THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
Mission accomplished

Inside the Beltway

The man himself, looking noble
Monticello from my pondering station in the garden
The view from my hotel room within the Beltway
Yesterday was a walk in the park by the standards of my tour. Indeed much of it was a walk in the park-like grounds of Thomas Jefferson's old home, Monticello. I used to be an uncritical admirer of Jefferson. The American Declaration of Independence is arguably the best piece of political prose every written in the English language. My blog used to feature a quote from him in the sidebar; 

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

When DNA evidence confirmed the story long-denied by his family; that he had fathered children with one of his slaves, my view of him wavered. I try to avoid the error of judging historical figures by modern standards, but enslaving your own children was unnatural in any era. That Jefferson freed them and sent them out into the world at the age of 21 with $50 is something - but by no means enough.

The guide at Monticello said "the central contradiction of Jefferson's life was not paternity, but slavery itself." It's a nice turn of phrase but it's nonsense. Men of his era believed black people to be less than human and that this justified keeping them as slaves. I don't believe they were right, but I can accept that's what they believed. Jefferson had reservations about slavery but he himself said that to liberate someone who had lived a life as a slave was like abandoning a child. 

If Jefferson believed Sally Hemmings as human as himself, he should have set her free. If he believed her less than human, how could he take her to his bed? If he really believed her reason was that of a child, then to do so was statutory rape. And whatever the truth of his relations with Sally, the fact is that his own children - children every human is programmed by Nature to cherish and support - were reared in his house as slaves.

When our guide told us that he would have liked to free his slaves but was trapped in dependence on them, I found it hard to sympathise. He was massively extravagant; constantly remodelling Monticello and twice building an enormous collection of books - a luxury in his day. He failed to patent his inventions, saying all men should benefit from his creations. It sounds high-minded, but his creditors would not have agreed. If he had wanted to do the right thing, he could have moderated his life, shown a little financial prudence and done it. He didn't. He may have been a great man, but he was clearly not a good one.

I sat a long time in his garden after the tour of his house, pondering these questions. The simple truth is that we are all flawed and that our achievements - if we have any - should be judged for what they are and not who we are. Jefferson's achievements don't make his behaviour right, but his behaviours don't mar his achievements either. There is comfort in that for all flawed humans - and I have never met another kind.

From Monticello I drove on through the Virginia countryside towards Washington DC. It was as if I was being prepared to return home as I motored through winding country lanes and familiar looking farms with English names. Virginia, or at least the parts I have seen, is more like England than New England. Virginia may even be more like England than England!

In the evening I met old friends from my Poland days for dinner at their beautiful home in Mclean VA. It was good to renew old acquaintance, to be with people who remembered Mrs Paine in her prime and to talk about our families and mutual acquaintances from "the old days".

Today, it's on to Philadelphia via Gettysburg and my last new state; Delaware.


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To accept the word of a tour guide as a final authority on such a contentious issue seems rather naive (very unlike you, if I may say). Perhaps when you have the chance to study the issue at leisure you will come to some different conclusions. There are many intersecting issues related to Jefferson actions, amongst them there were legal reasons for not freeing his "slaves" that perhaps were not revealed by the guide. Freeing the "slaves" would have effectively banished them from Virginia within a year, not a very pleasant thought.

The whole slavery thing in the US has been loaded with a great deal of baggage, a kindly slave owner (such as Jefferson) probably treated his "slaves" better than many of the unskilled white folk living at the time, certainly better than the British agricultural labourers of the period. Most analyses omit such comparison. On the whole it would seem the guide is spouting "revisionist history" that is so very prevalent in these times.

No matter what, he was a great man who achieved much, like most of us he had flaws.

He achieved much more for the blacks than the current President can ever dream of doing, indeed the incumbent seems intent on subjugating the blacks once again.

Glad to see your trip has proceeded with a minimum of drama, your reportage has been very interesting.



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