into old age.
1820, for example, Missouri and Maine were being admitted as states to
the Union, and a fierce debate had erupted over whether Missouri should
be allowed to join the nation if it continued to allow slavery (Maine
was free of slavery). In the ultimate compromise, which was passed by
Congress, Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state.
John Holmes of Massachusetts wrote to an elderly Thomas Jefferson to
inform him of the compromise, and on April 22, 1820, just six years
before his death, writing with a quill pen, his hands cramped by
arthritis, Jefferson candidly expressed his despair in his response to
his old friend and colleague. In it, he foresaw the day, after his canoe
or “bark” had crossed the River Styx to his death, when the nation
would be torn apart across a “geographical line” over the issue of human
beings being considered “that kind of property.”
“I thank you,
dear Sir,” Jefferson wrote, “for the copy you have been so kind as to
send me … on the Missouri question. … I had for a long time ceased to
read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they
were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the
shore from which I am not distant.
“But this momentous question,
like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I
considered it at once as the knell of the Union.
“It is hushed,
indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final
sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral
and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men,
will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper
“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, in any practicable way. …
“But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
pondering the legal issues involved, Jefferson – who, as president, had
signed into law an 1808 Act banning the slave trade with Africa –
finally poured out his anguish in this private letter to Holmes, again
foreseeing the unthinkable possibility of a civil war over slavery,
which gave the lie to freedom in America and was thus a “treason against
the hopes of a world” that looked to America as the beacon of liberty.
regret that I am now to die,” Jefferson wrote, “in the belief that the
useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire
self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by
the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only
consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but
dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an
abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission,
they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on
themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
Founders and Framers, who thought they could take the wolf of slavery by
the ears and dance with it to a just conclusion in their lifetimes,
were wrong. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and, as Jefferson
predicted, the 620,000 Americans who died in the Civil War paid the
ultimate price of their failure.
Which brings us to today. It’s
easy for us, in this day and age, to look back 200 years ago and condemn
Jefferson. He used the cheap labor resource of his slaves to maintain
his lifestyle, and the consequence of the failure of his efforts to
abolish slavery was a bloody Civil War followed by a hundred years of
Although he rationalized his slaveholding by
keeping them in a style that exceeded that of most poor whites of the
day (both were grim by today’s standards), it was, nonetheless, a
rationalization of slavery. Jefferson’s lifestyle was made possible by
slave labor, and there is no other way to say it. Recognizing that fact,
many Americans are righteously indignant and quick to judge him
Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves?
looking into a camera and teleprompter filled with parts made in
countries that use slave and prisoner labor. You’re watching me or
reading this on a TV or computer filled with parts made in those same
countries. Our rationalization is that no companies in America make many
of those components any longer, but it’s just a rationalization, and no
less hypocritical than Jefferson’s.
I’m sitting here wearing
clothes made by modern-day slaves, and probably so are you. I’m lit by
studio lights assembled in countries where workers who try to organize
are imprisoned, as are many of the lights in your home.
rationalize all the products of distant slaves we use – after all, we
don’t have to look into their faces like Jefferson did – but it’s still
just a rationalization.
The stark reality is that we in America didn’t “end” slavery. We simply exported it.
it’s so much more comfortable for us to criticize Jefferson and his
peers for agonizing over – but still using – slave labor 200 years ago,
when we don’t have to look into the faces of today’s slaves who are
toiling and dying at this very moment to sustain our lifestyles.
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