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The moral character of Jefferson was repulsive. Continually puling about liberty, equality, and the degrading curse of slavery, he brought his own children to the hammer, and money of his debaucheries… Alexander Hamilton

Jefferson then – the Jacobite

The wolf by the ears : Thomas Jefferson and slavery    New York : Free Press, c 1977  John Chester Miller Presidents United States, Slavery, Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing.     xii, 319 p., [4] leaves of plates : ill. ; 24 cm. Bibliography: p. 298-307. Includes index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG   

However promi­nently Jefferson has figured in the major works on slavery, racial attitudes, or the antislavery movement, none of them could afford the space to con­sider his’entire life of thought, action, and – most impportantly – inaction with respect to black Americans.

John Chester Miller’s gift lies in communicating to a large audience the fascinating complexity of our Revolutionary and early national history. Here we see Jefferson — a progressive idealist of the Enlightenment, the first Ameri­can slaveholder to make a powerful and detailed case against slavery, and the foremost antislavery politician from 1776 to 1784 — forced to defend and even enlarge the scope of slavery in his later career as a practical politician. As Secretary of State he pressed the claims of slaveholders for compensation; as President he cooperated with Napoleon’s efforts to re-enslave the blacks of Haiti and established slavery throughout the Louisi­ana Purchase; in retirement he led the increasingly self-conscious South in defining slavery as a national institution, the protection of which was a duty whose neglect would signal the end of the Union.

Yet Jefferson also applauded his Congress for ending the participation of the United States in the international slave trade as early as the Constitution would allow, and to the very end of his life he continued to urge younger Americans to find some means of freeing all the slaves. Throughout his long life Jefferson thought it probable that blacks were inferior to whites in some intellectual capacities, and he was always certain that the two races could not live harmoniously in freedom and equality. Yet he never lost sight of the injustice of slavery per se.

He takes the story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings to be the vile invention of the Scottish libeler, Callender, and the integrationist romancer, Fawn Brodie, with some self-serving assists by Madison Hemings and others along the way. Miller properly made a case by showing that supposition, inference, and hearsay can not establish certain facts, especially when the subject is someone’s sexual behavior. We simply can not know whether Jefferson did or did not keep a mulatto mistress: all testimony on the supject is intensely partisan.

While scolding Callender for failing to visit Monticello and interview the principals, Miller elsewhere states as established facts that George Wythe “succombed to the sexual attractions of a slave woman” and that the loathsome Callender practiced sodomy. And, while it seems im­probable that a man with such soaring idealism and such admirable self-control would keep a slave mistress for two decades, it is at least equally implausible that such a man, specially concerned for the virtue of his children and wards, would allow his nephews to maintain a mistress all that time at Monticello. The riddle defies a solution – as does so much about Jefferson.

Jefferson now – the reactionary conservative


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