Shaun King, Thomas Jefferson, and the facts

Activist Shaun King recently published an article where he attacks Thomas Jefferson for being an evil man:

I genuinely view men like Thomas Jefferson in the same way I view any other intelligent, gifted leader who also happened to be cruel beyond belief — he was a monster. Owning, buying, selling, trading, and raping human beings, no matter what year or era you did such things, is monstrous.

King goes on about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave with whom he is said to have fathered 1 to 6 children. He also criticizes Jefferson for holding 600 slaves, only a few of whom he ever freed. King continues:

He knew good and well it was as evil then as it would be today, but he deliberately and purposefully maintained the system of slavery not only in his own life, but also for the nation.

As President of the United States, he did absolutely nothing to slow slavery down. As the physical owner of 600 human beings who openly admitted he knew what he was doing was evil, he made a daily decision to be evil.

This is the sort of patently false claim you get when someone is more excited about saying something controversial rather than saying something which is true. Jefferson introduced bills and made proposals to stop or stem slavery all throughout his life, including while he was President. He drafted legislation to stop importing slaves to Virginia in the late 1770s. He later proposed banning slavery in the expanding west. As President, he signed legislation to stop the importation of slaves. After his presidency, he proposed an economic solution to slavery where the government would pay slave owners for their slaves. The slaves would then be trained in various trades. At multiple other points, he encouraged the farming of crops that required little slave labor.

Jefferson held a strong belief that freeing slaves all at once would lead to a flood of unskilled workers with no personal resources, no job prospects, and a large pool of discrimination against them. Of course, he didn’t necessarily disagree with the discrimination aspect, but his view was not without merit. After the Civil War, many former slaves remained where they were for lack of other options. This continued for some for decades. Indentured servitude became the default status of many. For others, they experienced a less disastrous economic outcome, albeit one that was far from ideal or remotely fair.

The reality is that any political attempt of a mass freeing of slaves would have been an utter disaster on every front in the late 1700s, early 1800s. The US was still fragile and likely to lose states over any issue big enough to divide them. And, undoubtedly, there was no bigger issue than slavery – even a half century after Jefferson’s presidency, we had to fight a war over the matter. A principled stand by Jefferson as president may have made him a darling of history, but it would have led to southern secession – which would have probably been successful at that time. The northern states wouldn’t have had the industrial power to operate a war time economy, much less the clout to cripple the southern economy. We would have seen slavery in a nation of the southern states well past 1863; Jim Crow laws would either still be in place today or only have been eliminated within recent memory.

It’s easy to look back today and declare that Jefferson and others should have done what they knew was right, but it is almost always a mistake to ignore the politics and context of the times. One man cannot sway an entire culture so dramatically entirely on his own. We saw this not long ago with the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The odds that Bill Clinton and many other Democrats actually believed that was a good policy in and of itself is incredibly low, but they knew it was a good policy insofar as it represented progress. If Clinton believed in equal rights for gay people (which he likely did and, of course, does), is the argument that he should have only advocated for completely fair treatment? That might feel nice to say, but it isn’t an argument that lives in reality. Clinton could have either made an argument for complete progress or he could have won a second term. Anyone who thinks he should have only argued for what was right should ask themselves how they would have felt about President Dole.

Returning to King on Hemings:

She was his legal property. Thomas and Martha Jefferson owned Sally from the time she was an infant. She could not leave. She was not free. Both Martha and Thomas Jefferson refused to free Sally Hemings their entire lives. Hemings remained enslaved at Monticello into her 50s.

Once again we see King not doing basic research – research he could have included while still making his same basic point. But, no. Any nuance which might muddy the waters even slightly isn’t allowed, apparently. Specifically, Sally Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom while in post-revolution France. She was in a country where slavery had been outlawed, and Jefferson quite clearly knew this. He even paid her a monthly wage so that he would be in compliance with French law. If he was absolutely against allowing her to leave, he never would have brought her to country where she could have readily done so. King’s statement that the Jeffersons refused to free Sally Hemings is simply false. Furthermore, there is documentation that Hemings was recorded as a free person in the 1830s anyway. This was after Jefferson’s death and keeps with the fact that he believed most freed slaves would face excessively difficult conditions on their own.

