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Old September 21st, 2012, 03:49 PM   #1

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The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

In a riveting new article in the current issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, the myth of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder is shattered. Though at the time he was writing the Declaration of Independence his writing were evidencing an anti-slavery leaning, he reversed course and became a more strident proponent of slavery, especially in the use of slaves to make a profit.

Jefferson in writing and letters showed how slaves were good investments and how slaves could bring in returns of 4% per annum. That slave ownership was a better form of investment than real estate. The article concludes that Jefferson was a pioneer of monetarizing slavery as well as being a pioneer in the industrialization and diversification of slave labor.

Though Jefferson could be forgiving of certain slaves transgressions, writings and letters indicate that Jefferson was not beyond the use of whippings and other punishments for recalcitrant slaves. Even though Jefferson would replace a cruel overseer, Jefferson would revert back to the more demanding and aggressive overseer if productivity fell.

Jefferson's true view on slavery is most evident in his refusal to accept a large sum of money as a gift as it would have required him to free one-half of his slaves, the end result of which would have effected his botton line:

"In 1817, Jefferson’s old friend, the Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kos*ciuszko, died in Switzerland. The Polish nobleman, who had arrived from Europe in 1776 to aid the Americans, left a substantial fortune to Jefferson. Kosciuszko bequeathed funds to free Jefferson’s slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own. In the spring of 1819, Jefferson pondered what to do with the legacy. Kosciuszko had made him executor of the will, so Jefferson had a legal duty, as well as a personal obligation to his deceased friend, to carry out the terms of the document.

The terms came as no surprise to Jefferson. He had helped Kosciuszko draft the will, which states, “I hereby authorize my friend, Thomas Jefferson, to employ the whole [bequest] in purchasing Negroes from his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name.” Kosciuszko’s estate was nearly $20,000, the equivalent today of roughly $280,000. But Jefferson refused the gift, even though it would have reduced the debt hanging over Monticello, while also relieving him, in part at least, of what he himself had described in 1814 as the “moral reproach” of slavery.

If Jefferson had accepted the legacy, as much as half of it would have gone not to Jefferson but, in effect, to his slaves—to the purchase price for land, livestock, equipment and transportation to establish them in a place such as Illinois or Ohio. Moreover, the slaves most suited for immediate emancipation—smiths, coopers, carpenters, the most skilled farmers—were the very ones whom Jefferson most valued. He also shrank from any public identification with the cause of emancipation."

Do you think these revelations will affect the legacy of Thomas Jefferson?

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine

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Old September 21st, 2012, 10:41 PM   #2
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These aren't really...revelations, as in anything new.

It's been known for centuries that Jefferson became more conservative, more accommodated to his society as he aged. Same thing happened to all the Revolutionary leaders (except the ones who were already old by the time of the Revolution).

He was certainly still one of the most radical and visionary of the lot in his younger years. In a lot of ways we never achieved the vision of liberty he had for America.
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Old September 21st, 2012, 11:34 PM   #3
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I don't think it will change that fact that Thomas Jefferson crafted the fundamental law of the U.S. which became the pattern of other democratic nations around the world. He shall be remembered for the good things that he had done in founding a nation that spearhead democracy in the world.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 02:38 AM   #4

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I agree with dagul and MAlexMatt. I don't see how this article changes anything about Jefferson. There are those who will always hate him for his involvement in slavery, and there are others who understand he was human and a man of his times, and that his flaws don't erase his accomplishments and achievements.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 02:59 AM   #5
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I find the story of Kosciuszko and the will to be an opinion changer for me. I am not well read in the stories of the founding fathers, I focus on other eras of history, but I had the opinion that Jefferson was more sympathetic towards abolition than this chapter would suggest.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 03:05 AM   #6
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One has to admire how carefully crafted the nation-building writings were. How the founding fathers could elegantly craft a document that covered the intents of a revolution that would rally the common man to support and fight a revolution initiated by a minority of businessmen that would mask an underlying desire to govern by a self-determined meritocracy.

According to Wikipedia:
After voting in favor of the resolution of independence on July 2, Congress turned its attention to the declaration. Over three days of debate, Congress made changes and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade.[33] While Jefferson resented the changes, he did not speak publicly about the revisions.
According to Best Answers:
There appears to be evidence that much of the content of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence originated from the mind of Thomas Paine and in fact, some believe that Paine wrote much of the document with Jefferson copying it and making his own revisions. Paine's pamphlet COMMON SENSE published several months prior to the formation of the "Declaration" Committee suggests that Paine had a much better understanding of the inherent rights of British Americans then did most members of the Continental Congress included Jefferson.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 04:06 AM   #7

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I'm not sure I buy it. As I read the thesis in question, the author contends that Jefferson became more convinced of the economic advantages of the slave trade. I'm good so far. What I have a serious problem with is the assertion that he could earn 4% with slaves-more than anything else including real estate, and that that kind of return was huge. I'm not buying it. If the inflation of slave values were so high (relative to agriculture) then it would make the agriculture itself untenable short of similar inflation of real estate. While I'm no economist, the numbers just don't make sense.

To be clear, I'm not denying the assertion that Jefferson's view of slavery evolved toward one more opposed to black emancipation. I just don't buy the stated premise.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 04:20 AM   #8

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This is how the author described Jefferson's 4% rule:

The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 04:30 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Aulus Plautius View Post
This is how the author described Jefferson's 4% rule:
It seems to me that if he was having sex with his own slaves that would certainly affect his return on investment.
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Old September 22nd, 2012, 04:30 AM   #10

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Jefferson had always been somewhat of a hypocrite. On one hand, he went on the public saying he's all for the masses of common people on countless occasion. On the other hand, he was one of the most aristocratic president America has ever seen. He spent in excess of $10,000 on wine alone in a year in the White House. Just a small example.
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