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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Capitalism Corrupts Absolutely: The Caution Of Thomas Jefferson

Master of the Mountain
Jonathon Yardey reviews Henry Weincek's book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves at Truthdig ("The Revolutionary Refused the Torch").

If anything clarifies the corruption that a culture that extols capital accumulation brings, it is this remarkable tale of, of all people, the writer of the Declaration of Independance: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." (all emphases mine):
Wiencek writes:
Referring to Jefferson as one of ‘the revered fathers of all our political and social ‘blessings’ and extolling the ‘valor, wisdom and virtue (that) have done so much in ameliorating the condition of mankind,’’ [Edward] Coles... sharpened his pen and thrust it straight at the Founder: ‘it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the renowned author, and on which we founded our right to resist oppression and establish our freedom and independence.”
Jefferson, of course, did not take up the mantle.
Weincek continues:
Few biographical tasks are more frustrating than trying to assemble a montage of quotations from Jefferson’s written work that make sense of his stance on slavery. Among the completely contradictory points he advances about slaves and slavery we have: the institution was evil; blacks had natural rights, and slavery abrogated those rights; emancipation was desirable; emancipation was imminent; emancipation was impossible until a way could be found to exile the freed slaves; emancipation was impossible because slaves were incompetent; emancipation was just over the horizon but could not take place until the minds of white people were ‘ripened’ for it...

Laid end to end, his utterances present a rolling paradox of contradictions that inspire his detractors to call him a hypocrite, his defenders to call him compartmentalized, and baffled onlookers to call him ‘human.’
In truth he was all that and more, because his views and practices on slavery evolved not in moral terms but in commercial ones... Weincek adds:
...the philosopher has been endlessly parsed, but Jefferson the on-the-ground manager is most revealing, carrying us closer to the truth of slavery than anything he wrote...

Again and again the sale, the hiring, or the mortgaging of black souls rescued the Jeffersons from a bad harvest, bought time from the debt collectors, and kept the family afloat while a new and grander version of Monticello took shape. ... The slaves formed Jefferson’s bulwark against catastrophe. ... In 1792 he calculated that the births of slave children produced capital at the rate of 4 percent per year: ‘I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four percent, per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.’

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