Had King done this research, he could have still made the point that Hemings was not free in any meaningful way for most of her life. She was impregnated at 16 in a country where she barely spoke the language. Her entire family was still in the United States. She had little choice but to return. Or, that’s at least one viable argument. And it’s the same basic point he wants to make. Except he can’t make it with the same, easily-digestible short-and-to-the-point sentences. Nor can he avoid the fact that someone with no choice in a matter doesn’t get to negotiate the freedom of others – something Hemings did for her children in exchange for returning to the United States.

The notion that Thomas Jefferson was a perfect person is not one that anyone holds, but it is entirely ridiculous to argue that he was some evil man who deserves nothing but the scorn of history. His visionary contributions to his time have fundamentally reverberated into modern times – perhaps more than those of any other political or cultural figure. We should acknowledge his flaws and faults and failings, but we cannot simply dismiss the honor his monumental place in US and world history deserves.

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More presidential rankings

This time I go with my top five:

5. T. Roosevelt
4. Jefferson
3. FDR
2. Lincoln
1. Washington

(I generally consider Lincoln and Washington interchangeable on that list.)

Judge orders military to reinstate gay soldier

There are a number of nations whose military allows gay soldiers to serve openly with straight soldiers. The obvious reason is that being gay does not make someone a sex-crazed rapist whose only interest is to cause irreparable moral harm to other people by giving them gay. Recent polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans realize this. In fact, the U.S. military largely realizes this, dismissing fewer gay soldiers per year than they did prior to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; they may as well be saying, ‘Okay, there’s a lot of hatred for gays out there and, really, that’s our motivation, but when it comes down to it, we need good service members.’

Fortunately, in addition to the other recent positive rulings, a judge has declared the military must reinstate a lesbian soldier it dismissed under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. He cites the lack of constitutionality of the law due to its uselessness.

“The application of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to Major Margaret Witt does not significantly further the government’s interest in promoting military readiness, unit morale and cohesion,” he wrote.

If it did any of these things, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ would have some validity within its scope. Unfortunately for all the bigots out there, judges are increasingly recognizing that sexual orientation is irrelevant to the effectiveness of military members.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that calling ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ a failure would be a mistake. The law was a compromise that marked a major step in terms of equal rights for gays. This is in a similar vein to when Jefferson put an end to the slave trade in 1808. That point was pivotal in the effort to end slavery, but it was also virtually all that could be done politically. Learning from his earlier days in Virginia politics, he knew any effort to end slavery was premature in his lifetime, lest he lose all political capital and ability to govern in any other area. A similar tale can be told of Clinton. Outright ending the unjustified discrimination against gays in the military was virtually impossible at the time (and it’s still proving to be difficult). But by getting the best deal he could for gay service members, Clinton made the first big step in ending the discrimination they face in the military. The fortunate difference here is that it won’t take us 57 years to reach Clinton’s goal.

They’ve got Maine all wrong

PZ has a post about the new platform of Maine’s GOP.

We shouldn’t pick on the South all the time, so here is a tale out of the eminently Yankee state of Maine. The Maine Republican party recently met to establis their official platform, and ended up getting hijacked by the tea-baggers. Their new platform contains all kinds of nutty demands.

It’s true, the platform is pretty nutty. For instance, it calls global warming a myth (because conservatives are generally hostile towards science), it bizarrely calls for the adoption of “Austrian economics”, and it wants to see the elimination of the Department of Education, but let’s slow down. This has led to a number of comments on that post which get Maine all wrong.

While I lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts, we referred to Maine as New England’s West Virginia.

How dare someone refer to Maine like that. Everyone knows we prefer to be called the far south of the far north. Also, a number of other posts get a few important things wrong. For instance, it’s “lobstah”, not this stranger “lobster”. (I recommend getting it from a restaurant that sits in the harbor; it does a wicked job of soaking up that full ocean aroma so much bettah.)

It’s seriously obvious the Maine GOP is insane. But despite that fact, I would like to still take credit for this gem:

In pursuit of these principles we endorse and shall promote the following initiatives.

II. To Establish Justice:

b. Reassert the principle that “Freedom of Religion” does not mean “freedom from religion”.

I can only hope that my recent letter to the editor (also found here) played at least a small role in spurring the GOP to reassert their inanity. I’m sure the recent, correct ruling about the unconstitutional standing of the National Day of Prayer was the main catalyst, but either way, silliness lays at the base here. Freedom of religion is impossible without freedom from religion. To say “You’re free to practice any religion you want!…so long as you actually do practice a religion” runs counter to any notion of freedom I’ve yet to ascertain in my young life. Maybe these crazies just want to live in More’s Utopia? I don’t know.

But wait, there’s more!

VI. To Secure the Blessings of Liberty:

a. Restore a vigorous grounding in the history and precepts of liberty, freedom, and the constitution to the educational process. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Really? They want to use Thomas Jefferson? Aside from not ever having stood for anything these haphazard teabaggers want today, I think he would have recognized the irony in their next line:

i. Eliminate the Department of Education and restore schools to local control as specified in the constitution.

Teabagger motto: No ignorance – unless it’s blissful.

Thought of the day

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816

Thought of the day

Nary a day goes by when my thoughts don’t turn toward Thomas Jefferson’s immense intellect.

Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights.

Madison, Jefferson, Rights, and Defintions

By Michael Hawkins

James Madison espoused a separation of church and state in much the same manner as Thomas Jefferson. The following is from Congressional minutes recorded in August of 1789.

“Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”

And we can go one step further into Madison’s mind with more recordings from the same session.

“Mr. Madison thought, if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.”

It’s hard to see how a reasonable person could misinterpret this. Madison obviously rejected the notion that religious beliefs should be codified into law, thus establishing them as the moral directives of other individuals. That is, religious beliefs should not be made law because that essentially makes government an enforcer of religion – and that is far from its role. Good government does not dictate morality.

Moving beyond Madison, a discussion of the concept of rights needs to happen. What is a right? A succinct definition is hard to formulate, but I think a good idea can be created. Something which does not infringe upon another’s rights should be a right. This alone isn’t much of a definition because it assumes the existence of rights, the very thing we want to define. But within a certain context it does give a good approximation of what a right should be; we already have established rights (free speech, religious beliefs, protest, etc), so assuming we agree on those, we can ask ourselves, does X infringe upon these? If the answer is “no”, then there’s a good chance that X is a right.

I think it is eminently appropriate to also include safety and security as one defining piece of rights. Does X cause bodily harm to me or others? Does it cause undue financial hardships? Does it put someone at risk of life or health? If the answer is “no”, we again have another good indicator that X is a right.

I hope it hasn’t escaped anyone that the previous two paragraphs are speaking of natural rights. These are rights which extend to all peoples, not merely Americans or Europeans or Russians or any one particular group. They are effectually based upon the idea that rights are to be based upon humanity and the human condition.

So why are rights so important? I think it should be obvious. If a society goes about imposing restrictions upon minorities or the meek, then the statement that some people are not equal to others is being made. This seems like nothing less than a manifested superiority complex.

Yet restrictions go beyond this statement of superiority. They implicitly say any group can be superior to another. The reasoning behind the superiority isn’t important (whether from religious doctrine or philosophical notions). What matters is that (usually unknowingly) there are people who do not accept the idea that rights are universal. They can’t. They believe that the very concept of rights can be ignored if it runs counter to some other line of thought. Does Religion X say public prayer is immoral? If so and if Religion X’s followers are a majority, they can stampede the rights of those who wish to publicly pray. This can only be because the teachings of Religion X are being claimed to be superior to the rights of others. And this can only be a true claim if rights are not universal and if we agree that morality trumps individual rights.

I, for one, disagree.