“For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him.” – Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
It has become convenient of late for patriotic-conservative writers and commentators to suggest that slavery was actually quite agreeable to African-Americans. National commentators like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney have long refused to look at the shadows of American history, but at least they never dared to praise slavery as beneficial. More recently, “historians” and politicians are beginning to suggest that–if you stop to think about it–slavery was actually benign.
Take Arkansas State Representative Jon Hubbard, for example. In his self-published book Letters to the Editor: Confessions of a Frustrated Conservative, Hubbard writes:
“The institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise. The blacks who could endure those conditions and circumstances would someday be rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth.”
Good to know that white folks rewarded them!! Who knew you had to earn citizenship by way of several hundred years of iron collars, whippings, rape, and forced labor.
Meanwhile, the conservative write Dinesh D’Souza makes much the same argument. In his new book and video project, America: Imagine a World Without Her, writes:
“Did America owe something to the slaves whose labor had been stolen?” Yes, but “that debt is best discharged through memory, because the slaves are dead and their descendants are better off as a consequence of their ancestors being hauled from Africa to America.”
Hauled is an interesting choice of words.
But the prize goes to Cleon Skousen’s book The Making of America, praised by Glenn Beck as divinely inspired. Skousen argues that slavery was beneficial to African-Americans (because it got them out of the equitorial climate and the tribal morass of Africa). He alleges that southern racism was largely a product of “intrusion” into southern state sovereignty by northern do-gooders.
If you think about it, says Skousen, slave children were in many respects freer than their white masters:
“Slave food, even if monotonous, was plentiful. Corn bread and bacon were the mainstays, with plenty of fruit and vegetables in season. In hog-killing time, countenances were unusually greasy. Clothing also was on the par with that of the poorer white people and no less adequate in proportion to the climate than that of Northern laborers. If [negro children] ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates.”
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, a racist, and a miscegenationist, but he never defended slavery as benign. From his earliest letters to his final pronouncements in the year before his death, Jefferson condemned slavery as a fundamental violation of human rights, a moral abomination, and a clog on the American dream of a harmonious republic. That revisionist conservatives can argue today that slavery was beneficial–after all we have learned and all we have been through–is appalling. That media figures like Glenn Beck can embrace a pseudo-historian that even Goldwater Republicans shunned in the 1960s (Skousen) is even worse. And of course, millions of American bigots will repeat such arguments after getting the approval from men like Beck. But worst of all is that several Charter Schools (most recently in Arizona) are disseminating this historical pornography to their students.
Say what you want about Jefferson’s paradoxes and hypocrisies. But nothing he ever said could be construed as a defense of the institution of slavery.
To read the full text of Jefferson on slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia, click here.
» The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery by John Chester Miller
» American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan
» Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek